When Principles and Profits Collide

One of the peculiarities of international policy occurs at the intersection of principles and profits. It is interesting to observe just when, where and for what reasons policymakers determine that a country’s actions and policies are so objectionable that they provoke political action, boycotts or other manifestations of displeasure.

North Korea’s cruel gulag system, for example, its nuclear ambitions and its bellicose behavior towards its neighbors are among the reasons for sanctions imposed against it by many other nations.

Iran’s determined effort to achieve nuclear capability, together with its antagonism towards Israel and its history of support for organizations like Hezbollah have put it squarely in the cross-hairs of multilateral sanctions.

Yet the clearly objectionable political behavior of some countries does not provoke the same reactions among the international community. The Castro regime(s)’ persecution of dissidents and other human rights violations in Cuba, for example, seem only to upset policymakers (or, perhaps more accurately, politicians) in the United States.

Indeed, the international community displays a kind of selective myopia when it comes to putting sanctions where its profits are.

China’s policies towards Tibet, for example, do not rise to the level of international condemnation (at least in terms of provoking sanctions.) Nor does China’s repression of dissident artists such as Ai Weiwei provoke action beyond statements of concern.

Russia’s heavy-handed imprisonment of the activist artistic group Pussy Riot has prompted statements of concern, but little else.  Suspected official involvement in the murders of investigative journalists raises eyebrows and ire, but little else.

Yet much of the world is outraged at Israel’s actions in the West Bank and with respect to Gaza. Official outcry and organized “BDS” movements are ubiquitous. Targeting Israel seems to be an easy call for the international community.

So what is the rationale for imposing sanctions or condemning acts that are clearly inimical to human rights? Why do some countries and policies get a free pass, while others are constantly on the defensive?

Is it reasonable to expect consistency in foreign policy, or will such decisions inevitably be colored by the financial stakes, the size of the market, domestic political impact or other larger geopolitical concerns that require us to avert our eyes in the face of obvious injustice?

I think I know the answer, and I understand why it is the case.

None of us were born yesterday, but it is still difficult to say it out loud.

When profits and principles collide, the result is seldom pretty.