No visa for oil
Balancing values and interests
The New York Times has an article today on Teodoro Nguema Obiang, the forest and agriculture minister of Equatorial Guinea, who, despite being a corrupt foreign official, is regularly granted visas for travel to the United States. Internal government documents assert that “most if not all” of Obiang’s wealth comes from corruption. So why does the State Department fail to enforce the federal law prohibiting corrupt foreign officials from receiving American visas? The answer, claim a number of former U.S. officials: oil. Equatorial Guinea produces nearly 400,000 barrels of oil a day, mostly by American oil companies.
We’ve written on this blog about conflict among values (e.g. freedom and equality). Just as common is conflict between values and interests. In personal life, we face such conflicts all the time: when a grocery store clerk gives you too much change do you pocket the money or give it back? When you walk by a homeless person carrying a doggie bag of leftovers do you give it to them or save it for tomorrow’s lunch? Values and interests exert a constant tension on foreign policy – do we pursue our material interests in the world or promote the values we hold dear? Sometimes these two align (ex. foreign aid may help “drain the swamp” of violent extremism), but more often they come into conflict – call out human rights abuses in Russia or gain an ally in efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program? Promote democracy in Pakistan or further counter-terrorism efforts?
In Obiang’s case, the conflict is between punishing corruption and ensuring U.S. access to Equatorial Guinean oil and wealth for American business. So how do you balance the two? Do values always trump interests?
In numerous posts, we’ve considered a basic question of personal morality: to what degree must we dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of justice? In the foreign policy context, this “demands of justice” question becomes: to what degree must we promote our values as opposed to pursue national interests? In the philosophical literature, the answers to this question tend to demand great sacrifice in pursuit of justice, to the point of stopping only before falling below “basic sufficiency” or at significant risk of worsening one’s life.
However, in foreign policy, this requirement may be tempered. As we’ve addressed here and here, many philosophers argue for a “priority thesis”: that we may give priority to the interests of Americans over those of non-Americans. In addition, some argue that U.S. government officials (in their roles as the representatives of the people) have a moral obligation to promote the interests of Americans above those of others. These arguments provide a significant counterweight to the otherwise great demands of justice.
Determining exactly how the “demands of justice” issue applies to foreign policy and the limits that compatriot priority and government official obligation place on it require further study. But it is worthwhile to note that philosophy provides an answer to the age old challenge of balancing values and interests.
Photo by Flickr user hans_s used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.