The spreading protest movements in the Middle East have provoked a debate about the appropriate American response. That debate has frequently been framed as a contest between American interests and American values. On the one hand, it is suggested, American interests may be threatened by the democracy movements in the region. After all, some autocratic rulers there have conducted themselves as responsible and moderate actors in their diplomacy, and have tended to respect American interests in the region. On the other hand, America is the world’s premier democracy, and as such it behooves us to welcome the spread of democracy in the Middle East and even to do what we can to support it.

This framing of the issues is generally popular, and it is especially welcome to those who favor a values-first, democracy-promoting policy for America. Who, after all, wishes to be so petty and mean as to admit to favoring our selfish interests over our universal values? This framing of the issues, however, oversimplifies and so distorts our understanding of American values and their relationship to foreign policy.  We must resist such oversimplification and seek clarity on the perennial question of how America’s founding principles should influence its conduct in international relations.  Such an inquiry need not, and is not intended to, dictate any particular response to current events in the Middle East, whether of intervention or non-intervention with the aim of promoting democracy or American national interests.  The point, rather, is to suggest a framework for thinking about a range of key considerations besides the promotion of democracy that must guide our foreign policy.

In the first place, the easy dichotomy between our interests and our values obscures the truth that, within certain limits, a nation’s interests are its values. To put it more clearly, a nation’s government has a moral obligation to defend the nation’s interests. National interests are not simply morally unimportant selfish concerns but a matter of serious obligation to the government to whose care those interests are entrusted. This truth can be illustrated by drawing an analogy between the family and the political community. A man’s values may tell him that abortion is a grave evil. To the extent that he acts on these values, doing what he reasonably can to end abortion, he is morally praiseworthy. But if this man is a husband and father, and if his pro-life activities leave him bankrupt and unable to support his own wife and children, he has gone too far. His apparently heroic resistance to abortion loses its heroic quality, in fact shades into injustice, to the extent that he deprives those entrusted to him of a support to which they are entitled. This is true despite the fact that the things that he has denied his family are material things. It is not mere selfishness to provide those things to people who are owed them.

So it is with nations. America may firmly believe that democracy is the best form of government, and that movement toward democracy is just and good. None of this, however, justifies the government of the United States in regarding America’s national interests as a matter of mere moral indifference in comparison to the advance of democracy in a particular region, such as the Middle East. This is not to say that our own interests would justify our interference with a view to suppressing democracy and propping up wicked regimes, any more than the legitimate needs of his family would justify a man in making his living by working in an abortion clinic.  For both men and nations, negative obligations are more absolute than positive ones.  That is, we must never do evil, but we are not obliged always to collaborate in every good.  Accordingly, we are not automatically obliged actively to promote democracy, especially when the outcome of such a democratic movement is so uncertain for our own vital interests. To embrace this view, by the way, is not to introduce some alien, amoral political realism into an American political culture that has been formed by the moral and political principles of the Declaration of Independence. For this view of foreign policy, according to which the nation’s interests must be safeguarded, was held by leading founders, such as Washington and Hamilton, whose commitment to the principles of the Declaration is beyond serious question.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Indeed, the Declaration itself teaches us that democracy is not the only important American value. It therefore suggests that even to the extent that our fundamental values should govern our foreign policy, that policy’s overriding aim still cannot be the promotion of democracy. The Declaration does indeed proclaim the right of peoples to throw off existing governments and institute new ones according to their judgment, and it is precisely these passages that seem to demand our support for reform movements in the Middle East. But in the very act of asserting this popular right of revolution, the Declaration also invokes the ancient, sober virtue of “prudence,” which it says dictates that “governments long-established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” By noting this passage in this context I do not mean to diminish the oppressions that have been suffered by the people of the Middle East at the hands of their own governments, to say that the causes impelling the present protest movements are merely “light and transient.” Nevertheless, the Declaration’s invocation of prudence—a virtue aiming not at what is best but at what is the best attainable—reminds us that the badness of a government is never a sufficient justification for its overthrow. That grave action can only be justified if we can reasonably expect that the overthrow will result in something better than the existing order. And all political experience suggests that this consideration will give every thinking person pause.

Many of the most famous revolutions carried out in the name of the people have resulted in regimes as bad as, or even worse than, the governments they displaced. We need only name France, Russia, and China. No doubt the Mubarak regime was bad. Was it so bad that we can be assured that the new order must be better? The only honest answer to this question is that we cannot know for sure. If the people of Egypt believe that their attempt at democratic revolution will better their situation, then our part is not to interfere in their efforts. But we cannot be obliged positively to promote those efforts when we do not even know whether they will in fact lead to the establishment of democracy.

Finally, if we mean by America’s fundamental values those values that were held by America’s founders, we will find not only that those men were prudently aware that the attempt to institute a democracy might fail. They also believed that even a successfully established democracy might be, politically and morally, a bad thing. That is, they did not treat democracy as the greatest political value. Judging from the Declaration itself, as well as the surrounding discourse of the time, the founders viewed individual natural rights—to, for example, private property and religious liberty—as equally foundational, and perhaps even more foundational, than democratic self-government. They were, moreover, very much aware that these goods do not necessarily or even easily go together: that democracy often proves itself hostile to the natural rights of individuals, which is another way of saying that a democratic government is not a reliably just government. James Madison, for example, stated openly that the propensity of popular governments to trample on the rights of individuals and minorities was almost enough to require the friends of freedom to repudiate popular government. That requirement was avoided, he and the other founders believed, by the discovery of new principles of political science that could permit popular rule while simultaneously moderating it, or could permit majority rule while avoiding majority tyranny.

This possibility, however, depended on the establishment of a rather sophisticated system of institutions—such as separation of powers, bicameralism, an independent judiciary—the success of which they regarded as far from certain even in the case of America. Can such institutions be established in the newly democratizing nations of the Middle East? Again, the only sober answer to such a question is that we cannot know for sure. To that extent, whether democracy will turn out to be a blessing or a curse to that region is unknown to us. This, again, is certainly no reason to try to impede the advance of democracy there. But it is a more than sufficient justification for resisting the claim that our values oblige us actively to support it.

It is easy to understand why many Americans would sincerely believe that American values require America to promote democracy. Nevertheless, such a simple judgment in fact has little grounding in the sober and subtle moral and political understanding of the men who actually founded the American republic.