Current difficulties in—and indeed the possible collapse of—ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have once again raised the question of America’s proper relationship to the state of Israel. That question is of undoubted importance to American foreign policy. To find an appropriate answer, however, we require an accurate understanding of the relationship among nations. Such an understanding, however, is to some extent obscured rather than clarified by our public arguments about how America should approach the problems posed by the conflict in the Middle East. This obscuring of the truth is in turn a result of the influence of powerful tendencies in modern political thought that capture part, but not the whole, of the truth about human sociability and solidarity.
It is often suggested that America must strive to be an “honest broker” between Israel and its Arab and Muslim adversaries. This expression seems intended to suggest that America must adopt a certain neutrality between the interests of the two sides in the conflict. At first sight, such neutrality seems appropriate. America has acted as a key mediator in the conflict for decades. And who would make use of a mediator who is partial to one side in a dispute?
The unswerving persistence of the desire for neutrality, however, suggests that it may be rooted in something deeper than perceptions of the policy requirements of a specific problem in international relations. In fact, the craving for neutrality seems to be grounded in the nature of the two dominant American theories of international politics, realism and idealism, and to reflect their problematically incomplete understanding of human nature and human relationships.
Despite their differences, realism and idealism both suggest that in some fundamental respect all nations are the same. Realism holds that all nation-states are primarily concerned with the maintenance and acquisition of power, which is to be used in defense of their own political interests. On this view, it makes sense that any nation’s default position in relation to a dispute between other nations should be one of neutrality. Since, on realist assumptions, an external dispute cannot be of consequence to our country except insofar as it implicates our own interests, we remain indifferent except to the extent to which our interests are threatened. In the case of the Middle East, America has important interests in stability in that region—largely arising from our economic need for a steady supply of relatively inexpensive oil—and therefore has an interest in pacifying it by whatever means seem effective, but no interest in the fate of some parties to the regional dispute more than others.
Idealism, on the other hand, is characterized by a kind of moralistic cosmopolitanism. It seeks a just international order in which the aspirations of all peoples are fulfilled equally, because it believes that all nations or peoples are of equal dignity and value. Therefore, when two nations or groups of nations are at odds, the only ethical posture is one of neutrality, since the interests on both sides are of equal value.
In turn, both realism and idealism in foreign policy are manifestations of two very powerful modern ideas—individualism and egalitarianism—that capture only part of the truth about human sociability, and that mislead us when we allow their partial wisdom to be taken as the whole truth. Many modern political philosophers have contended, and with great influence on the cultures in which they have thought and written, that human beings are fundamentally self-interested actors, primarily concerned with the satisfaction of their own material interests. Realism is a relatively straightforward application of this insight into individual human nature to the character and behavior of aggregations of human beings, nations, and states.
Much modern political thought has also been insistently egalitarian. Seeking to overcome commitments to narrow identities—such as clan, tribe, or nation—that often foster conflict, many modern thinkers have emphasized the equal dignity of all human beings. Idealism is a relatively straightforward application of this idea to the life of nations, all of which must be held to be of equal value.
I do not mean to suggest that realists and idealists are invariably committed to neutrality in every international dispute. This is obviously not the case. Rather, it seems that, while the contingent circumstances they discern in such conflicts may lead them to advocate an alliance with one side or another, their fundamental principles impel them toward an evenhanded position of neutrality, at least when all other things are equal. That is, neutrality is their reflexive tendency, if not their inevitable policy.
Such a tendency, however, is problematic to the extent that the principles that give rise to it are themselves only imperfectly true. Modern individualism and egalitarianism both misunderstand the nature of solidarity or friendship among human beings and hence among nations. In their elevation of self-interest, both individualism and political realism tend to miss completely the role of friendship in human affairs. While it is true that self-interest is a powerful force, it is not the sole motive of human action. Men and nations sometimes do, and often should, act on the basis of friendship, or a sense of commitment to others that they view as “other selves,” to use a term Aristotle applied to friendship. Conversely, the cosmopolitanism of modern egalitarianism and idealism, while understanding the importance of human solidarity, mistakenly believes it can be extended to all human beings or nations indiscriminately. While it is true in some cosmic sense that all individuals and all nations are of equal value and dignity, it is not the case that that equal dignity is equally entrusted to all other men or nations.
Nations as well as men experience a kind of friendship, and that friendship cannot be indiscriminately extended to the whole world. In this context, I think it would be both impossible and wrong for America to try to treat Israel and its rivals with equal solicitude. It is perfectly reasonable—and probably inevitable—that most Americans will look upon Israel as more of a friend than its various adversaries. Though a secular state, America is still, and will for the foreseeable future continue to be, an overwhelmingly Christian nation. Israel, though also a secular state, is the home of the Jewish people, whose history is inextricably linked to the Old Testament revelation from which Christianity emerged. Moreover, America—and the European civilization from which it sprung—has a long history of Christians and Jews living together as members of the same societies. That history admittedly includes much in the way of mutual suspicion, and of egregious injustices committed against Jews by Christians. Nevertheless, there is here a history of common living together for which there is no comparable experience in the case of Christians and Muslims. In sum, Americans will understandably look upon Israel as a branch of a common civilization, a status that they cannot so easily accord to Israel's adversaries. That is, America will sense a kind of friendship for Israel that is different from and more intense than whatever good will it has for Israel's adversaries. To that extent, America cannot and should not try to be completely neutral in a conflict involving Israel, especially one possibly threatening Israel's very survival.
None of this is to say that America would be right to adopt a policy of blind support for all actions of the Israeli government, or that it could justly be indifferent to the interests of Israel's adversaries. Friendship does not require unqualified agreement with all of a friend's actions, and true friendship may indeed require criticism when one finds a friend erring. At the same time, friendship for one party does not require, nor would justice permit, indifference to the legitimate interests of other parties, even when those parties are in a dispute with one's friend. It is to say that while America must respect the just interests of all parties, and while particular Israeli actions may in some cases require American criticism, America cannot disclaim and should not conceal its special, friendly solicitude for Israel's well-being.
Some will no doubt suggest that for America openly to act on such an understanding would be insulting to Arabs and Muslims and would irreparably harm our relationship with many nations. No such consequences need follow, however. The limitations and inequalities of friendship are an obvious fact of human life, and no reasonable man feels slighted when two others who share a common history acknowledge a friendship to which he is not a party. So it is with nations. America has long proclaimed a “special relationship” with Great Britain, which all nations understand and which none can take as an insult. Indeed, Israel's adversaries themselves act upon, and thereby acknowledge, the inequalities and limitations of friendship by the special concern they show for the Palestinians, a concern which is obviously based on a sense of religious and ethnic solidarity and which is perfectly understandable from their position. In view of these considerations, America might in fact win better relations with Arab and Muslim nations by honestly admitting its friendship for Israel, instead of fostering the frustrations that inevitably arise from asserting a neutrality to which it cannot really adhere.
Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of several books including, most recently, The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity.