We are moved by the plight of others, even if they be geographically distant and politically distinct. China’s brutality toward the Uyghurs, Russia’s violent aggression against Ukraine, the poverty of many societies—all these crises stir in us the urge to help beleaguered people through both private efforts and the power of the state. It is human to care; it is right to seek justice and help others. Like the good Samaritan helping the unknown victim on the road to Jericho, we have a duty to help our neighbors, however unfamiliar. But the question is whether the foreign policy of a state is the tool to do this. Should we, through the state and its resources, seek to address problems, from poverty to injustice, that are abroad? Do we have an obligation to do so?

Any answer to these questions has to begin from the understanding that the statesman’s primary obligation is to the citizens of his state. Every action abroad, therefore, must be measured against this fundamental responsibility. Does it help the people whom the statesman has to protect, or does it not? Does it improve the safety, well-being, and liberty of his nation? Or, to put it another way, does the action abroad take away resources needed domestically? As these questions suggest, some actions abroad may be inconsistent with the purpose of the state. It is entirely possible, therefore, that a state focused on injustices abroad to the detriment of its own citizens could lose its legitimacy.

The state ought to be oriented toward justice but with a preferential option for its own citizens. It is unethical to employ state resources, the common property of the citizens, without carefully considering how doing so affects them. Foreign policy is neither charity nor a means to spread justice in the world. It is in all its facets—diplomacy, military force, international development—a tool of national security. Hence, the role of the US Department of State is not to foster international harmony, but to promote US national interests; the purpose of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is not to do good abroad but to advance US security; the task of the US armed forces is not to protect everyone under attack but to defend American lives and interests.

States without Borders?

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Those who advocate an active role for the United States in addressing a whole spectrum of real or alleged injustices (on which more later) often use terms such as “global community” and “global citizens.” Such terminology trains people to think of politics as an exercise in global action, directed in equal measure to everyone, regardless of borders. Such a worldview considers the state as a political entity constituted and administered for the benefits of all, not just its citizens. Like “doctors without borders,” the state ought to be without borders.

But such a view wrongly assumes two things: first, that the state has effectively unlimited means; second, that fixing the world is always beneficial to the state in question, without detracting from the welfare of its citizens. Both assumptions are simply not reflected in reality.

In an imaginary world of infinite resources available to a state, there certainly is an obligation to use them to redress injustices and improve the welfare of men wherever they may be. But capabilities are always limited: money is finite; manpower is precious; and military power, even in the case of the greatest empires in human history, is scarce and not fungible. As a Spanish minister cautioned his emperor, Phillip II, in 1591: “If God had placed Your Majesty under an obligation to remedy all the troubles of the world, He would have given you the money and the strength to do so.” The protection of universal principles would require universal—that is, infinite—capabilities. But no state ever had those, and consequently, the “world’s troubles” are beyond the capacity of a state or even a group of states.

In the United States, we have often acted as if there were no limits to our capabilities, especially since the 1990s. There was no great power rival to draw our attention, and the problems—whether a famine in Africa or a local aggression by a Middle Eastern dictator—seemed to be solvable, remnants of a dying age and therefore easy targets of “mop up” operations on the inexorable path toward global harmony. The financial flow also seemed abundant, not requiring hard decisions about how to preserve fiscal stability. There was very little need to consider the difficult trade-offs typical of politics, for instance whether pouring money abroad to help some country would weaken the economic well-being of our own republic. Similarly, there seemed to be an overabundance of military power. We no longer needed our armed forces to deter an expansionistic Soviet Union, and therefore we could deploy it for multiple, simultaneous humanitarian missions of much reduced scope. The illusion was that, now flush with excess capabilities, we had the ethical obligation to help the world.

But that was only an illusion, and a dangerous one. Politics remains always the management of finite resources that cannot be used to address every injustice in the world.

Triaging Decisions Abroad

The second mistaken assumption of the interventionist mindset is that fixing the world’s problems will almost always improve the condition of one’s own nation; that is, what is good for the world is good also for us—even more, that our safety and well-being depend on the world’s being a just place. For instance, the Wilsonian impulse is to consider the promotion of democracy abroad as ipso facto good for the republic: a world composed of democracies is harmonious and safe for the United States. In other words, there is no trade-off between acting abroad in defense of justice and protecting the United States.

But foreign policy is an exercise in triaging. It demands prioritization, including accepting hard choices on what not to do even if it is ethically just. Not all injustices in the world affect each state, including the U.S., equally. For example, a humanitarian disaster in Mexico will have an exponentially more immediate and significant impact on the United States than a similar situation in Somalia or in the heart of the Asian continent. Geography continues to matter, influencing how we address our ethical obligations to our fellow men. We should make decisions as we would if our neighbors’ houses were on fire: we ought to prioritize and try to extinguish the one that is at greater risk of spreading the fire to ours. In an even starker analogy, when both our house and our neighbor’s are on fire, we would fail in our basic ethical obligation to our family if we were to direct the hose toward our neighbor’s building.

Of course, the two goals—addressing injustices abroad and advancing national interests—are not necessarily opposed. Helping others in some foreign countries may be, and often is, in the interest of the United States and benefits Americans by building regional order or nurturing friendly countries in a hostile world. Restoring order in Western Europe after World War II was not only just but also in America’s interest. Similarly, arming Ukraine now may serve US national security by shoring up a European bulwark, reminiscent of the old antemurale Christianitatis, against the violent revanchist aspirations of an imperial Russia, while at the same time being a noble effort to aid a victim of a brutal aggression. But acting on the global stage is never a simple decision, and it constantly needs to be evaluated against the primary purpose of a state, which is to protect its own citizens.

Which Justice?

The question whether and when a state ought to address injustices abroad carries an additional difficulty, peculiar to our times, in the West and in the U.S. in particular. The concept of what is just and what is not, what is a violation of basic rights and what is not, has been hijacked by niche groups, perverting it into constantly mutating meanings. The words “justice” or “rights” (and consequently, “ethical obligations”) have lost a shared meaning that could attract broad support in the United States. When pundits or politicians call for the employment of American power abroad to redress “injustice,” it is no longer clear that there is a consensus about what this means. They use this and other words in profoundly different ways, and consequently the policies they pursue are diametrically opposed.

They disagree not merely over cost-benefit analyses, but over the meaning of fundamental ideas like life, family, or justice. It is not a difference in prudential judgment—what is the best course of action to achieve a shared goal? what are the appropriate means to do so?—but a difference in principles and in the concept of the human person. Undoubtedly everybody would agree that a famine or genocidal policies by an evil regime constitute grave injustices that ought to be addressed, if feasible. But barring such egregious cases, there is a growing divide on whether rights and justice are a reflection of a higher objective order or merely the satisfaction of personal preferences.

The latter view is adopted by the current American administration. For instance, in the 2021 US Department of State country reports on human rights, the Biden administration considers “reproductive rights” (that is, access to abortion on demand) and a whole slew of alleged rights linked to gender identity as fundamental to a free society. In fact, according to the worldview underlying these reports, states have an obligation to actively promote and pay for the progressive widening of these “rights”; anything short of that is a violation, an injustice that the United States has an obligation to address. For instances, the State Department considered Poland in violation of justice when its ministry of culture suspended its sponsorship of a film festival because it was showing a movie about a sex toy factory in Hungary. Or political leaders who want to prohibit schools from promoting homosexuality are criticized as violating key rights. If these actions—or lack of action—are considered forms of injustice, the United States has to employ its resources to try to redress them, for instance by promoting “pride paradesabroad or even spending bureaucratic time and effort to catalogue them (as the State Department does).

This is a corrupt view of justice that does not foster domestic agreement well. A broken, divided society, torn by deep cultural rifts, will not agree on its ethical obligations. Should we protect human life in China where abortion is legal, or should we support abortion on demand in Malta? Because there is no deep social agreement on this question, and on other similarly foundational issues, the result is a foreign policy that swings like a pendulum, depending on who is in the White House. Unsurprisingly, part of the reason why large segments of the American electorate are suspicious of international aid is linked to the growing corruption of the meaning of justice and ethical obligations. Why support the expenditure of increasingly scarce American resources to deal with injustices abroad, when U.S. government agencies end up promoting extreme postmodern views?

But even if there were a wide agreement on what an injustice or a violation of rights is, it is necessary to remember that politics, and thus foreign policy, is always the art of trade-offs. It may be tempting to think of all the world’s injustices as within the realm of America’s responsibilities, but that is merely global virtue-signaling that privileges the “Davos man” and his friends, rather than one’s fellow citizens.