Values in Foreign Policy: Investigating Ideals and Interests

July 20, 2020        Reading Time: 6 minutes

Reading Time: 6 min read


*Reviewed by Professor Razeen Sally

The book, “Values in Foreign Policy: Investigating Ideals and Interests” edited by Krishnan Srinivasan, James Mayall and Sanjay Pulipaka, (Rowman & Littlefield International, London, 2019, 293 pp., ISBN: HB 978-1-78660-749-2) explores the principles that drive foreign policy in Western and Asian states. The book has five chapters dedicated to Western foreign policies (US, Germany & Europe), seven chapters on Asian (India, China & Japan) foreign policies and a chapter each on Russia, and Islamic values in relation to Iran and Turkey.

See below for a review of the book by renowned scholar and economist Prof. Razeen Sally.


How important are values – or ideals or ideology – and how do they relate to power and interests in foreign policy? How are “Western” and “Asian” values projected by powerful countries? Can countries subscribe to a universal set of values? These are the questions this book, edited by Krishnan Srinivasan (a former Indian foreign secretary and deputy secretary general of the Commonwealth), James Mayall (an emeritus professor of international relations at Cambridge University), and Sanjay Pulipaka (a senior fellow at the Nehru Museum and Library), seeks to answer. Their Introduction and Overview is followed by chapters on the West (the EU, US, and Germany) and Asia (India, Myanmar, Indonesia, China, South Korea, and Japan), with additional chapters on Russia, and the Islamic world (Iran and Turkey).

Robert Kaplan’s Foreword sets the tone: “A state’s values are not just part of its foreign policy, but they are paramount to it. … Because values are often spread through the projection of power, understanding a world of competing powers requires a discussion of values”.

The Introduction sets out three perspectives. The English School’s “international society” combines sovereignty with a set of common values and institutions for international cooperation whose ideas come from the West. “Realism” is all about state power and interests, leaving little or no room for ideas. Post-Cold War “constructivism”, in contrast, is about shared ideas and values that construct the social identity of states.

The “isms” – liberalism, republicanism, capitalism, nationalism, socialism, and communism – that pervade values in foreign policy originated in the West and spread from it to the rest of the world. So many Western ideas, ranging from respect for sovereignty to “rights” that impinge on sovereignty, came to have universal claim and status; they became embodied in the UN Charter and UN declarations on human, political, social, economic, and cultural rights, and in international law. Western values emphasising civil liberties, democracy, the rule of law, and an open economy, and, more recently, environmental protection, labour rights, and even LGBT rights, have travelled to Asia and beyond. As the editors argue, no non-Western values – Chinese, Russian, Islamic, or other – are likely to acquire comparable universality.

A missionary streak – the belief that core Western values are universal values and should be disseminated globally – has embedded itself deeply in post-1945 US foreign policy. The missionaries of EU foreign policy believe its “soft power” can spread the EU’s procedural values of dialogue, diplomacy, and international agreements around the world, even at the expense of traditional “hard-power” notions of sovereignty, military might, and defence of territory.

But these Western claims to universality inevitably run into accusations of double standards and hypocrisy. That is often the starting point for propagating alternative value-systems, of which “Asian values” is perhaps the best known. But what are Asian values? The authors argue it is very difficult to generalise, and that Asian values lend themselves to rampant stereotyping. Vague markers and lowest-common-denominator generalisations prevail. Asian values start with respect for sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. They push back against the West’s belief in freedom over discipline, the individual over community, and the universality of Western values. Confucianism strongly influences some East Asian values, emphasising a work ethic, an education ethic, filial piety, and love of family. Beyond this list, what are Asia values in favour of? Moreover, as Ravi Velloor argues in the book’s concluding chapter, Asian values are changing as societies modernise and become more prosperous, just as Western values changed over centuries and in recent decades.

What strikes me most about this book is its “soft” realism. Unlike “hard” realism, the authors agree that values matter in foreign policy; they interact with power, interests, and circumstances to shape outcomes. But, ultimately, power and interests prevail. Ideas consonant with power realities are projected most powerfully, while power trumps dissonant ideas. As the world becomes more multipolar, with competing power centres, Western values are on the backfoot, bereft of a universal consensus. Values are becoming more plural. As the editors argue, “ … the future would probably be more transactional, bilateral, driven by power and national interests rather than values or a sense of international community…. The more important the issue, the more national the policy, and bilateralism gains over multilateralism, as does power over idealism”.

Krishnan Srinivasan illustrates these conclusions dramatically in his chapter on India. Jawaharlal Nehru’s foreign policy was extremely idealistic: anti-colonial, anti-racist, non-aligned, devoted to international peace, suffused with Gandhian non-violence, and the ancient civilizational spirit of Hinduism and Buddhism. India, Nehru hoped, would be the Asian and Third World leader, setting the right example at home and spreading these ideals abroad. But his Utopianism foundered from the start, with military interventions domestically (in Hyderabad and Goa) and in the neighbourhood (against Pakistan, and, post-Nehru, in Sri Lanka, and what became Bangladesh). After Nehru, Indian foreign policy paid lip service to values, usually in sanctimonious rhetoric, but retreated to opportunism in line with power realities. That remains the case today, though with a new overlay of Hindutva ideology.

The rhetoric of Chinese foreign policy, following Zhou Enlai’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, professes respect for sovereignty and non-interference in other states’ affairs. But, as Ravi Velloor points out, it is increasingly honoured in the breach as a more powerful, assertive China pursues its expanding interests abroad. And one has heard little of Asian values since the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. Ultimately, it was a veneer for power realities.

As James Mayall and Fredrik Erixon argue in their chapters, values-laden foreign policy in Europe is in retreat. Populist backlashes in Europe, usually with an anti-migration agenda, have severely damaged advocacy of “European” values abroad. In Britain, Tony Blair’s humanitarian intervention and democracy promotion have given way to narrow calculations of national security and a presumption of non-intervention. Clashing interests of member-states have neutered EU sanctions against Russia. Policy has become more selective. As Bruno Maçães writes, perhaps too diplomatically, “The post-crisis trend is toward a more unsentimental multilateralism and a more selective and rationalised form of cosmopolitan liberalism”.

Fredrik Erixon argues that split competences between the EU and its member-states, as well as divisions among the latter, often turn EU foreign economic policy into a low common denominator of procedures at the expense of strategic focus on tangible outcomes. As the US retreats from global leadership and support of European integration, intra-EU divisions are likely to deepen, rendering the EU’s footprint abroad even less visible. So much for soaring European rhetoric on filling the global leadership gap left by the US.

Bruno Maçães’s chapter stands out with its higher stress on values. A more multipolar world, he argues, has competing powers with competing value-systems, each with universal claims. The world is converging on modernity, but different powers have different versions of modernity, each within geographic spheres of influence with competing globalisation projects and competing values. This is his frame for viewing the US, EU, and China. The latter has mutated from warding off Western values of liberal democracy, human rights, and open markets at home to projecting its alternative values abroad.

The editors assert that “no comparative study has yet been made on the relationship between values and foreign policy in various countries of the world. This book might be the first but it will not be the last word”. That is a fitting summation of this book. I hope the authors return with a second word, perhaps later this decade, to tell us how changing circumstances have shaped the mix of values, power, and interests in foreign policy. The additional ingredient I would like to see, mostly absent in this book, is “institutions”: the decision-making setup for foreign policy in the countries and regions covered.


*Dr. Razeen Sally is a Sri Lankan-British writer. He is a visiting associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He is also the Chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies, Sri Lanka and has taught at the London School of Economics, where he received his PhD. He has been Director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, a global-economy think tank in Brussels. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own views. They are not the institutional views of LKI, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.

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