Grace Phan Jones
A Friend of Virtue for Israel
The White House hosted Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain for the signing of diplomatic accords on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. What can friendship tell us about diplomatic relationships?
President Trump is fond of calling himself the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House—a claim that many Israelis, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have endorsed. From moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018 to now brokering the Abraham Accords, there’s no question the current U.S. administration has endorsed many of the longstanding wishes of the Jewish State.
But this then begs the question: does favoring the will of another actually constitute being a best friend?
Aristotle famously outlines three species of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics. One is a friendship of pleasure, another a friendship of utility, and the last a friendship of virtue. Each is defined by the thing that is loved, and each invites a reciprocal form of love in return.
Friendships of pleasure cover everything from bowling teams to one-night stands. While there’s a time and place for such affairs, they are not typically the reason nations associate with each other.
Friendships of utility and friendships of virtue, on the other hand, are very much manifest within international relations. One, in fact, is a frequent occurrence. The other is rare, covetable, and takes both time and mutual care in order to flourish.
In a friendship of utility, the other party is loved not for being herself, but for the way in which she is useful to the lover.
Acting as a counterweight to extremism in the Middle East, serving as an incubator of advanced technology—there’s no doubt Israel is helpful to the United States. Donald Trump is well aware of these uses, and from what is known of the current commander-in-chief, it seems a reasonable assumption that he may have some less elevated calculations in embracing Israel.
But the fact is, Israel needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Israel. So what keeps the two states united?
Aristotle notes that friendships of utility are quick to dissolve and will do so once the lover is done using the loved. If the U.S.-Israeli bonds are merely utilitarian, it does not bode well for the future of the friendship. This is likely all the more so in the case of Trump, with his track record of jettisoning formerly loyal allies once their use to him expires.
The saving grace? The United States and the Jewish State are unified by shared ideals that run far deeper than profitability. And luckily, although Trump—who has shown time and again that he cannot distinguish profitability from prudence—is currently the face of the nation, he is not one and the same as this nation. Far from it.
What has sustained the U.S.-Israel friendship for decades is, in fact, a friendship of virtue. Aristotle writes of the political necessity of this sort of bond: “Friendship seems to hold cities together, and lawmakers seem to take it more seriously than justice, for like-mindedness seems to be something similar to friendship, and they aim at this most of all and banish faction most of all for being hostile to it.”
Yet a friendship of virtue also imposes a higher standard of mutual obligation. To be a friend of virtue means one must strive to live in accordance with one’s best values—and dare to be held accountable to that standard.
Principled criticism is to be expected—and even desired—in a friendship of virtue. Far from a sign of weakness in such a relation, it is a testimony to its strength.
Americans would be well-served to welcome benevolent yet tough-minded advice from Israeli partners when the United States falls short of its potential. Indeed, some of the most thoughtful critiques of American foreign policy in recent years have come from Israel, motivated not by a desire to see Washington fail in the world but out of a conviction that the U.S. ought to succeed.
Conversely, however, this also means that Israelis must be open to listen to their friends in the United States, including when it appears to them that the Jewish State is falling short of the very principles that bind it to America.
In this respect, a friendship of virtue demands far more than a friendship of utility—yet in the long run, it is also vastly richer and rewarding for both sides.
Such distinctions, needless to say, are unlikely to resonate with the present occupant of the Oval Office. For the sake of the United States and Israel alike, let’s hope the Jewish state can get a new best friend in the White House soon.