Thursday, February 19, 2009

This is "Realism"?

Political labels are funny things; in an attempt at clarity, we try to pigeonhole one’s ideas into a specific depiction, and are often self-defeating in that when applying said label, little depth is often added to a debate. Frequently, applying a label to an idea or an individual is done in a pejorative manner; fascist, communist, and neocon have all lost their practical uses in public dialogue. On the other hand, I am a stickler for accurate descriptions and I do find if applied properly, they can be helpful in unfolding a broad and diverse set of ideas.

But I will never understand how the “realists” in the international theory realm picked up such a superb moniker to describe their philosophy.

Having spent the last year studying some of the chief “realist” figures in the international relations field with one of the more prominent “realist” schools in America, I will say that I find some of broader arguments about power on the state level made by the “realists” to be quite valuable in understanding state-to-state affairs. I also generally like the “realist” approach to confronting an issue; they pride themselves on thinking sensibly and not giving in to idealistic or spiritual flares when considering a policy, and there is something to be said of those who can make decisions in such a way. A cool head is never been out of style in my eyes.

But thanks to the blogging era, I am often reminded why I have such a fervent aversion for what “realist” describe as a sound argument. Kenneth Walt, “realist” extraordinaire writes about Afghanistan:
In fact, we have only one vital national interest in Afghanistan: to prevent Afghan territory from being used as a safe haven for groups plotting attacks on American soil or on Americans abroad, as al Qaeda did prior to September 11. It might be nice to achieve some other goals too (such as economic development, better conditions for women, greater political participation, etc.), but these goals are neither vital to U.S. national security nor central to the future of freedom in the United States or elsewhere. Deep down, we don't (or shouldn't) care very much who governs in Afghanistan, provided they don't let anti-American bad guys use their territory to attack us.”
The incredible simplicity of this world view, that sees national interests in such stagnant and inflexible terms, I find baffling. Walt has made a career of belittling neo-conservatives as of late, but for a man who has been schooled in history by some of America’s most reputable institutions, he seems to suffer from a peculiar form of amnesia. The Cold War was marked by the very “realism” Walt would like to see America return to; one where democracy promotion was an afterthought and the world was so much safer. Islamic terrorists and nationalist despots were accepted, as long as they didn’t attack us directly and if they maintained stability. They generally did neither, but Afghanistan took this failure in foresight to whole new levels.

Many critiques can be made of America’s foreign policy over the last 8 years, and the neo-conservatives and their ideas should be examined and assessed. There are limits to what intervention can do, and with the current financial crisis, the chances are that America will step back from its commitments to democracy promotion due to overstretch. “Realist” critiques of the Bush’s foreign policy will be important, but its proponents should not fool themselves into thinking their arguments stand on firm ground. Walt wants to get on his high horse and declare to humankind that the “realist” track record for explaining world conflict and making it a safer place is anything but pedestrian, and it’s utterly laughable. The basic arguments behind his specific branch of realism are statistically and observably false, and key predictions by “realists” don’t fair much better. The United States may be experiencing overstretch, but Walt does so on a daily bases by continuing the lie that his ideas see the “world as it is”, and that his opponents are nothing more than star eyed idealistic morons who lack clarity.

So should we care who governs Afghanistan? Terry Glavin brings to my attention a recent study that found 82 percent of Afghanistan is in favor of “the current government,” with only 4 percent wanting the Taliban in charge. I could include a litany of terrible deeds done by the Taliban to explain this, but the following act continues to stick out in my mind as the very representation of the Taliban’s worldview.
Even amid the everyday brutality of war, it was an especially horrific attack: Assailants splashed battery acid on a group of Afghan girls earlier this month, punishing them for going to school.”
A cheap point perhaps; even an ardent anti-war activist can recognize the extreme brutality and backwardness in that crime. But folks like Walt, who believe they see the “world as it is” should be reminded of this very real crime done to very real school children when they argue that we really shouldn’t concern ourselves with who rules a nation. The Afghans don’t want them, but the very group that carried out this attack, and pulls minimal support from the populace could very well take control of the country again. A group that allowed and fostered terrorist groups to attack the United States and its people, and that will surely do so again if given the opportunity.

There is surely more to say on this subject, and I will elaborate on some of the points made here in the future. At the heart of this whole debate is how one defines a national interest. I believe the people of Afghanistan are a “national interest” and worth committing support to; Walt does not. It isn’t that I am honorable and he is evil, it is simply that he does not see the wellbeing of the Afghan people as a matter that concerns America and its government. I believe that to be myopic in its characterization of interests.

For the time being, I will leave with what I feel is America’s true national interest, by one of its greatest presidents.

"Our attachment to no nation upon earth should supplant our attachment to liberty." - Thomas Jefferson (Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms)


Michael said...

Well done, Roland. Realists have been given a pass in the media the last few years and the record should be set straight.

Roland Dodds said...

Thanks Michael. There is a lot to be said on this subject, and something I write a lot about in my professional life, but I think the blogging field exposes folks like Walt to a much larger audience and direct criticism than the scholarly texts that appear in journals read only by other scholars. I hope everyone defending the democratic tradition reads and confronts Walt and his followers more exuberantly.