American Foreign Policy: Moral or Pragmatic

I met my friend Mark for coffee at a Starbucks recently. We both lived in Southeast Asia a few years back, so we were catching up on who was still there and who had moved on. One thing led to another, and pretty soon we were talking about political events in Myanmar. Or at least I thought we were talking about Myanmar. Mark was apparently under a somewhat different impression.

Did you see where they still won’t let Aung San Suu Kyi run for president?

Since when do you follow political coverage in Myanmar?

Well, she is a Nobel laureate. Besides, Burma’s been getting a lot of play in the news lately.

You mean that country in Myanmar?

The US doesn’t recognize the new name yet.

New? They adopted that name a quarter of a century ago. What, did the old name get locked in our computers during Y2K?

No, it’s just that we oppose their unrepresentative government, so we don’t accept the name as a legitimate expression of their people’s wishes.

Oh for God’s sake.

What? What’s wrong with that?

It’s some of the most myopic, paternalistic crap I’ve ever heard.

Hey wait a minute. We aren’t the only ones who don’t recognize that name. The British don’t. Neither do the Aussies or the Canadians.

Right, all the little Brit wannabes. Under pressure from the Brits and Americans. Of course, the entire rest of the universe accepts it. The UN, ASEAN, every international media outlet . . .

So you don’t have a problem if some repressive regime takes control of a country and changes its name?

None of my business.

You don’t care when democracies fall to repressive regimes?

Sure, I care. But you asked me about a name change. The name’s irrelevant. And if you think otherwise, you’ve got your head up your ass.

And you’re going to help me remove it, no doubt.

Certainly. Only in a place that considers itself the moral center of the universe could the government summarily conclude that Myanmar, the traditional, literary name for that country in the native language, is an objectionable name adopted by a military dictatorship that’s unacceptable to the West – unlike all those other military dictatorships the West has come to know and love. Whereas Burma, a name favored not by a representative government, but by the British as the name for their conquered freakin’ colony, is to be preferred. This history is all conveniently overlooked by the Americans and Brits. The bottom line is, they don’t like the current government, so they engage in petty geopolitical bullshit like refusing to accept the change in a country’s name.

Can you imagine this in reverse? Can you imagine if the US decided to change its name to United States and Territories of America – USTA – and some country like, say, Sweden refused to use it?

Oh get off it. That would never happen!

You can never tell with the Swedes, you know. Maybe they’d point to the gridlocked American political system, or to the history of racial discrimination, as justification for sticking with USA. Or maybe they’d talk about capital punishment laws, or the failure to consistently recognize same-sex marriages, or the abuses permitted by campaign finance laws, and say these were evidence of a flawed governing system that didn’t properly represent the wishes of all its people. Suppose those wacky Swedes decided they’d continue to refer to our country as the USA. They could probably start a whole movement.

It’s preposterous. No country would take the risk of pissing off the US that way.

Why not?

Because we’re the US! They need our economic might, our military power and support. They need us in a thousand ways.

So they wouldn’t do it because we’re too powerful.


But screw those weak little bastards in Myanmar, right? They don’t have anything we want, so the hell with them.

Well . . .

Except that now they do, don’t they?

Now they do what?

Have things we want. Like a too-close relationship with China that we want to undo. Like tons of natural resources that haven’t been tapped yet. Just a few little things like that.

So you think now the US is going to abandon its position and accept the name because the country’s become strategically important?

You bet your life they are. Just like they’ve done with a multitude of other countries in the past.

What are you talking about? What countries?

Take Africa. Probably half the countries in Africa have changed names in the past 60 years. Southern Rhodesia becomes Rhodesia, becomes Zimbabwe. Belgian Congo becomes Zaire, becomes Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Yeah, so?

So some of those countries have been led by the most corrupt, repressive regimes on the planet. But did the US refuse to use the new names? Hell no! Why? Because all this stuff occurred while the US was engaged in a bitter, life-or-death struggle with the Soviet Union for influence across Africa. In other words, the countries all had something we wanted. So we were happy to just sort of look the other way when it came to their massively flawed political institutions.

You have a very cynical opinion of our foreign policy, don’t you?

Ya think? The truth is, we’re high-minded and moral when it serves our purposes, and we’re pragmatic and not so high-minded when that serves them. Which kind of makes all the moralizing a bit much to stomach.

And your approach would be?

My approach would be to accept the fact that we don’t get to decide how the other countries on this planet govern themselves. We don’t get to control who wins and loses elections, how “legitimate” or “illegitimate” those elections are, whether a revolution occurs and, if so, who controls the ensuing government, what the country’s then-current leaders decide to call it, or much of anything else about how any other country on earth manages its own internal affairs. We just don’t. Any more than they get to control whether or not America decides to call itself USTA from now on.

So we should just abandon all our principles. Let people do whatever they want.

We can have any principles we like. But let’s just impose them on ourselves. Not on the rest of the world. Where they often have very different views about what the best form of government is, how much political freedom or press freedom is appropriate, and on and on. I don’t have any interest in playing nanny to the rest of the freakin’ world.

I hate to think what the result would be if America’s foreign policy wasn’t founded on its moral principles.

Rational discourse? Mutual respect among nations? Yeah, God forbid. Hell, we might even have world peace. What would CNN do then?

You’re paying for this coffee, you know.

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