Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy

Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy

by Amitai Etzioni

See All Formats & Editions

“Rarely have more profound changes in American foreign policy been called for than today,” begins Amitai Etzioni in the preface to this book. Yet Etzioni’s concern is not to lay blame for past mistakes but to address the future: What can now be done to improve U.S. relations with the rest of the world?
What should American policies be toward


“Rarely have more profound changes in American foreign policy been called for than today,” begins Amitai Etzioni in the preface to this book. Yet Etzioni’s concern is not to lay blame for past mistakes but to address the future: What can now be done to improve U.S. relations with the rest of the world?
What should American policies be toward recently liberated countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, or rogue states like North Korea and Iran? When should the United States undertake humanitarian intervention abroad? What must be done to protect America from nuclear terrorism? The author asserts that providing basic security must be the first priority in all foreign policy considerations, even ahead of efforts to democratize. He sets out essential guidelines for a foreign policy that makes sense in the real world, builds on moral principles, and creates the possibility of establishing positive relationships with Muslim nations and all others.
Etzioni has considered the issues deeply and for many years. His conclusions fall into no neat categories—neither “liberal” nor “conservative”—for he is guided not by ideology but by empirical evidence and moral deliberation. His proposal rings with the sound of reason, and this important book belongs on the reading list of every concerned leader, policy maker, and voter in America.

Editorial Reviews

International History Review

"Etzioni''s new book is . . . enjoyable (because it is well written), but also frustrating reading (because it convincingly shows how wrong some widely held assumptions are) for all those interested in most crucial issues of world affairs."—Rein Mullerson, International History Review

— Rein Mullerson

Henry Nau
"Etzioni's argument is a breath of fresh air in the current debate. Compared to most of his colleagues on the left, he is both more hard-headed about security and more understanding of the critical role of religion and moral culture in maintaining social order without violence. This book is a must read."—Henry Nau, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University
James J. Wirtz
"Etzioni offers a far ranging alternative perspective for the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Security First offers to be an outstanding and important work."—James J. Wirtz, Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School
Clifford Bob
"After foreign policy disasters from Rwanda to 9-11 to the Iraq War, alternatives to realist, liberal, and neoconservative shibboleths are desperately needed. Learned but accessible, sweeping yet detailed, Security First offers a distinctive approach that can help America forge a new path."—Clifford Bob, author of The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism, Winner of the 2007 International Studies Best Book Award

Shuja Nawaz
"An important, must-read book for the rising leadership in the United States, as it prepares for the crucial 2008 elections, a time for a change from the status quo, and for America’s friends around the world."—Shuja Nawaz, former Division Chief, International Monetary Fund, former Director, International Atomic Energy Agency, and author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the War Within
Jonathan Rauch
"An excellent book. . . . Security First argues that the U.S. should give first priority to exporting security, not democracy. A smart, ethical rejoinder to the neocons."—Jonathan Rauch, writer-in-residence at The Brookings Institution and correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly

International History Review - Rein Mullerson
"Etzioni's new book is . . . enjoyable (because it is well written), but also frustrating reading (because it convincingly shows how wrong some widely held assumptions are) for all those interested in most crucial issues of world affairs."—Rein Mullerson, International History Review

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
17 MB
This product may take a few minutes to download.

Read an Excerpt

Security First


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2007 Amitai Etzioni
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10857-6

Chapter One

Security First: For Us, Them, and the World

The next leaders of our nation-the next president, Congress, and opposition leaders-will have to come to terms with the demise of democratization as a rationale for U.S. foreign policy. Now is the time to determine which leitmotif can legitimate the U.S. role in the world. It is becoming ever more evident that democracy cannot be fostered by force of arms, especially not in poorly prepared nations; however, it is much less clear which overarching rationale could replace democratization as a justification for the foreign policy of the United States, more generally the West, and its various allies in the East.

I suggest that Security First foreign policy, drawing on the principle of the Primacy of Life, is both principled and pragmatic. At its core is the recognition that all people have an interest in and right to security, understood to include freedom from deadly violence, maiming, and torture. I argue in the following pages that this right is more fundamental than all the others, including legal-political and socioeconomic rights. It ought to be treated as a class unto itself.

The precedingstatements should not be taken to mean that I hold that the United States or other nations in the free world would be safer if their citizens gave up their various rights. These nations have effective police forces, domestic and foreign intelligence services, and powerful armies to protect themselves. True, in some limited matters even these states may need to be accorded some additional powers. However, this is called for only if there is compelling evidence that these powers are truly needed, and only if they are carefully monitored, with those who wield them being held accountable for any abuses. The places where basic security is most lacking are in the Middle East, in failing states, and in newly liberated states. Hence in the following pages I outline the implications of a Primacy of Life-based foreign policy not just for establishing security in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also for conflicts with rogue states (especially North Korea and Iran); for dealing with failing states (especially Russia); and for assessing under what conditions armed humanitarian interventions are appropriate.

One central point runs through all these applications of the core Primacy of Life rationale: instead of assuming that democratization will provide a political process for resolving various inter- and intragroup conflicts-and the terrorism they help to foment-in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, a Security First foreign policy is centered on precisely the opposite assumption, that democratization first requires security. Rather than assuming that democratizing rogue states will exorcise their aggressive inclinations, the United States and its allies should promise to forego coercive regime changes, and largely let internal forces lead domestic political progress. All of these points require elaboration. However, I must note that when I refer to "security," I mean basic security, the conditions under which most people, most of the time, are able to go about their lives, venture onto the street, work, study, and participate in public life (politics included), without acute fear of being killed or injured-without being terrorized. To seek full-fledged security, to obviate all threats, to end fear, puts us on the slippery slope at the bottom of which is a police state. Often "basic" will have to do.


Tragic Choices and the Role of Values

Neo-Con as well as liberal conceptions of the international reality share one key flaw: they greatly overestimate the extent to which one nation, even a superpower and even if accorded the full blessings of the United Nations, can reengineer the regimes of other nations. Neo-Cons believe that forced democratization is possible, as has been attempted in Iraq and Afghanistan, and before that in numerous places such as Haiti and the Congo. Liberals believe in the transformative power of foreign aid, debt relief, trade concessions, and support for reformers, peaceful regime changes that have been attempted in scores of nations. The tragic fact of the international reality is that both approaches to long-distance, large-scale social engineering have failed in most places. Liberal democracy is a delicate plant that grows only slowly under favorable conditions; it needs to be cultivated carefully by those who aim to live under it rather than by those who wish it for them.

Moreover, we cannot hide from the fact that painful and costly sacrifices must be made to achieve "merely" basic security. Ethnic cleansing often cannot be stopped without bringing home body bags (as the Dutch found out in Srebrenica). Enticing nations to give up nuclear arms or ambitions and cease supporting terrorism often entails tolerating illiberal or undemocratic regimes for the time being, provided that they do not engage in genocide, ethnic cleansing, or other atrocities. More generally, utopian goals of the sort pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan are best avoided, and promises and expectations are best moderated. It must be assumed that, whatever the pursued international project, it is bound to be tough sledding all the way.

To put the same crucial point somewhat differently, the brutal international reality often requires following what might be called a "second-worse" course, in order to avoid having to negotiate the worst one-a long way from the notion that our choices are between the best and the second-best. In short, ask not what international order you desire-but which you can hope to help achieve.

The preceding point is essential to all that follows. It is often ignored by politicians who make grand promises that cannot be realized, and by many individuals-especially can-do, positive-thinking, optimistic Americans-who shy away from hard choices. To highlight this point here are the results of an informal survey I conducted. When I asked fellow Americans for their reaction to a news item that someone was in a car accident, his leg was pinned down, and it had to be amputated so that he could be evacuated, the first response of practically all those I queried was, "Was there no way to save the leg?!" This was said often with considerable anger or dismay. I grant that this is a decent, humane response. One empathizes with the victim and wishes him, well, a leg. However, if such sentiments cause one to delay making the tough choices, causing the victim to bleed out, what has started as a well-meaning, good-hearted reluctance to act turns into a death sentence. It is my thesis that this is approximately what is happening in most places when foreign powers seek to impose regime change in the name of spreading their own, arguably preferable, political institutions and corollary values.

Facing the fact that international reality requires making very difficult, even tragic, choices, and accepting very imperfect outcomes, is not to deny that our ideals play a key role in this realm, similar to the one they play in domestic affairs. It is typically assumed that realism is the opposite of idealism, in that it is not encumbered by extensive moral deliberations. In fact, the kind of principled but realistic foreign policy I advocate (as distinct both from a policy of Realpolitik and from naïve idealism) has moral foundations all its own. It avoids squandering many thousands of lives and scarce resources in the pursuit of elusive or illusionary goals; it avoids delays in coping with conflicts that result from pursuing such goals; it avoids making promises that cannot be met, thus avoiding the loss of credibility abroad and at home-credibility that is essential for a successful foreign policy; and it avoids the hubris implicit in attempting to deliver more than one is capable of delivering, however sincere the effort may be. Thus a principled, realistic foreign policy might accept, for instance, a unilateral withdrawal by Israel from Gaza, even though a withdrawal following a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians was preferable. More importantly, such a policy would accept that bad regimes can improve their behavior in one area or another, especially in the foregoing of nuclear ambitions, without regime change-however desirable such a change might be.

The importance of a principled foreign policy, one that is morally legitimate and is widely perceived as such, has increased over recent decades and will continue to increase in the foreseeable future. Public opinion, whose support is often essential for a successful policy, is influenced by moral perceptions. Since at least World War II, the proportion of the public that is educated and involved in public affairs has grown steadily in free societies. In recent decades citizens have been entering politics in many parts of the world where they had previously been largely excluded. Globalization, the spread of worldwide communications (from CNN to al-Jazeera), the Internet, and NGOs are among the forces that lead people to think and act "globally." In this sense, one can now speak of a "global public opinion" that helps to determine which policies enjoy legitimacy.

A nation can choose to disregard global public opinion. However, such disregard will have real costs, as the U.S. government discovered during and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. While the United States paid for only about 20 percent of the 1991 war that forced Saddam out of Kuwait, it has been obliged to cover nearly all of the vastly higher costs of the 2003 invasion. South Korea, an important U.S. ally, turned from being supportive to being neutral, and Turkey refused the use of its land as a springboard for the invasion. Thus, for pragmatic as well as principled reasons, acting legitimately has become an ever-more-important component of an effective foreign policy. "Realism" and "idealism" are converging-a trend that in some ways renders the conduct of foreign policy more challenging. But hence the special importance of careful deliberations about what should be our first priority.

Moral Grounds for the Security First Approach

Security commands moral preeminence. There is a tendency to view advancing security as antithetical to civil liberties and individual rights, and to warn that in the quest for security a nation might become a police state. These are indeed valid concerns; every society must constantly give heed to the extent to which the protection of life can be advanced without undermining rights. However, one should not overlook the primacy of the right to security. Not to be killed, maimed, or tortured is the most basic of human rights. Significantly, life precedes both liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence's lineup of the purposes for which government is instituted.

The idea that all rights and privileges need not be lumped together and that they can be ranked hierarchically is a common one. The most widely followed distinction is between legal-political rights (such as the right to vote and freedom of speech) and socioeconomic rights (such as the right to education, housing, and health care). Security is usually considered a legal-political right, but I draw an additional distinction here between it and all the other legal-political rights. This step is necessary to enable me to formulate the proposition that on both principled and pragmatic grounds, the right to security is of the highest order, and its successful provision is more urgent than advancing other rights-in chaotic, failing states, in dealing with rogue states, or in situations where genocide or ethnic cleansing is being committed. It is widely agreed that the first duty of the state is to provide security-on the domestic front. With the international reality being even more brutal than the internal conditions of many nation-states, this dictum applies with special force to the priority that must be accorded to forming a stable global order.

Much of ethics deals with the question of which good deed is to trump the other when two good deeds potentially conflict, rather than with determining which deed is good and which is not. Saving life and limb on the one hand, and advancing the full panoply of legal-political and socioeconomic rights on the other, are both goods. One is naturally inclined to refuse to choose between them and to insist that both can be served. But the question remains: what is to be done if both cannot be served well simultaneously?

In such all-too-common situations, from the streets of Moscow in the early 1990s to those of Baghdad from 2004 on, the main reason that the right to security takes precedence over all others is that all the others are contingent on the protection of life-whereas the right to security is not similarly contingent on any other rights. It sounds simplistic to state that dead people cannot exercise their rights, whereas those who are living securely at least have the possibility of exercising more rights in the future. However, it is still an essential truth: when and where the right to security is violated, all other rights are violated as well. (I refer here, of course, to true threats to life, not to drummed-up or manufactured threats or to antiterrorist demagoguery.) The Security First principle does not favor curtailing well-established freedoms for marginal gains in security in London, Paris, or New York. But it does command first priority in places where people cannot walk the streets, work, study, or worship without fear of being bombed or kidnapped, tortured or maimed.

The claim that we ought to rank the right to security above all other rights is also supported by the observation that in the criminal codes of all decent societies, the penalties for murder, maiming, and torture are much greater than those for petty theft, discrimination, and other crimes. Such codes reflect the hierarchy of values which societies have developed through the course of history. These hierarchies reflect the heritage of a society's public philosophy, its judicial precedents, religious and secular ethical precepts, and, in more recent, democratic ages, the dialogues of its citizens with their representatives, and the findings of social scientists. This is also the reason that the prevention of genocide is now considered a much more legitimate reason for intervening in the internal affairs of another nation, than is, say, democratization.

The Empirical Case for a Security First Policy

The better that life is protected, the stronger the support is for nonsecurity rights-and not the other way around, as has been suggested by many supporters of the drive for global democratization, as well as by those who argue that regime change is required to make nations into peaceful members of the international community.

A review of public opinion polls concerning attitudes toward civil liberties following 9/11 indicates that shortly after al-Qaeda's attack on America, nearly 70 percent of the public was strongly inclined to give up various constitutionally protected rights in order to prevent further attacks. However, as no new attacks occurred on American territory and a sense of security gradually was restored, as revealed by the return of passengers to air trac, support for rights increased. By 2004-05, about 70 percent of Americans were more concerned with protecting civil rights than with enhancing security. (Granted, the polls are not fully comparable.)

Along the same lines, if an American city were wiped out tomorrow in a nuclear terrorist attack, rights would surely be suspended on a large scale (as the writ of habeas corpus was suspended in the United Kingdom at the height of the Nazi attacks, and in the United States during the Civil War). In short, this evidence, too, shows that the better that security is protected, the more secure are our other rights.

The same relationship between the right to security and all other rights was evident during the period in which violent crime rates were very high in major American cities. For instance, when Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates suggested that the riots following the Rodney King verdict might have been stopped had police officers "gone down there and shot a few people," many sympathized with his viewpoint. In recent years, as violent crime has significantly declined in American cities, a police chief who favored a policy that disregarded rights in such a summary way would likely be dismissed before the day was over. The safer that people are, the more concerned they will be for their other rights.


Excerpted from Security First by AMITAI ETZIONI Copyright © 2007 by Amitai Etzioni. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Amitai Etzioni is a Professor of International Relations at the George Washington University. Among his books are From Empire to Community, Political Unification Revisited, Winning Without War, and The Common Good. He served as a Senior Aid to the White House and as President of the American Sociological Association. He taught at Columbia, Harvard, and Berkeley. He was listed as one of the top 100 American intellectuals in Richard Posner’s book Public Intellectuals.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews