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Hypocrisy and Credibility in U.S. Foreign Policy

Wide-angle photo of a tattered American flag

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its second week, much of the world appears to be united in opposition to Russian aggression and support for an economic blockade that has already caused the value of the Russian ruble to drop by thirty percent. Although Putin is still capable of snuffing out Ukrainian resistance, it appears that he underestimated both Ukraine’s willingness to fight and the world’s willingness to punish Russia for violating its neighbor’s sovereignty. Ultimately, Putin’s geopolitical gamble, which is aimed at resurrecting something like the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, may backfire spectacularly, leading Eastern European nations to embrace the West more fervently than ever before.

Of course, the United States has been among the leaders of efforts to sanction Putin for his war of aggression. In the diplomatic negotiations leading up to the war, it rejected Russia’s demand that NATO retreat from Eastern Europe. The United States plausibly believes that Putin’s objections to NATO expansion are pretextual. The man who famously said that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century would have waged war on Russia’s neighbors even without NATO expansion if they demonstrated a desire to align themselves with the West politically, economically, and culturally. According to this narrative, Putin’s aim is not, as he claims, to maintain a neutral buffer zone between Russia and expansionist Western powers, but to throttle the democratic aspirations of small nations. And U.S. support for these nations reflects its longstanding commitment to national self-determination.

Again, this is a plausible story, but when the United States tells it, its past actions undermine its standing as the storyteller. For over two hundred years, the United States pursued a policy of zero tolerance of other major powers’ involvement in the political affairs of the Western hemisphere, or even the political alignment of countries in the Americas and the Caribbean with other major powers. Thus, the so-called “Banana Wars” of the early twentieth century saw successive administrations invade various Caribbean and Central American nations, often to deter foreign meddling. For example, the Wilson administration sent the U.S. Marines to invade Haiti in 1915 because, among other things, he feared German influence over Haitian affairs and even a possible German invasion of Haiti.

During the Cold War, the U.S. acted aggressively to isolate and, if possible, overthrow Marxist or socialist governments in the Americas, seeing them as potential Soviet allies or proxies. In 1954, for example, the CIA toppled a socialist government in Guatemala and attempted to justify the coup by producing evidence of Soviet meddling in the country’s affairs. When Fidel Castro established a pro-Soviet regime in Cuba in 1959, the U.S. responded with an economic blockade, an attempted invasion, and numerous plots to assassinate him. The U.S. covertly backed a coup against a social democratic government in Brazil in 1964, and in 1965 it invaded the Dominican Republic in order to prevent what the Johnson administration believed to be a second Cuban revolution. In 1973, the CIA helped overthrow the Soviet-friendly democratic socialist government of Chile and install a pro-American dictator. When the Soviet-aligned Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua in 1979, the Reagan administration, fearing that they might export Marxist revolution to other Central American countries, backed the Contras’ bid to overthrow them through the use of brutal terroristic violence. And in 1983, the Reagan administration launched an invasion of Grenada, which it justified on the grounds that its non-aligned Marxist government was aiding a Soviet-Cuban military buildup in the Caribbean.

The point of this recitation is not to defend Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. When a blamer is accused of hypocrisy for acting in the same manner as the person she blames, the accusation does nothing to justify the behavior of the blame’s target. Instead, it calls into question the sincerity of the blamer’s commitment to the principle she blames others for violating. The accusation goes to the blamer’s standing as a blamer, and as a result, it has a tendency to affect others’ willingness to take the blamer seriously and to accept the blamer as a moral leader.

Thus, the U.S.’s actions in the Western hemisphere genuinely undermine its standing to blame Russia for waging aggressive war aimed at establishing dominance over its immediate neighbors. Of course, Putin makes just this point at every opportunity. As of now, most countries appear to accept the U.S.’s leadership. But how many politically-engaged people with a little knowledge of history have been led to sympathize with Putin’s agenda, or at least doubt the validity of the liberal international order, by their awareness of this hypocrisy? According to reports, many Chinese citizens, conditioned by years of Chinese propaganda harping on American hypocrisy in foreign affairs, appear to be largely sympathetic to the invasion.

Again, Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine is wrong. Indeed, I believe that it is my generation’s Spanish Civil War: a canary in the coal mine, a prelude to a larger conflict between the world’s rising illiberal powers and its floundering liberal democracies. I know what side I’m on. But for the sake of the liberal international order, the U.S. must take more seriously its responsibility to act in accordance with the principles it avows.

The Ethics of a Global Corporate Tax

photograph of unequal columns of stacked coins

The Biden administration has recently proposed a global minimum corporate tax, but what is at stake in such a policy? When debating public financial matters, it can be easy to get so focused on economics and politics that basic ethical considerations fade into the background. David Scheffer, for example, notes that when it comes to corporate tax avoidance “much of the ensuing debate has centered on how to tax corporate profits fairly and more efficiently…but there has been little effort to associate tax avoidance schemes with corporate abdication of responsibility for advancing critical societal goals.”

Scheffer was writing in 2013, when Starbucks paid only £8.6 million in British taxes over a 14-year period, and paid no UK corporate taxes in 2011 despite over $400 million in sales. U.S. corporations had $1.7 trillion in overseas accounts to avoid taxes. Apple, for example, held about $100 billion in tax haven accounts to avoid taxation in the U.S. In 2020, despite record-breaking profits, Amazon only paid an effective tax rate of 9.4% rather than the actual 21% rate, avoiding over 2 billion dollars in taxes. (Prior to that, Amazon had avoided paying taxes altogether for several years.) As a result of these trends, Scheffer points out that the percentage of tax revenue collected from wage-earners and consumers has increased dramatically, while the percentage of corporate taxation has dropped precipitously.

Unfortunately, figuring out what to do about the situation is no small task. While a nation can try to close loopholes and raise taxes, a corporation can simply move their corporate headquarters to a different nation with a lower corporate tax rate. These tax havens allow companies to minimize their tax liabilities through profit-shifting; companies register their headquarters in an alternative jurisdiction rather than the country where its sales took place.

To crack down on corporate tax avoidance, the Biden administration is now calling for a global minimum corporate tax rate of at least 15%. As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently stated, a global minimum would “stop what’s been essentially a race to the bottom, so that it’s competitive attractions of different countries that influence location decisions, not tax competition.” The idea is that a country could require a corporation to pay the difference between its minimum tax rate and the rate it pays on earnings in foreign countries.

So far, several nations have signaled their agreement with the proposal. Canada, Germany, France, and many others have indicated their interest, while nations like Ireland and Hungary have registered vocal opposition. (Ireland has only a 12.5% corporate tax rate and has encouraged numerous businesses to create subsidiaries there for years to take advantage of this.) Many developing nations have also expressed misgivings about the proposal due to fears a crackdown will discourage foreign investments.

While a global minimum rate may be important for issues of trade and economic development, the issue of tax competition has received comparatively little attention when it comes to issues of ethics and justice. But Peter Dietsch and Thomas Rixen have argued that tax competition undermines the de facto sovereignty of states. Without the ability to effectively set the size of the state budget and the extent of redistribution, states have no fiscal self-determination.

Likewise, Scheffer argues that taxes are a moral issue because the future of human rights depends on a state which is capable of protecting and securing them (and has the funds to do so). Further, while Milton Friedman and others have argued that corporations are primarily only responsible to their shareholders, Scheffer notes that given climate change, rising income disparity, and the backsliding to authoritarianism, there is no such neat division between capitalist pursuits and societal imperatives. He argues:

“The fact that major multinational corporations are paying such comparatively miserly taxes in their home or operating jurisdictions, and doing so legally, means they are minimizing their contributions to social priorities in education, infrastructure, public health care, law enforcement, and even the military defense of countries that provide them with the security and stability that allows them to earn their profit. Societies where these government services are properly financed stand a much better chance of protecting the human rights of the populace.”

Overall, tax avoidance by corporations contributes to the overall decline of government services, which “degrades the operating environment and the very markets within which corporations seek to thrive.” These considerations suggest important moral issues at stake in addressing corporate tax avoidance.

On the other hand, critics of the global minimum corporate rate argue that the move is unfair. While the move would equalize tax rates across the globe, it would also benefit richer nations at the expense of smaller and developing economies who would no longer be able to set lower, more competitive rates to attract foreign investment. Foreign investment represents an integral part of the development plans for lower-income countries, and so the move threatens to reduce the overall welfare of lower-income countries. Even Ireland has managed to dramatically increase living standards after once having one of the worst living standards in Europe, largely thanks to foreign investment. Nations like Mauritius, Paraguay, Uzbekistan, and Kosovo would likely suffer from a decline in tax revenue as well, while a global standard would help nations like the U.S. and France.

But of course, that doesn’t mean that steps couldn’t be taken to mitigate some of these concerns such as direct redistribution of financial means into education and public infrastructure of developing nations. Besides, perhaps taxes should be applied more where economic activity and value creation occurs rather than the location of corporate headquarters. But beyond these practical considerations, Scheffer argues that “the higher ethical perspective” demands that corporations look past minimal standards of compliance and embrace a stronger sense of social corporate responsibility. In order to address the larger problem of which tax competition is merely symptomatic, it’s important to stress the ethical role that corporations have to play in advancing our shared societal goals.

Transactionalism in U.S. Foreign Policy

image of world map with flags indiciating national boundaries

Since House Speaker Pelosi announced the start of the formal impeachment inquiry in the light of the new allegations against President Trump, the news cycle has seen abundant questions about the likelihood of impeachment, details of the process, and questioning whether there is a basis for the impeachment. The reasons for the start of the proceeding was a controversial call with Ukrainian President Zelinsky during which the president conditioned U.S. aid to Ukraine upon information about presidential candidate Biden and his son. As a result, Trump has been accused of engaging in a quid pro quo agreement, as he asked a foreign government to investigate a political rival. Yet, what goes easily unnoticed is the shift from humanitarianism to transactionalism in U.S. foreign policy that appears as a consequence of President Trump’s actions. Making U.S. foreign aid straightforwardly contingent upon political gains represents a sharp shift in the U.S. foreign policy doctrine. What are the consequences of this transactional approach?

Transactionalism is defined by Nikolas Gvosdev as “an effort to shift the basis of U.S. engagement and to define a series of quid pro quos for U.S. involvement.” This approach is meant to put tangible benefits above abstract values, and thus represents a transformation in the way the U.S. approaches assistance and aid. Until now, the U.S. has most commonly used humanitarian pretext to justify aid, but the current administration has indicated that it is not willing to continue the practice as it sees aid and financial assistance as a political tool instead.

There are several ethical questions raised by the U.S.’s new transactional approach:

First, is it morally permissible to prioritize aid to allies rather than to those who truly need it? If humans are suffering and we need to react instantly, is it morally acceptable to turn our backs on countries who do not share our values and ideologies? What obligation do we have to donate funds to causes which might frustrate our interests? Consider President Trump’s justification for constraining aid when Hurricane Dorian threatened Puerto Rico. Trump’s claim that “Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth” was meant to justify a lack of willingness to approve further funding needed to rebuild. Is the potential misuse of federal funds, as the president has claimed, a morally justifiable reason to deny further assistance?

Second, the transactional approach has the potential of leading to crises across the globe, bringing us back to the pre-UN world order. U.S. foreign policy appears to be putting aside its long-held belief that, alongside military action, it ought to promote its values across the world and cherish alliances based on a common vision of the world. But if diplomacy turns transactional, we risk the well-established world order by prioritizing relationships of benefit.  Just recently, the U.S. changed its approach toward Syria, as President Trump decided to withdraw U.S. troops and abandon Kurdish allies. In doing so, President Trump articulated a new vision for policy based on national interest and likelihood of victory, rather than the protection of hard-won allegiances. This shift led many of the President’s supporters to openly criticize the fact that he abandoned Kurdish people who have been paramount for U.S. efforts in Syria.

Third, does the U.S. have a responsibility to the global community as its leader? This question continues to trouble academics and policymakers alike as they try to decipher what role the U.S. should play on the world stage, especially in light of the rise of other great powers. If the leader of the free world is seen as conducting foreign affairs on a quid pro quo basis, what message does this send to the rest of the world?

The ongoing conversation regarding the president’s request that a foreign power intervene in domestic politics needs to center on more than just talk about the breaking of norms and statues. Democratic interference is a real worry with its own moral concerns and weight, but just as pressing is the question about the U.S.’s foreign policy transformation and the U.S.’s shifting role in global politics. The Trump-Ukraine scandal merely marks the most recent, noteworthy event in the movement of U.S. policy from participatory to more self-interested. We should not overlook this shift in the U.S. foreign policy doctrine towards transactionalism, a shift that might have grave consequences for the U.S. as well as the larger political world.

Opinion: President Trump, Peacemaker?

Photo of the Nobel prize

Lately, people have been talking about President Donald Trump deserving the Nobel Peace Prize. Everything about that sentence is chilling, but that’s what people are saying. Even some of my liberal friends are saying that if Trump’s talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un lead to reconciliation between North and South Korea, denuclearization, or other good results, he’ll be a contender. Less surprisingly, there’s a group of 18 Republican Congress members lobbying for him to win the award. But no. This is ridiculous, and here’s why.

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The Risks We Take When We Move Towards Isolationism

A photo of Donald Trump speaking at a conference

What do we risk when we take a quasi-protectionist/isolationist role in global politics? What are the unintended ramifications globally? In the face of increasing violence against ethnic minorities worldwide, it is hard for many human rights activists to digest President Trump’s foreign policy stance without addressing the clear violations of human rights in many regions around the world. For example, violence against the Muslim-majority Rohingya population in Myanmar has increased dramatically in past weeks. Despite this, no statements concerning crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing, which are both violations of the Responsibility to Protect UN doctrine, have been released by the White House.

In addition, a withdrawal from global promises like the Paris Agreement on climate change passes a terrifying tone for global security, signaling a passive foreign policy stance to issues outside the US’ immediate national interests. By reverting our foreign and economic policies to the pre-WWI status of protectionism and isolationism, we risk a retreat of our influence on global affairs, and eventually will have to accept that our importance as a global player will diminish.

To fully understand Trump’s foreign policies, his global economic policies, which reflect a form of protectionism, needs examination. Protectionism, widely defined as an economic policy aiming to benefit the producers, workers, and businesses against foreign competitors, largely shifts economic importance onto the host country. To accomplish the goal of protectionism, states use methods like tariffs on imported goods, restrictive quotas on foreign goods, and other forms of regulatory initiatives. Despite most economists’ belief that protectionism hurts businesses and consumers within the practicing state, Trump has largely shifted his economic and foreign policies to reflect the goals of protectionism, including his goal of withdrawing the US from the North American Free Trade Act, or NAFTA. NAFTA’s target is to reduce trade barriers between Mexico, Canada, and the US to create a comprehensive North American trading bloc, progressively benefiting each economy in the region.

Furthermore, economic protectionism can be accompanied by isolationism. Isolationism focuses on moving a state’s concentration away from a global level of analysis back into issues of national interest. This includes retreating from foreign conflicts and staying out of global issues. By focusing on domestic issues, some believe that the state’s overall health is improved. Despite these beliefs, in an increasingly globalized world where foreign affairs are deeply interconnected into nearly all lives, a foreign policy like isolationism sets a dangerous precedent because of its aftereffects on other countries. Moving towards a foreign policy like isolationism would revert back on decades of increased globalization and US hegemony, allowing many of the human rights goals attained in our post-WWII society challenged by competing rising powers, like Russia, China, and many others.  

Essentially, Trump’s foreign policy, often described as isolationist and protectionist, is focused on reducing influence in regions of minimal importance to the economic and global standing of the U.S. By taking this foreign policy stance, Trump (whether intentionally or inadvertently) fails to recognize certain atrocities against mankind, such as the conflict in Myanmar. Furthermore, he sets a tone that disregards maintaining the well-being of the global order by effectively saying that matters concerning issues like human rights and climate change have little importance to US interests, and are grounds for other countries to exercise whatever influence they want in those areas of security. By taking such stances, the US’s global influence begins to withdraw, allowing other countries to effectively carve their own stories into the post-WWII liberal order created by the US.

As a nation, if we continue with these types of foreign affairs and economic philosophies, we must inherently recognize that our influence worldwide will not reflect the kind of global power held since WWII. We will need to accept that many of the rising powers challenging our influence will eventually succeed us in certain spheres of influence. This will arise as a result of our inability to assert ourselves in global affairs. Although that is the route that our current president has decided to take, this does not mean that total global US influence will decrease within this presidential term. Changes within Congress in the midterm elections and the will of the people to actively voice their opinions on these philosophies have the ability to challenge the quasi-protectionist/isolationist moves made by the current administration.

Dissecting “America First”

President Donald Trump’s foreign policy has been labeled everything from isolationist to realist and everything in between. In maneuvering through the clues of policy that Trump has left us throughout his campaign and his presidency, a common thread can be found. This metaphorical thread is in some ways revolutionary — not necessarily in its existence, but rather in its blatant acknowledgement in recent mainstream American politics. This overarching theme is as harrowing as it is simplistic: American nationalism. Trump has centered his interactions with the outside world around the idea that Americans are the best, must be respected, are superior, and deserve more than their foreign counterparts — solely because of the land they happened to be born on.

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Trump’s Russia and Putin’s America

President-elect Donald Trump’s comments on Russian President Vladimir Putin have been a hot topic of discussion for months now. Trump has praised the Russian president’s leadership skills, noting that a renewed US-Russian cooperative relationship would be beneficial to both countries and to the world, specifically when it came to fighting ISIS. A Russian hack on the Democratic National Committee that resulted in thousands of leaked internal e-mails may have also influenced the election in Trump’s favor, leading to questions about the Putin-Trump relationship and concerns over election ballot hacking. Now that Trump stands to assume the presidency in a little less than two months, many Americans wonder what our future relationship with Russia will be. In order to understand what may come in the future, it is important to understand the beginnings of the Russian Federation – and how the United States may have had something to do with Russia turning from the West in the early 1990s.

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