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When we think seriously about foreign policy we think amorally. For foreign policy involves the battle of geographical space and power, played out over the millennia by states and empires in a world where there is no referee or night watchman in charge. The state is governed by law, but the world is anarchic - a realization made famous by the late academic theorist Kenneth N. Waltz of Columbia University.

In such a world, needs rather than wishes rule, and even a liberal power such as the United States is not exempt from the struggle for survival. Such a struggle means looking unsentimentally at the human condition, which, in turn, requires a good deal of unpleasantness. Boiled down to its essentials, here is the situation of the United States:

The United States dominates the Western Hemisphere and therefore has power to spare to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. It uses this power to secure the sea lines of communication and free access to hydrocarbons. In a word, the United States engages in the amoral struggle for power to defend a liberal international order. The end result is in a large sense moral, but the means, if not immoral, are often amoral - that is, they belong in a category separate from the one involving lofty principles.

For example, there is the Middle East, where the United States for decades during the Cold War and after supported dictatorial regimes. This was not necessarily moral, even though the passing of these regimes has in most cases led not to an improved quality of life for the inhabitants but to a worse one. Yet support for such regimes did indeed provide for regional stability, access to energy for the West and reliable sea lines of communication to and from the Middle East for both America and its allies. And this is not to mention the various peace treaties and disengagement accords that could only have been reached with strong Arab dictators.

There is nothing ironic or cynical about this. American presidents over the decades surely wanted the Middle East to be more democratic, but the needs of foreign policy outweighed their dreams.

In East Asia, the United States must support the military modernizations and buildups of former enemies Japan and Vietnam to balance against the rising power of China. Vietnam is not democratic, and Japan's democracy has featured veritable rule by the same party for decades. Vietnamese and Japanese military power could conceivably create problems for the United States in the future, especially given the rise of Japanese nationalism. But the needs of the moment, given China's very size and authoritarianism, demand these imperfect alliances.