Thinking Through Foreign Policy From First Principles

Everyone has an opinion on foreign policy and everyone is probably wrong about it.  Including me.  

People on Twitter slammed Trump and frothed at the mouth for his decision to pull troops out of Syria, negatively impacting our allies, the Kurds.  I saw someone on Twitter even say that the complex geopolitical landscape has taken years to create and we have just eliminated it with the wave of a hand.  

It’s tough to figure out what to actually think about what’s going on in the Middle East, so I want to take a crack at actually thinking through what a good foreign policy looks like from first principles, uncovering if what’s going on now matches up with the “correct” vision I create from first principles.

How Do We Start?

Let’s start with the base layer, at the absolute bottom. 

A country engages with other foreign countries or jurisdictions in order to further their own goals and benefit its people to the best of their current knowledge

At its core, any decision made that we can label as foreign policy strives to further this foundational goal.  We’ll come back to this quite a bit.  

It’s also important to note that these goals and policies change depending on different contexts and the overall landscape, both at home and in reaction or anticipation to other countries’ actions.  

Most importantly, we can assume that every country has one goal in common: to survive

At the end of the day, people comprise a country, and our most fundamental goal remains biological: to survive long enough to pass on our genes.  A country does not pass on genes, but it tries to survive for as long as possible in order to give it the best chance to allow as many of its citizens as possible to pass on theirs.  

Relative power of a country also plays an exceptionally critical role in determining foreign policy from first principles.  Foreign policy is inherently dynamic because you operate in a system with other players with their own unique strengths and weaknesses.  An evaluation of a country’s own strengths and weaknesses should play a crucial role in not only determining what those goals should be, but also realistically how they can be achieved.

Okay, so a country creates foreign policies to further its own goals.  The next logical questions to ask : 

  1. Should those goals align with the goals of the countries at the receiving end of the policy?  
  2. And if they don’t, what do we do about it? 
  3. When should a foreign policy be changed?  

We’ll take these one at a time.  Question 1: No

If you think back to the core fundamental principle of furthering the goals of the country itself, a foreign policy does not necessarily need to align with the country at the receiving end of its goals. 

Let’s say we need to secure oil for our home economy in order to improve economic output. We decide to invade Saudi Arabia and use military force to capture 20% of their oil production.  In this scenario, we possess more power than them.   

Clearly this seems quite harsh to the people of Saudi Arabia in this example.  We steamroll over them to further our own interests.  This raises the second question: our goals clearly don’t align here (assuming Saudi Arabia here has a goal of remaining sovereign and independent of hostile powers), so what do we do about it?  

Well, we can take the Western idea of treating your neighbor like you would want to be treated yourself.  Rather than spend money and most likely lives to take what we want by force, we could offer something of value to the Saudis in return for something of value (like oil here).  In this way, an opportunity presents itself for both us and them to reap rewards that we both most likely wouldn’t have received if we tried to further our interests in isolation. An alliance is born.    

But this alliance raises a new question:

What do we do if we want to further our goals in an alliance with another country, but they refuse to offer us a fair deal for what we can give, or they simply refuse to engage with us?   

This question muddies the waters  Acting friendly and moral most likely can create a dangerous situation for the population.  Classic game theory at work: if an engaged country knows that their counterpart will act morally and friendly in each interaction, they can earn outsize gains by taking advantage of this information at the expense of the other.   Take a simplistic example: imagine Pakistan wants to develop a nuclear program, and India wants the inverse.  Pakistan can continue to develop their nuclear program if they know India will maintain a friendly position (i.e. not attack them).  Different countries with different goals; outsized returns for only one.  

Clearly quite a bit of nuance and context and subject matter expertise needs consideration for a specific situation, but generally speaking, the fundamental goals of the country should help answer this question.  It also seems prudent to ask: 

  • Does accepting an unfair deal still allow the country to achieve its initial goals?  Or does it put it ultimately at risk with unforeseen (or even obvious!) consequences?  
  • If a country refuses to engage with us when we need its cooperation to further our goals, do we ignore it and try to find a different willing partner?  
  • Or do we use military force to take what we want?  

At the end of the day, if the North Star of a country remains furthering its own goals, regardless of the cost, these questions have clear answers.


So now we can see how foreign policy decisions ultimately stem from the fundamental idea of furthering the home country’s goals, regardless of how it fits into the puzzle of other foreign countries’ goals.  Now we must ask: when do we change our foreign policy?  

In order to change a policy, consider the criteria below:

  1. The fundamental goals of the country change
  2. Priorities of goals change
  3. The policy simply does not achieve the desired results  

The fundamental goals of a country seem unlikely (survival, economic interests, etc.) to change, and it seems obvious to change a policy if it does not work, so I want to focus on priorities of a home country and how that might change foreign policy.  This seems inherently political in nature, so bare with me.  

Let’s say that in the US, we care most about improving and expanding our economic interests.  However, 50 years ago we might have prioritized stamping out communism; today, we might prioritize immigration reform.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t care about creating anti-communism policy, just that we have now prioritized new immigration policies.  Or let’s say we have had a strong alliance with Honduras for 15 years, financing critical infrastructure for banana importation into the US; today, the demand in the US for bananas sits at a 20 year low.  In this case, it appears wise to change the policy of joint banana infrastructure financing and phase out this work with Honduras - it simply does not benefit Americans survival wise nor economically as much as it did in the past.  

This goes back to the key point about global change: our policies and priorities shift as we examine the changing strengths, weaknesses, and power of all of the players on the global chessboard.  Just because a country invades their neighbor one year and removes troops the next does not necessarily mean their goals have changed; it could just mean that priorities have shifted in a changing landscape both abroad and at home.  

So when should a foreign policy be changed?  When a country has the best chance to further its goals in utilizing resources elsewhere.   

Moral Considerations???

This raises a question I struggle with as an American: do we just leave people to starve or get massacred by enemies in regions of the world where aiding them in no way furthers our own goals?  At first glance, it seems as if it’s a luxury to give limited resources to another country or people without any expectation of anything in return (i.e. not furthering any goals whatsoever).  

This can then go one of two ways.  

First, the savage way. 

It’s certainly not guaranteed that any country or culture lasts indefinitely.  Look at Ancient Rome or Ancient Greece as obvious examples.  Giving away hard earned resources without any potential of improving the home country in a way seems absurd.  No country has the luxury for charity when chaos and unrest could remain dormant another day if they continue to push hard towards fulfilling their own interests.  If a country were to give aid to those in need, it’d most likely have a strategic purpose of keeping other enemies at bay, winning key allies in that region, or investing in a future labor force.

Second, the more humane angle.  Clearly, wealthier nations spend billions of dollars in humanitarian aid each year that benefit nations that can provide little to the donor nations.  People in wealthier nations have their basic needs met, and if you bring in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, having a population feel as if they can partake in sharing the wealth of their nation with the less fortunate fulfills deep human desires of generosity and love. 

Plus it seems inhumane and outrageous to let innocent people starve or get slaughtered because of greed or selfishness.  We all want justice and morality in the world.  If the government fulfills the basic needs of its population and has ample resource reserves, it’s their duty to help lift up their foreign neighbors.  The law of diminishing returns also ensures that every additional dollar or resource spent furthering your own interests abroad has less and less value.  Why not give those additional resources to other countries who could derive significantly more value?  

Both of these branches from our foundational principle raise even further questions:  How do you decide when to stop giving aid once you start?  What scenarios do you not give aid in?  What level of wealth gives you a high enough probability of survival in the long run where you can easily share meaningful sums of money or resources?  In the case of the US, does our immense wealth oblige us to serve other countries and resolve disputes amongst our neighbors?  

It seems clear that foreign policy creates such raging debate because of the complex, fundamental questions it surfaces around human nature, morality, self-preservation, and tribalism.  If a country created a cohesive and consistent foreign policy strategy from scratch, the answers to these questions can still be derived from our foundational principle (furthering the population of said country’s interests).

Human Nature

You might be thinking at this point: these ideas suck, through globalization we can create harmony, unity and peace amongst all countries given enough time and economic progress!! 

While I agree we should strive towards a  harmonious global order, thousands of years of history has shown us the true colors of human nature.  We inevitably fall into tribalism during difficult times.  As the old Arab saying goes: 

I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.

Even in times of peace we all try to find our niche in the world and identify with some group, whether that revolves around our ethnicity, religion, ideological beliefs, or just interests.  The beauty, power and ingenuity of humans thrives on our differences - that’s driven us to our modern world today.  

The price we pay for these differences though?  Our nature never allowing us to live in a state of peace with neighbors different than us: especially during times of conflict, want, or cultural upheaval.  

We should strive towards utopia.  But it’s an impossible goal: a light at the end of a perpetually extending tunnel. Hence, why a foreign policy must protect the people within the nation.  

Did Trump do the right thing pulling out of Syria and ditching the Kurds?

Now that we’ve at least tried to think about what a foreign policy should look like from first principles, we can analyze Trump’s decision to pull soldiers out of Syria.

On the surface it appears sound.  As Peter Zeihan loves to talk about , US energy production has skyrocketed thanks to the shale boom.  We don’t necessarily need a military presence in the Middle East to secure our energy needs.  In fact, the US appears poised to become the biggest exporter of energy in the world.  What else does the US population need from Syria in particular?  Well, nothing.  So at first, it seems that this decision checks the box of fulfilling our foundational foreign policy principle.

The next questions and Trump’s actions get fuzzy when thought about in the context of our alliance with the Kurds, removing a military deterrent in an ISIS hotbed, and humanitarian support in Syria.  I find these questions excruciatingly difficult to answer from first principles, given that the messiness of the real world and the second and third order consequences of every foreign policy decision.  

First, our alliance with the Kurds and deterring ISIS go hand in hand.  The US has interests in squashing ISIS for national security purposes; as do the Kurds.  Potentially allowing ISIS to recover does not further support US interests.  Screwing an ally over at a crucial time also has ramifications down the road if we ever need anything from them in the future again. 

Given the extreme wealth in the US, this pure backstabbing of a longstanding ally could knock the population down on the Hierarchy of Needs.  Again though, if we don’t need them at this time, we’re probably actually fulfilling US interests by evacuating our military men and women out of a conflict zone.  You can see the struggle here: two incredibly valid arguments that could both serve a similar purpose.

Finally, the humanitarian angle.  Clearly the population of Syria could use our military support.  This goes back to the question I raised earlier: if we have a certain amount of wealth we can safely deploy, should we?  And if so, how do we decide where to deploy it?  We could help Syrians, but what about Venezuelans, or Yemeni, or Nauruans? It does seem that for certain countries (like the US) above a specific wealth threshold, resources and capital can and should be deployed to help foreign countries if we decide that it’s important to help others.  

So what to do?

Even from first principles, I can’t see a clear answer here that holds true in each scenario.  Context, changing landscapes, and power dynamics all play important roles here.  And underlying all of those roles: the need to pursue our own interests. 

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