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MAY 2016


Hippocrates and Hobbes, Assad and ISIS



any scholars and practitioners

view the current international

system as the embodiment

of Thomas Hobbes’ assess-

ment of the state of nature: anarchic at its

core. In such a world, survival is the central

value, and enhancing one’s own security

relative to others the guiding maximof


The words “first, do no harm,” although

not actually in the Hippocratic oath, are

widely considered a legitimate guid-

ing principle for physicians. They rarely

appear in the lexicon of statesmen, how-

ever, though President Barack Obama’s

foreign policy injunction, “don’t do dumb

things” (sometimes renderedmore earth-

ily), might be considered a variation on the

theme. Unlike the physician, the diplo-

mat’s primary concern is not to avoid harm

to others, but to himself and his fellow


Fortunately, most international trans-

actions do not occur within a Hobbesian

system, because they do not involve the

kind of life-or-death decisions that we usu-

ally refer to in the international sphere as

vital interests.

In this commentary, I will use the terms

“Hobbesian system” and “Hobbesian

rules” as shorthand for, respectively, the

state of nature and the human behaviors

Raymond Smith served as an FSOwith the State Department from 1969 to 1993.

His many Foreign Service assignments included tours as political counselor inMos-

cow and director of the Office of the Former Soviet Union and Eastern European

Affairs in State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. A longtime international

negotiations consultant, he is the author of

Negotiating with the Soviets

(1989) and

The Craft of Political Analysis for Diplomats



resulting from it that Hobbes posits in



Identifying Vital Interests

If vital interests are involved, Hobbes-

ian system rules presumably apply. But

what rules apply when the interests

involved are not vital?This is an issue that

Ted Galen Carpenter recently discussed

with regard to U.S. policy toward authori-

tarian regimes



Carpenter posits a spectrumof interests

ranging from vital to barely relevant, then

suggests that U.S. standards for relation-

ships with dictators should grow increas-

ingly strict as interests move down that

spectrum. Only on the very rare occasions

when genuinely vital U.S. interests are

involved should we enter into alliances

with regimes that have odious human

rights practices.

Putting this principle into practice

poses some practical problems, however.

The first of these involves reaching agree-

ment on where particular interests lie on

Carpenter’s spectrum. The second involves

deciding just how odious particular

regimes are.

U.S. policy has generally been less ethi-

cal andmore pragmatic than Carpenter

advises. Washington engages with dicta-

torships and authoritarian regimes when it

believes that significant national interests

require it to—and it has defined “signifi-

cant” to include interests that Carpenter

sees as barely peripheral.

For instance, the United States sup-

ported Hosni Mubarak in Egypt for three

decades. It supports evenmore brutal

regimes in Saudi Arabia and in the Persian

Gulf states, to name just a few. It seeks to

engage the Chinese leadership, not isolate

it. It asks all of themnicely—generally

behind closed doors—tomoderate their

policies around the edges, but does not

expect any of them to take steps that would

threaten their hold on power.

The hope, one supposes, is that over

time, out of this process of moderation,

will emerge constitutional monarchies, à la

Great Britain. That faint hope is the ethical

underpinning for an engagement policy

that narrows the universe of principles to

resources and interests.

It is a policy that is easy enough

to administer in quiet times, because

ethical principles take second place to the

recognition of power realities. But these

priorities are frequently stood on their

head when what appears to be a genuine

moderate reformmovement arises and

then begins to be violently repressed by an

authoritarian regime, as happened repeat-

edly during the Arab Spring.

In such times, the urge to do good, to

uphold ethical principles, may become the

dominant influence in policymaking. The

same inflated view of U.S. interests that led

it to support authoritarian regimes may

lead it now to advocate or support their