An Acholi child in Northern Uganda in 2007, as the first internally displaced Acholi people began to return to their villages after the signing of a peace accord intended to end more than twenty years of atrocities by the Lord’s Resistance Army; photograph by Sara Terry from Forgiveness and Conflict: Lessons from Africa, just published by 10(X) Editions

Sara Terry

An Acholi child in Northern Uganda in 2007, as the first internally displaced Acholi people began to return to their villages after the signing of a peace accord intended to end more than twenty years of atrocities by the Lord’s Resistance Army; photograph by Sara Terry from Forgiveness and Conflict: Lessons from Africa, just published by 10(X) Editions

How is a statesman to advance his nation’s interests? For as long as states have existed, diplomats have grappled with this question. And among US diplomats, Henry Kissinger is most associated with the realpolitik approach, arguing that the job of the statesman is to manage relationships—with allies and adversaries alike—to maximize his nation’s security, prosperity, and power.

In Kissinger’s view, America’s tragic flaw has been believing that our principles are universal principles, and seeking to extend human rights far beyond our nation’s borders. This “messianic” belief, as he has characterized it, has repeatedly led American statesmen to make decisions that have undermined our interests and weakened our standing in the world—from pursuing costly humanitarian interventions to abandoning leaders who, while perhaps repressive, helped safeguard our security.

“No nation,” Kissinger wrote in Diplomacy,

has ever imposed the moral demands on itself that America has. And no country has so tormented itself over the gap between its moral values, which are by definition absolute, and the imperfection inherent in the concrete situations to which they must be applied.

The implication here is that the importance we place on how America’s actions affect people beyond our own borders often stands in direct opposition to the policies that are in the best interest of the people within our borders. Effective statecraft, Kissinger and fellow realists have argued, is best achieved by staying focused on managing the relationships between nations.

I would like to put forward a simple thesis that should no longer be at all controversial: it is now objectively the case that our national interests are increasingly affected not just by what happens between states, but also by how people are treated within states. Even if we all agree, with Kissinger, that states intrinsically seek to maximize their self-interest, it is precisely our self-interest that requires us to get better at improving human security in the service of national security.

The way governments treat their own citizens matters; it matters because it can have a direct impact on international peace and security—and on our respective national security interests. Consider Russia, where the mothers of soldiers killed fighting in eastern Ukraine have demanded information about their sons’ deaths, only to find themselves intimidated, harassed, and in some instances even prosecuted. Why? Because their sons’ deaths are the clearest, most incontrovertible evidence of the Russian military’s ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine. As a result of this and similar attacks by the Russian government on independent journalists, human rights defenders, and activists for transparency in government, the Russian people are denied knowledge of (and a say in) a conflict in which their government is engaged—a conflict that many Russians might well oppose, were they to know its true scale and costs.

It’s not just the Russian people who lose out when their government stifles an informed debate about its military actions—it’s the world. When a global power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council flagrantly tries to expand its territory by lopping off part of a neighboring country, it weakens a core international norm that, when respected, makes all nations more secure. The Russian people could demand an end to these acts of aggression; but their government’s censorship and repression of voices like those of the soldiers’ mothers have prevented even the beginnings of a serious debate from taking place. In effect, the elimination of critical voices inside Russia helps enable acts that are profoundly destabilizing outside Russia.

In countries like Venezuela and China, we see the chilling effects of government crackdowns not only on those who stand up for human rights, but also on those who challenge the official version of events, including in the economic sphere. When business leaders, journalists, and economists are criticized or attacked for circulating objective information about the economy; when blog posts and news stories are censored for raising legitimate questions about inflated government production figures, dubious currency values, or corrupt officials; when fear prevents people from sharing accurate data about markets or from recommending reforms that would make them more efficient, the resulting dearth of credible information and of innovative ideas doesn’t just undermine the economy of any one country; it threatens the stability of an ever more interconnected, regional, and even global market.

In light of this, we must make a deliberate, sustained effort to understand how our policies have an effect on—and are seen by—people who live in other states. When, as a result of our policies, people in other countries see our government as an adversary rather than an ally, and as an enabler of repression rather than as a champion of their rights, those people can take actions that significantly undermine our security.


Take the current wave of instability roiling the Middle East. Some argue that the best way to combat violent extremism is by redoubling our military support for autocratic governments in the region, in the service of confronting terrorism. Those who urge this approach often argue, very reasonably, that these governments can be critical sources of intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, and that they possess—or ought to possess—a monopoly on the use of violence. However, advocates of this approach also tend to argue—less reasonably—that if only we had done more to keep the old guard in power as the Arab Spring swept across the region, “order” could have been preserved and much of the current turmoil could have been averted.

In view of the way terrorists have exploited the conflicts that have grown out of the Arab Spring in order to expand their reach, to recruit new members, and to plan and execute attacks, it is not at all surprising to hear people express nostalgia for the relative calm of the pre–Arab Spring Middle East that we had all grown used to. This argument, though, often seems to presume that the United States had it within our control to put the Arab Spring genie back in the bottle, either by somehow convincing the millions of protesters to accept the abusive governments that they had risked their lives trying to change, or by backing those governments as they brought to bear the tremendous force necessary to dislodge the masses from the streets. I don’t believe violence could have succeeded in beating back the popular tide that arose once people in that region lost their fear. Rather, once leaders have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of their people, the question is not whether they will fall, but how, when, and—critically—who will fill the vacuum of power when they do.

We also have to acknowledge that it was repressive, corrupt rule that motivated much of the violence and unrest we see in today’s Middle East. After decades of stifling the emergence of independent institutions in their societies and preventing political evolution, leaders such as Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali set the stage for the much more disruptive revolutions that are harming our interests today. Destabilizing as such revolutions are, there is nothing “realistic” about believing that such rulers can repress their way to governing indefinitely, or that helping them maintain their grip on power will ultimately lead to greater stability for Western democracies.

In Iraq, it was the deeply sectarian, corrupt, and abusive rule of then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that drove some Sunnis to support the ascent of ISIS as the terrorist group methodically expanded its foothold. In Syria, no single factor has been a bigger boon for the recruitment of violent extremists than the barrel-bombing, gassing, and forced starvation of civilians by the Assad regime. In Egypt, one of the greatest incubators for radicalization has been the country’s appalling prisons, where thousands of peaceful protesters, political opponents, independent journalists, and countless others are now unjustly imprisoned.

We have also seen that when governments commit abuses in the name of fighting terrorism, they alienate the very communities whose trust and cooperation are crucial to effectively counter extremist groups. When citizens see soldiers and police targeting innocent civilians in the name of providing security, and when, in some cases, they come to fear government security forces as much as they fear violent extremists, those citizens will have little incentive to share the information that is critical to rooting out terrorists.

So if we accept that our interests are increasingly bound not only to those of other governments, but also to the people whom they are supposed to serve, how should our foreign policymaking adapt to this shift?

For one, we need to broaden the spectrum of whom we engage with our diplomacy. State-to-state relations matter hugely, but our knowledge of the people who live in those states must get much deeper. Diplomats need to spend more time out of the office, where they can meet people affected by the policies they debate, see their impact up close, and develop the expertise and the instinct needed to help anticipate how future decisions will be experienced and interpreted by different communities. Getting close to a country’s people also helps puncture the inevitable abstraction that can prevent us from seeing the human consequences of our actions.


This should include building relationships not only with well-known civil society organizations, but also with groups like teachers’ associations, workers’ unions, and leaders in the business community—and not only with the vocal majorities, but with the minorities who are harder to find and hear. This kind of engagement demands a greater investment in our diplomatic efforts at a time when many governments—including the United States—are facing significant pressure to scale back the resources they dedicate to investments overseas, and to cloister diplomats in fortress-like embassies in the parts of the world where such local connections are actually needed most. So leaders must make the case to the public not only for why we cannot isolate ourselves from these problems, but also why we must widen the scope of our diplomatic engagement as a national security imperative.

If one way to respond to this shift is through this thicker involvement in—and knowledge of—the world beyond our own borders, another is through investing more deeply in the partnerships and capacities needed to confront contemporary threats that, by their very nature, require a global response. The need for alliances is of course nothing new. For as long as the state has existed, diplomats have recognized the need to build partnerships beyond borders to protect their interests. But what is distinct about many of the problems we face today is that a coalition or alliance of powerful countries cannot solve most of those problems. For climate change to be stopped—and for its myriad economic, security, and environmental consequences to be averted—it’s not enough just for the United States and Europe to bring down our emissions. To prevent terrorists from attacking our citizens, we cannot simply keep them from gaining a foothold in the countries that are our partners. To stop an outbreak of a deadly virus from turning into a global pandemic, we must do more than build up robust public health systems at home.

With each of these threats, a single weak link in the chain—even in an extremely remote part of the world—can put the security of our citizens at risk. That is why the Obama administration has poured so much energy into building broader, deeper coalitions that seek to shore up all the links in the chain—whether by persuading countries like China and India to join the Paris Agreement on climate change this year, or working to help ensure that the forces fighting Boko Haram do not themselves abuse local populations, creating in the process more terrorists than they defeat. Or by training more doctors and nurses in West Africa, so that the next Ebola outbreak in the region does not reach the devastating proportions of the last one. And to be clear, as this Ebola example attests, today’s coalitions—or “grand alliances”—will often need to be comprised of actors other than governments.

Yet there are of course some foreign policy dilemmas for which deepening our diplomatic engagement and marshaling global coalitions will not offer a ready solution. Such as when the aspirations of the people in a given country cut against our long-standing relationship with its government. Or when we know that a government’s actions are setting back our shared interests, while it also appears absolutely impervious to our diplomatic and economic pressure to change course. Or when we suspect that exerting pressure on a government to move toward a more open system that respects human rights may actually undermine the limited influence we have over it. These are not hypothetical balancing acts; they are challenges we are confronting right now in our relationships with countries across the world.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to navigate these tensions. But we must never be ashamed to ask whether we have been too reticent in pressing certain governments to reform and to respond to the demands of their citizens—remember, evolution is usually far preferable to revolution—or whether we have pushed so hard that we have caused governments to distance themselves from us, forfeiting access that might have more gradually allowed us to achieve our desired end, and maybe squandering our chances of working together to address an immediate challenge.

What is certainly not the solution for the contemporary diplomat is acting as if these dilemmas do not exist, or continuing to make foreign policy as though relations between governments are most of what mattered. We no longer live in an era in which foreign policy makers can claim to serve their nations’ interests by treating what happens to people in other countries as an afterthought (or as a matter of moral concern distinct from our national security). The foreign policy equation has changed. What happens to people in other countries matters to the welfare of our nation and our citizens. The sooner we recognize that reality, the better off we will be.