Rowman and Littlefield International

Principle and Practice in Foreign Policy


Published on Friday 01 Mar 2019 by James Mayall, Emeritus Professor of International relations, University of Cambridge

We are constantly reminded these days that we live in a globalised world; that most of the really intractable problems confronting humanity are no respecters of boundaries. It follows (or so liberal opinion will have us believe) that we need a new universalism, a reassertion of the shared principles of a common humanity that will somehow allow us to prioritise our universal international interest over the parochial national interests that divide us.

While for some, globalisation and universalism are one and the same thing, proving beyond reasonable doubt that the principles of open markets and the free movement of people and capital will put an end to national divisions and conflicts, for others they are polar opposites. On this second view globalisation is a new and aggressive form of imperialism, designed to subject the world everywhere to the deadening logic of the profit motive. Albie Sachs, one of the leading architects of the South African constitution, draws an analogy with apartheid. The one good thing about apartheid, he insists, was that it created the anti-apartheid movement; similarly the one good thing about globalisation will be that it will create the conditions for a genuine universalism, in which people everywhere will gradually acknowledge the necessity of recognising others’ rights on the basis of common humanity.

“On this second view globalisation is a new and aggressive form of imperialism, designed to subject the world everywhere to the deadening logic of the profit motive.”

There are two major problems with this courageous but optimistic vision.  The first is the problem of contested histories and positional goods. Many intractable problems in international relations arise because the stories on each side of the border cannot be reconciled. The second problem arises as a consequence of nationalism. It maybe that all nation-states are pursuing the same goals – the welfare and security of their populations – but the fact that their languages, political cultures, and social customs, differ enormously, creates obstacles to cooperation and maximises the chance of even well-meaning efforts getting ‘lost in translation.’ So how should we think about resolving – or at least managing – the problems that arise from conflicting principles, whether real or imagined, and national practices and world views that divide rather than unite humanity?

Diplomats do not always enjoy a good press in the era of social media and the internet. Just as dog owners tend to resemble their dogs, so people complain that diplomats often seem to have more in common with each other than with the people they allegedly represent. However, empathy is an indispensable attribute of generalship. It is necessary to see the world as the opposing general sees it, to think his thoughts and understand his motivations, to walk a mile, as the native American proverb has it ‘in his moccasins.’ But it is not only on the battlefield that we need to understand those whose interests are opposed to our own,  but in our everyday lives those with whom we wish to cooperate but whose historical experience, world view and cultural assumptions and practices are different from our own and may create unintended obstacles to harmonious relations across frontiers.

In the forthcoming book Values in Foreign Policy: Investigating Ideals and Interests I, together with my co-editors former Indian foreign secretary Krishnan Srinivasan and senior Nehru fellow Sanjay Pulipaka, seek to interrogate this so far understudied subject.  Values, and, in more recent times, ideologies, have played an important role in international affairs. The Holy Roman Empire, and the so- called Free World of the Cold War era, are examples of supra-national entities or constructs which invoked values rather than interests, as the primary impulse behind their conduct. More recently, powerful countries such as the USA have routinely cited the defence or promotion of freedom and democracy in support of actions based plainly on national interest. Increasingly, the real drivers are the advancement of economic or strategic advantage, no matter how the accompanying narrative is couched.  Conversely, in exceptional cases, values are so deeply held – for example in Iran or Saudi Arabia’s adherence to Islam – that promoting or defending them becomes an overweening national interest.

Much of the time, an understanding of the national interest of countries is all that we may need to make sense of how and why they act in a certain way in the international arena. Values, as in ethical or moral principles, or ideologies, as in democracy or in communitarian systems of belief, are no longer central to foreign policy decisions of most major countries. Frequently, what is relevant and sometimes key, is the collective self-perceptions, enduring habits, precepts and personality traits, even customary ways of doing business, derived from the history and culture of a people. This is possibly best understood as a mix of national character with traditional security and foreign policy doctrines.  Studying these is sometimes more rewarding than understanding the underlying values – the motivation of policy actions. This may be especially true of nations with long historical or civilizational traditions, such as India or China.

National character and tradition remain important to foreign policy choices and the diplomatic styles of several countries. Their organic roots in the fibre of society give them abiding strength. Almost by definition, they are seen to be helping sustain the national project over the long term, even when questions are raised over immediate gains or losses. The debate between idealists and realists in the practice of diplomacy and the study of international affairs is neither new, nor about to end. The former stress the indispensability of values, ideas and principles that must govern relations among nations, whereas the latter are convinced that national interest alone is and should be the driver for a state’s policy and behaviour towards the rest of the world.

Neither camp has a monopoly on wisdom. Life and the world are not binary; nothing is absolute here; everything is relative. Hence a path paved solely by values or by naked self-interest is often not feasible to walk on. Nor it may even exist. An individual needs both values and the capacity to define, identify and pursue his or her interests within the framework of social norms, laws and imperatives of community interest in order to secure happiness and harness his/her potential. That is also what states do in the comity of nations.

“An individual needs both values and the capacity to define, identify and pursue his or her interests within the framework of social norms, laws and imperatives of community interest in order to secure happiness and harness his/her potential.”

In Values in Foreign Policy all aspects of this debate are covered with reference to the leading countries of the day. The work explores the effect of the enlightenment, colonialism, modernity and post-modernity in determining contemporary value systems which are often uncomfortable in their interface with each other.   This book, written in accessible, non-technical language, will be of interest and benefit to policy-makers and practitioners of foreign policy, and the academic community. It will be equally valuable to anyone interested in international relations.  Written by specialist authors in the field of foreign relations, this is the closest examination yet made of the impulses which drive the foreign policies of the world’s most important countries, touching on the legacies of religion, civilization, culture and history.



James Mayall is Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Cambridge University and fellow of the British Academy.