Henningsen: Interests Versus Values

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(HOST) President Obama has said that U.S. actions in Libya were determined by balancing American interests and American values.  Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen considers another example of such policy-making.

(HENNINGSEN) Consider this situation:  economically dependent upon a commodity produced in a tension-ridden region, the world’s most powerful nation must take a position in regard to a popular revolt there.  Fighting an oppressive regime they believe dedicated to their extermination, rebels who control that valuable commodity proclaim their commitment to freedom and self-determination – values the world’s most powerful nation holds dear.           

But that supposedly oppressive regime asserts its sovereign right to suppress rebellion and warns outside powers against intervention.

Public opinion in the world’s most powerful nation is divided.  Economic interests incline many to argue for supporting the revolt.  Others oppose intervention, suspicious that the rebels may have an entirely different agenda.

The time was 1861; the indispensible commodity was cotton; and the world’s most powerful nation was Great Britain, which had to decide whether to take sides in the American Civil War.  Englishmen were sympathetic to the claims of rebellious Southerners that they were fighting for states rights against an overbearing central government.  The loss of southern cotton that fueled the textile mills of the English midlands meant economic depression, widespread unemployment, and social unrest.

When an overzealous American navy stopped a British steamer on the high seas and removed Confederate diplomats, Englishmen were outraged. Anger over the affair allowed many to turn a blind eye to England’s own violation of neutrality in building and arming ships for the Confederacy.

By the summer of 1862 popular sentiment in Britain ran heavily in favor of extending formal diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. Had that happened, a Royal Navy protecting British merchantmen seeking Southern cotton might well have come into conflict with a U.S. Navy determined to enforce the Union blockade of Southern ports.

But it didn’t happen – because of a presidential action we don’t often regard as a foreign policy measure: the Emancipation Proclamation.

President Abraham Lincoln challenged the South’s claims that the Civil War was about states rights, not slavery. In essence he said, "If that’s true, then you’ll honor this proclamation freeing the slaves.  Failing to do so will demonstrate that you’re really fighting to preserve slavery."  

As Lincoln knew it would, the Confederacy ignored the proclamation. This put Britain in an impossible situation. Loss of American cotton threatened economic and social catastrophe. But Britain had been a leader in abolishing slavery and was primarily responsible for eradicating the African slave trade. It simply couldn’t side with those dedicated to holding others in bondage.  Lincoln’s imaginative – even crafty – action forced it to act against its own interests.

In foreign policy national interests usually trump national values.  But Lincoln understood that at times nations must put fundamental values first. In maneuvering Britain to place values over interests, he protected both American interests and American values.

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