Editor’s note: This article is the fourth installment of our Values in Foreign Policy symposium.

In foreign policy debates, values and interests are usually counterposed. International Relations scholars make a distinction between realism and idealism. Realism is about the pursuit of national interest by military force, if necessary, through “blood and iron” to quote German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Idealism, by contrast, is about the construction of a peaceful, rights-based international system.

These terms are misleading. It is no longer realistic to pursue national interests through military force, as the United States discovered in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and as Russia is discovering in Ukraine. All forms of military force have become so destructive that it has become almost impossible to achieve military superiority, to use military force for what Thomas Schelling called “compellence,” except against unarmed civilians. Moreover, in a globally interconnected world, it is increasingly difficult to preserve peace and security unilaterally, something small states have long understood. National security, nowadays, can be achieved only through international security; we are only as safe as the world in which we live. What is known as an interest-based or realist approach is usually associated with an old-fashioned conception of military power. What used to be called idealism is the only realistic option for humankind in the face of multifaceted threats – from war to climate change to infectious disease, and so on.

U.S. President Joe Biden talks about a values-based approach to foreign policy. Yet this is true of all American presidents—even George W. Bush claimed he was promoting democracy and American values when he invaded Iraq. The most recent U.S. National Security Strategy contains an odd and contradictory mixture of language about both interests and values. There is a lot of emphasis on pursuing and defending America’s interests and the importance of military strength, which has also been the staple of past U.S. administrations. At the same time, the strategy is peppered with statements about values. Perhaps what is new is the way those values have been spelled out – the need for a rules-based international system that respects universal rights and the need to address shared global challenges such as climate change, disease, energy shortages, and transnational terrorism.

There is also an uncomfortable conflation of the values-based conflict between democracy and authoritarianism and the geopolitical competition between the United States, on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other. While Biden insists he does not want to start a new Cold War, it was precisely the military framing of the contest between democracy and totalitarianism that defined the Cold War period and prompted the West to deem military partners such as Turkey or Brazil as “democratic,” even when that was far from true. There is indeed a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism that is much broader than U.S. competition with Russia and China and cannot be captured purely in military terms, even if it is currently being fought out in Ukraine through military means. The ideological struggle against authoritarianism is playing out in Hungary, India, Iran, Israel, and even within the United States with the rise of Trumpism.

By insisting on the salience of geopolitical competition, however, the United States is failing to uphold a key pillar of a values-based approach to foreign policy—the salience of human rights. A genuine values-based approach needs to be able to integrate and prioritize human rights at every level, including in military planning. Military strength is the central component of geopolitics. A human rights-based foreign policy might require the use of force in some circumstances but instead of a military posture primarily designed for geopolitical competition with Russia and China, such an approach requires developing civilian and military capabilities for certain limited tasks: to defend against aggression, to manage emerging crises, or to contribute to peacekeeping missions. A change in the role and nature of military force should be central to any shift towards value-based foreign policy.

Importantly, defending against aggression is distinct from engaging in geopolitical military competition. During the 1980s, amid concerns about the offensive posture of NATO and the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, proposals were put forward for “defensive deterrence”— deterring foreign attacks through a credible conventional defensive posture rather than through the threat of nuclear or conventional retaliation. Defensive deterrence, or deterrence by denial, aims to avoid the kind of competitive armament that characterizes geopolitical competition. It also eschews the kind of nuclear modernization being undertaken at present in a misguided effort to compete with both China and Russia, with potentially catastrophic results.

Crisis management and peacekeeping missions, moreover, aim to reduce incentives for violence, rather than seeking to achieve conventional military victories or negotiated, top-down agreements. Central to this goal is the establishment of legitimate and inclusive political authority and the rule of law. Such interventions should be civilian-led and involve a combination of civilian and military actors. The tasks of the military in these circumstances should include protecting civilians from attack and creating a safe environment in which a legitimate political authority can be established; monitoring and upholding local peace agreements and ceasefires as part of multi-level peace building involving civil society, especially women; establishing humanitarian space through corridors and safe havens that allow for the delivery of humanitarian assistance; and arresting war criminals.

A human rights-based approach to terrorism, meanwhile, would look very different from the current iteration of the “war on terror.” In Afghanistan, for example, the United States has long relied on military force, rather than other tools of statecraft, to counter perceived threats to Americans. This approach did not work – it fueled the insurgency and empowered corrupt commanders who ultimately undermined the legitimacy of the Afghan government. The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan also failed to consider the security of ordinary Afghans. It would be unthinkable to conduct air strikes inside the United States, for example, in a hunt for suspected terrorists, not just because of the potential for civilian harm but also because of the importance of due process and the provocative and escalatory nature of any air strike. The United States’ continued reliance on “over-the-horizon” strikes in Afghanistan and elsewhere is not only contrary to a values-based approach to security, but it may also be counter-productive from a more traditional conception of national security, particularly since such strikes have often fueled local grievances and terrorist recruitment efforts.

More than two years into the administration, what can we say about Biden’s values-based approach to foreign policy? The withdrawal from Afghanistan, without inclusive peace talks and agreed security arrangements, was a tragedy that failed to consider the security of Afghans, especially women and girls. And the campaign of “over-the-horizon” targeting of suspected terrorists is completely contrary to a rights-based international rule of law. On the other hand, the policy towards Ukraine has been exemplary. The Biden administration has been the largest provider of military and economic aid and has encouraged allies to provide support. At the same time, it has been careful not to risk escalation by refusing direct NATO intervention and imposing clear restraints on possible violations of Russian territory. When the Russian regime dropped hints about using nuclear weapons, the discussion about responses focused on conventional and political responses. It is, of course, a tightrope between helping Ukraine to win and preventing a world war – a tight rope made harder by the presence of large numbers of weapons mass destruction in both Russia and the United States.

NATO’s new Strategic Concept, the outcome of the June 2022 Summit in Madrid, emphasizes the need to integrate human security “across all our core tasks.” And several NATO members, notably the United Kingdom, are mainstreaming human security throughout the armed forces. The same needs to happen in the United States. Human security, or a human rights-based approach to security, offers an alternative to both geopolitics and muscular counterterrorism. It would involve far-reaching changes in the composition and type of military forces, and it would give substance to the idea of a values-based approach to foreign policy.

IMAGE: Helicopter hovering above an American flag (via Getty Images)