In this companion post to Part IV of my foreign policy principles, I offer some means (far from exhaustive) of recognizing friend, ally, enemy, and foe. The ideas I describe may seem obviously simplistic; however, in light of the incoherence of the present administration’s foreign policy—and that of prior administrations post-Reagan—it seems that an enumeration is useful.
In general, in any dispute there will be those who are “with us” and those who are “against us”—and some will always try to sit out the affair. Of those who are “with us”, we need to know who is a friend, and who is an ally. An initial filter might seem to be a shared core set of beliefs. This characteristic is highly useful, but I suggest that it’s only a secondary filter whose value is greatest when used to assess the potential durability of a relationship and thus to help discriminate a friend from an ally; it cannot, though, define either.
What are the essential differences between a friend and an ally? The distinction lies in motive and purpose of the relationship. An ally is with us against a common foe, for so long as the joint opposition suits our individual purposes—the allies of WWII, for instance. Similarly, an ally is with us to achieve a common purpose for so long as the coordinated effort in the achieving suits us both—the building and manning of a space station, for instance. For a friend, these short-term common ends are irrelevant; indeed, we might not work together on very many endeavors at all. We simply associate with each other freely and easily. Our bond is deeper, and far less a matter of convenience.
How might we recognize a friend? A friend is a nation that moves to stand with us, that sends its assistance unasked in our moment of need, or that moves to stand with us in a conflict that has been thrust on us by another. Our common efforts—military, political, diplomatic, economic, etc.—are joint endeavors, not merely coordinated actions of allies. An example of a friend might be England and Poland, who stood with us in Iraq and Afghanistan despite their own misgivings about those wars or their duration. An example might be the United States, who at Japan’s request, sent an envoy to northern Korea to support Japanese efforts to recover their citizens, stolen by the northern Koreans in the ’70s and ’80s, despite the harm sending an American envoy did to our efforts to prevent this entity from acquiring nuclear weapons.
This is not to say that a friend always takes our side uncritically, although one might on occasion. Having criticisms and standing with us despite them is the mark of an even stronger friendship. Their doing so with criticism, though, puts a premium on us: it creates in us a moral obligation beyond our simple duty to reciprocate in their hour. We owe a friend thoughtful consideration of their criticisms; even more than that, we owe either a change in our own behavior where their criticism is legitimate, or a clear and unequivocal answer where we disagree with the criticism.
And that’s it. It’s a short list containing a single way to tell a friend, especially compared to the much longer list of ways by which to recognize an enemy or a foe. But that’s as it should be. Our friends are “high, bright, and clear,” while our enemies and foes lurk in the shadows.
How do we recognize an ally? Some recognition keys include offers, or accepting our offers, to work toward a common goal, whether this be sharing costs in a resource development project, or sharing financial data concerning a third nation of common interest. Recognition keys also include offers, or accepting offers, to jointly oppose a third nation or non-national entity interfering with matters of mutual interests. Nations working together to reduce piracy off the Horn of Africa are allies, for instance, as well as those nations of WWII mentioned above. Recognition keys further include willingness to permit over-flight, transit transportation, staging, and so on in their territory to facilitate our prosecution of a conflict or other endeavor. Granting basing rights to facilitate supply delivery to a combat zone is an example of an act of an ally.
While understanding who is our friend and who is an ally is important, it’s arguably even more important to recognize those who are “against us,” including distinguishing between our enemies and our foes.
An enemy is actively attacking us or planning to do so. The difficulty here sometimes lies in recognizing the attack. It isn’t always as open as a Schleiffen Plan’s storming across a border or an Operation AI’s aerial bombing attack on a naval base. In the 21st century, there are many more ways of executing an attack and of prosecuting the subsequent war than merely shooting at us. It might not even be a formal nation-state conducting the attack; rather the entity might be a non-national organization of terrorists. Attacks might consist of cyber-attacks that impede or destroy nationally critical networks or that plant malware to be used for this at a different time. Attacks might consist of economic embargos. Indeed, the war may be purely one-sided, ranging from the asymmetrical warfare perpetrated by non-national terrorist organizations to a war where only one side is actually fighting because the victim of the war isn’t even aware of it: those cyber-attacks, for instance.
On the other hand, our enemy may “merely” be carrying out a collection of acts, short of legally defined war, that are designed to harm our friends and allies or us to the point of tightly circumscribing freedom of action or even to the point of subjugation.
In particular, we cannot accurately estimate other nations’ relationships to us or their intent by actively offering excuses for their behavior (vis., the Chinese want sea bottom resources, and this justifies aggressively seeking control of the South China Sea, at the expense of that area’s other bordering nations: the Republic of the Philippines, The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and the Republic of China). On the contrary, such actions must be assessed, and their underlying motives must be estimated, by their effect on our friends and allies and on us. And we must understand that the other nation’s imperatives and motives may be nothing like ours. It is legitimate, despite this though, to assume that the other nation’s leadership, in taking those actions, are neither stupid nor ignorant; they understand fully the impact—and so the implications—of their actions on our friends and allies and on us. In essence, then, a nation’s publicly-stated intent is largely irrelevant; we must read their actions and assess their motives in light of those impacts.
How do we recognize an enemy, then? Only by recognizing the shadowy keys of inimical behavior. To repeat, understanding the other nation’s or non-national organization’s imperatives, so that we can (better, if still imperfectly) understand its motives, is critical, as is the fact that we must work from the premise that the leadership in question is highly intelligent and highly motivated: they know what they are doing, and they know the effect of their actions on us. We can infer their goals from their actions’ predictable effects.
What are our recognition keys? Acts of enmity include these (a non-exhaustive list) in addition to classic military attacks:
- deliberately restricting our access to critical resources—oil, for instance, or rare earth metals—for the purpose of damaging us.
- actively moving to seize control of international waters whose free navigation and/or freedom of access to undersea resources are important to us or to our friends or allies.
- harassing our ships in international waters or our aircraft in international airspace.
- shipping, as part of ordinary trade, poisoned products: formaldehyde-laced gypsum board, or toxic baby food, for instance.
- manipulating their currency value so as to damage our economy.
- attacking our computing and/or communications networks, or our computer-controlled infrastructure, with cyberware capable of damaging/destroying those targets, or planting malware that will be used “later” for that purpose.
- providing aid to terrorist organizations plotting, or which have carried out, attacks on us or our friends or allies.
- moving to facilitate the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by other nations or non-national organizations that are hostile to us and/or our friends or allies.
- actively arming those who intend to use those weapons against us or our friends or allies.
- directly threatening our allies with nuclear attack if we don’t comply with the threatening nation’s wishes.
- deploying nuclear weapons so as to carry out those threats.
As the number actions from this such a list which a nation or non-national organization carries out goes up, so does the clarity of that nation’s enmity toward us increase.
There is one more class of nation or non-national organization to be identified, and that is what I’ll call a foe. In this usage, I consider a foe to be an ally of our enemy, loosely analogously to an ally of us. A foe works deliberately against the interests of our friend or ally or of us as a common goal with another nation, but only for so long as that commonality of purpose exists. As with identifying an enemy, the recognition keys are shadowy and unclear by themselves. That list, though, is the same as the keys to identifying an enemy, with the single difference of motive. This difference is that the foe, of its own volition, is following another nation’s lead in the actions; it is not acting as the primary decision-maker. (As an aside, a nation or non-national organization forced into the role of foe, but which would not act inimically were it left to its own choices, represents a point of fracture within the enemy’s structure. This, though, is the subject of a different thread.)
There are two items which I have deliberately elided in order to maintain a certain clarity, and these are the overlaps possible between the actions of an enemy or foe and the actions of an aggressive competitor, even the (less common) overlap with the actions of a friend or ally. This overlap is a major factor in the need to understand the nation in question and its motives.
The other item is the nation that is neither friend or ally nor enemy or foe, mentioned briefly above. Such spectators are neutral in some sense, and by holding themselves on the sidelines, tend to render themselves irrelevant to the essentials of the struggles of the active players.