Friday, August 28, 2009

"Realism": Still a Bad Idea - Part 1

It only took Foreign Policy Magazine a week to post a number of responses to Paul Wolfowitz’s recent invective against “Realism” and the way Obama’s foreign policy has been wrongly described as such. I thought Paul’s article was strong, and a necessary rebuttal of the more slanderous straw men “Realists” have been using lately to depict their adversaries. Yet it also lacked some of the theoretical distinctions necessary when talking about international relations theory, especially in a field with such an assorted lexicon.

David J. Rothkopf, one of my favorite FP bloggers, makes many of my points for me. He writes:
He frames the issue -- and some "realists" will no doubt dispute his approach but I think the issue he raises is worth discussing -- by observing that: "In the words of one leading realist, the principal purpose of U.S. foreign policy should be 'to manage relations between states' rather than 'alter the nature of states.'" He then goes on to point out that if your goal is to advance the U.S. national interest and to "manage relations between states," then you really need to consider from time to time altering the nature of states. Hard to argue with that, in my book.

If the objective is to advance the national interest and influence states and our ability to do so is limited and different from circumstance to circumstance, shouldn't we use every tool at our disposal to do so (assuming the use of the tool provides a net gain toward achieving our goals)? If so, influencing the nature of states or the internal workings of states is not off bounds for realism -- it is the beginning of realism -- it is the place where the effort to influence states begins.”

But I would go further. I think this type of "realism" is founded on a false assumption and a fiction. The false assumption is that the central work involved in advancing the national interest involves relations between states. This ignores the fact that states are only one among the many types of actors in the world who can impact our national interests. The related fiction is that borders constitute a kind of sovereign bubble and that within that bubble there is a kind of magical unity. Or at least that within that bubble all disagreement is trumped by the sovereign power of the state
Well said. Within the language of Realism, where national interests are always tangible and calculable, it is no surprise that “Realists” often view democracy promotion as vain naiveté pushed by idealists and simpletons.

I don’t suppose Realists lack a moral compass and don’t consider the importance of these morals in formulating and conducting foreign policy, but I do believe they place ethical concerns low on the list of central aspects to a serviceable foreign policy. This shortsightedness on the part of America and its foreign policy over the last few decades have left lasting negative effects on world affairs, our standing in the world, and our ability to protect our “national interests” in this day and age. Bob from Brockley hits it on the head in his piece on Ted Kennedy:
"Ted Kennedy was one of the few friends in the world of politics that Bangladesh had then. The Nixon government, pursuing the "realist" agenda developed by Kissinger, aided and abetted the Pakistani slaughter. This "realism" - supporting murderers and dictators as the "lesser evil" against some perceived geo-political threat, or standing back when no perceived geo-political "interest" is at stake - has been the default position of American and other Western states since the Armenian genocide.”
“Realists” rarely discuss how this hands-off approach to the affairs of others has negatively impacted our standing, and for good reason. Joshua of One Free Korea also has less than kind words for our “Realist” brethren. Writing about Iran and China, he argues:
China’s foreign policy, of course, is most deeply admired by a smirking clique of Machiavellians in the West who are fond of mislabeling themselves as “realists.” This school of thought is faddish today among grad students and think tank interns who think they’re just a fellowship away from being issued a box of Partegas and a key to the smoke-filled room where the civil liberties of swarthy peoples abroad are traded away for tariff agreements. They’re the progeny of those who invested our Iran policy in propping up the Shah despite his murderous Savak (I wonder if they can really explain how that’s served our interests since?). Today, they’d invest us in Ahmedinejad the same way, or at least stand conspicuously aside while the Basij does what it will. They’re the ones who disengaged us from Afghanistan in the mid-1990’s when the Taliban was taking over, and who still grovel at the feet of the Saudis, who’ve brainwashed half of the Muslim world with medieval nihilism. They’re also the ones who’d have fled Iraq in 2006 and left the next Afghanistan behind. What “realism” almost always means in practice is to the pursuit of short-term pecuniary interests and the path of least immediate resistance. The reality of “realism” is often little more than an intellectual veneer over poor impulse control and blindness toward the longer-term consequences of what seems easy and profitable today.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself, and his disdain for the way “Realism” has become so chic in IR circles is something I also find wearisome.

The moment after finishing Wolfowitz’s piece, I knew FP’s resident “Realist” would have something to say about it. My good old buddy Stephen Walt writes:
Contrary to Wolfowitz's claims, realists are not indifferent to moral concerns, including the virtues of democratic government and the value of basic human rights. There is no "debate" between realists and idealists over the desirability of these things in the abstract, and little or no disagreement about whether the United States should encourage such changes peacefully. I know of no realists who oppose the peaceful encouragement of core U.S. values, and Wolfowitz offers no examples of any.”
Oh, really? I won’t put words into Walt’s mouth, but I could post a litany of “Realists” who have little to no respect for democracy overseas, but one will do for the sake of this argument.

Michael Scheuer, who was CIA head of the Bin Laden Unit, represents the very distinct and familiar “Realist” position on a recent episode of Bill Maher’s program, where he argues democracy doesn’t matter (“It doesn’t matter to Americans if anyone ever votes again. We’ll get by just fine”) worth a damn and that America should never commit a single life or dollar to those beyond our shores. Michael is a man who takes the “national interest” angle so common among “Realists” to its natural conclusion. Bill Maher, in a rare moment of vigor, stated that he would not be “just fine” with the Scheuer’s application of American power. Thankfully, most American’s wouldn’t either.


bob said...

Thanks for the link. Excellent post.

That Scheuer sure is a horrible man!

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Great post indeed. Realists caused no end of tragedies in history, selling their friends for a temporary (by necessity) respite from the enemy.