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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

The trouble with formulas

There’s no simple checklist for navigating foreign policy

The trouble with formulas

Kim Jong Un and Pompeo in Pyongyang, North Korea (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

Pity poor Michael Pompeo, our secretary of state. And while you’re at it, pity his boss, President Trump.

I don’t mean that altogether facetiously. With all the other issues the administration has to worry about, consider what it must be like to have to develop a coherent foreign policy in today’s fractured world.

For starters, tell me which is the tougher challenge: North Korea or Iran? Where do you apply the pressure points in such a confusing and inscrutable lineup? 

It wasn’t so long ago, keep in mind, that we were pouring our influence into Iraq so we could demonstrate—generously, of course!—that any expansionist ideas by Iran or Russia would be short-circuited indeed. But now we don’t know for sure just whose friend Iraq is.

Much of the time, Jesus’ teaching is crystal clear. But there are also many times in the Biblical record when He seems deliberately enigmatic.

It would be nice if there were a few clear-cut and reliable tests to help us decide who our friends are. Maybe you’ve heard one such formula—the one that says, a bit too cutely, that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Ironically, that particular ancient proverb is attributed to some Arab sage in ancient times, but came into frequent use by Allied forces in World War II. And in the Cold War that dominated the last half of the 20th century, the mantra took on almost religious terms. 

But you don’t have to be too experienced in foreign policy—or just about any kind of human relations, for that matter—to know how much trouble such a slogan can produce if you follow it formulaically.

Jesus could have included in His teachings, if He had wanted to, a short passage in the Sermon on the Mount to give Mr. Pompeo and his boss just the formulas they need to sort out the good guys from the bad guys. Jesus could have distributed checklists featuring 50 questions about foreign policy, added up the score at the end of the day, and put everybody in the right category.

You might even guess He was heading in that direction when He said in Luke 11:23, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” But, as usual, Jesus was challenging His disciples to engage in a little more thinking than a fill-in-the-blanks game would suggest. For just a bit earlier, in Luke 9:50, He also said bluntly: “For the one who is not against you is for you.”

Got that one figured out?

Much of the time, Jesus’ teaching is crystal clear. But there are also many times in the Biblical record when He seems deliberately enigmatic, appearing to encourage us both cautiously and modestly to think our way through various issues. A slogan or formula may, on the one hand, shed genuinely helpful light on a tricky situation. But wrongly applied, it can also lead us directly away from the truth of the matter. Especially when we’re tempted to look for simple ways to cut people off or to show how good we are compared with someone else, a colorful aphorism might seem like an appropriate tool. But that’s exactly when Jesus has another few words to slow us down. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone,” He says, reaching deep down into our consciences.

Not for a minute am I saying that God looks at Iranian dictatorships, North Korean tyrants, and an American constitutional democracy and then declares that all three equally reflect His attributes. But neither does He expect us to conduct our nation’s foreign policy with oversimplified slogans. A series of tweets is hardly a substitute for serious foreign policy.

Mr. Pompeo and his colleagues deserve our prayers as they work their way through such complex and weighty challenges.