Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Stephen Walt on the downside of liberal internationalist foreign policy

I usually refer to Stephen Walt as a foreign policy Über-Realist because he's a leading representative of the "realist" school of foreign policy.

In Democracy, Freedom, and Apple Pie Aren't a Foreign Policy 07/01/2014, he makes this observation on bipartisan foreign policy faults:

But the real blame lies elsewhere. All three post-Cold War presidents have made their fair share of errors, but there is a common taproot to many of their failings. That taproot has been the pervasive influence of liberal idealism in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, an influence that crosses party lines and unites Democratic liberal internationalists with Republican neoconservatives. The desire to extend liberalism into Eastern Europe lay behind NATO expansion, and it is a big reason that so-called liberal hawks jumped on the neocon bandwagon in Iraq. It explains why the United States tried to export democracy to Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East, instead of focusing laser-like on al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks. It was the foundation of Bill Clinton's strategy of "engagement and enlargement," George W. Bush's "liberty doctrine," and Barack Obama's initial embrace of the Arab Spring and decision to intervene in Libya. It is, in short, the central thread in the complex tapestry of recent U.S. foreign policy.
He doesn't break it out separately, but part of the problem with liberal internationalism is that in economic policy its liberal in the classic free-market, let the billionaires and corporations do what they want sense. The economic aspects of foreign policy as seen in the so-called Washington Consensus in prescriptions for developing countries and in the eurozone has come to be known as neoliberalism. And its recommendations for lowering wages, drastically cutting pensions and public services and trade treaties that undermine democratic sovereignty have proved to be generally disastrous for those not part of the One Percent.

Walt also notes (my emphasis):

But the moral appeal of these basic liberal principles does not mean that they are a sound guide for the conduct of foreign policy.
Realism is more an academic than a political category. Foreign policy practitioners - diplomats, government foreign policy analysts, advisors, etc. - after the Second World War were fairly eclectic in practice. But all of them prided themselves on their hard-headed opposition to the Soviet Union, which was rightly or wrongly seen by liberals and conservatives alike as an existential threat to the United States. Once the nuclear arms race proceeded to a certain point, of course, both the US and the USSR were existential threats to each other in the most literal sense.

Broadly speaking, liberal internationalism in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson was the dominant foreign policy model in the Democratic Party, and to a large extent remains so today. It was liberal internationalist ideas tempered by pragmatic considerations that lead Kennedy to escalate involvement in Vietnam and later developed major doubts about its effectiveness and advisability. It was a liberal internationalist outlook that led LBJ to escalate the war into one involved major commitments of US ground troops. It was a liberal internationalist outlook that informed the criticism of the war made by Democrats like Robert Kennedy and George McGovern.

You can trace that line through the Presidencies of Carter, Clinton and Obama, as well.

The nationalistic isolationism represented today by Rand Paul, and the libertarians/"paleo-conservatives" has been an undercurrent in the Republican Party since the Second World War, and was dominant before that.

The mainstream Republican position after the war, though, was a conservative-nationalist version of liberal internationalism. Republican support of NATO and the United Nations represented the internationalist side of this Republican outlook. The Eisenhower Administration's notion of "tripwire/massive retaliation" in nuclear policy and "rollback" of Communism in Eastern Europe are examples of the conservative/nationalist impulse.

The Realist outlook also has variations, in both its academic and practical versions. Henry Kissinger during the Nixon and Ford Administrations practiced much more of a Realist foreign policy in relation to the USSR and China, as evidenced by McGovern's agreement with the basic lines of those policies in the 1972 Presidential contest. Whether their Vietnam policy was driven more by ideology, great-power arrogance or domestic political considerations is a matter of continuing debate. It would be hard to make a case that it was based on a small-r realistic assessment of the realities of the war.

By the first Bush Administration, the neoconservatives had developed into a major force in the Republican Party. One could argument that was already the case during the Reagan Administration. Their heritage from Trotskyism to Henry Jackson Democratic hawkishness to Team B and beyond were chronicled ably by many sources during the buildup to the Iraq War and its grim aftermath. Sidney Blumenthal describes the mid-2000s in The neocons' next war Salon 08/03/2006; he wrote about the neocons two days earlier in his book, The Rise Of The Counter-Establishment (1986). Jack Hunter presents a "paleo-conservative" view of the neocons in What’s a Neoconservative? The American Conservative 06/23/2011.

Neocons promote a frankly imperialist power politics, using the rhetoric of spreading democracy and opposing dictatorship to justify it. Leaving aside the remarkable cynicism some of their leading lights such as Richard Perle and Douglas Feith over the Iraq War, the neocons generally regarded the expansion and reinforcing of American power and influence as benign and desirable and value shows of "toughness" and "determination" in a way that considers war as a routine tool of foreign policy. They have been as suspicious of the UN as the John Birch Society mentality informing the Tea Party and Old Right Isolationism. They generally are anti-internationalist, in the sense that they have contempt for foreign alliances. Except in the case of Israel, whose most aggressive, warlike policies they support and want the US to support.

Realist theorist of international relations argue that the practice of nations tend to be based on patterns of behavior that in practice often override ideological considerations. Applying a Realist theory to foreign policy involves being aware of those patterns, using them to the advantage of one's own country, and being carefully empirical in evaluating situations. Dan Drezner gives a helpful description of this tendency in The Realist Tradition in American Public Opinion Perspectives on Politics 6:1 (Mar 2008).

He cites some of the best-known advocates and scholars of the Realist theory past and present, including Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer (The Tragedy of Great Power Politics), Andrew Bacevich (The New American Militarism), George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, Hans Morgenthau (Politics among Nations with Kenneth Thompson), Stephen Krasner (Defending the National Interest) and John Mearsheimer.

Drezner gives us a helpful reminder that academic purity isn't how politicians approach decision-making in noting that many of George W. Bush's arguments for going to war in Iraq, particularly the non-existent WMDs, sounded more like Realist arguments than either liberal-internationalist or neocon ones. Most of his article is devoted to challenging the assumption, which ironically Realists tend to make, that the US public is more attracted to idealist solutions (liberal internationalist, neocon) than to the Realist view. He references a number of studies showing that the US public in fact is generally sympathetic to some important realist arguments. It's especially interesting to me that he challenges the deeply flawed argument identified especially with political scientist John Mueller that the US public's support of a war is dependent on the amount of US casualties and basically nothing else.

Sumantra Maitra has an informative take on Realism and its competitors in U.S. Foreign Policy: Back to Realism International Affairs Review 01/13/2013. She uses capital-r Realism the way I'm prone to do. And contrasts it with what she calls the Romantic approach, encompassing both the neocon and liberal internationalist view. She sees an important turning point in US foreign policy with Reagan's famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, which included his famous line, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!" For Republicans, that is a great moment celebrated in Cold War triumphalism. Maitra sees its significance differently:

... Reagan’s Brandenburg speech in 1987 marks the direct shift from a foreign policy of confrontational brinkmanship at worst, and defensive detente at best, to the start of the absolutist promotion of the rhetoric of "freedom." It was the beginning of the all-encompassing idea of liberal democracy, more specifically Romanticism in foreign policy. Over the next two decades, foreign policy of major Western powers had two different directional approaches, neither of which can be defined clearly under Liberalism or Realism. For example, the immediate aftermath of the Cold War and most of the nineties was marked with optimism of epic proportions fueled by the belief in the inevitability of the Western value system and liberal democratic governance as the ultimate way to the future, multilateralism, and the emerging concept of humanitarian intervention.
She expresses great optimism that in the US and the West generally, the Realist approach to international affairs is winning out over the Romantic ones.

I'm not so optimistic on that score. But I do find myself attracted more to Realist analyses of foreign policy than to liberal internationalist ones or the neocon view. And I like Maitra's use of Romantic to apply to both liberal interventionism (a variant of liberal internationalism) and neoconservatism. Because in practice, they often join together to advocate for unnecessary wars and adventurism short of war. As Walt says in the quote at the top, "so-called liberal hawks jumped on the neocon bandwagon in Iraq."

It's also important to remember that foreign policy in practice is notoriously resistant to the application of any kind of dogma, including a Realist one. The Realist Hans Morgenthau, for instance, seriously proposed de-industrializing postwar Germany and requiring it to remain a "pastoral," agricultural country.

The "catch" in Realism's placing principles of national security aggrandizement at the center of their understanding of foreign relations is that national security, national well-being and expansion of national influence are all shaped to some degree by ideas, values and sentiments.

So even with Realism, the search for a dogma that can consistently guide policy in an optimizing direction will go on.

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1 comment:

Dunnerboy P said...

Sumantra Maitra is a "he" not a "she".