Thursday, July 19, 2007

Is Realism Realistic?

Jonah and Andrew Stuttaford are having a fascinating debate (Andrew pt 1, pt 2; Jonah pt 1, pt 2) over at The Corner on the topic of the idealism and the national interest. Andrew argues that the national interest, narrowly defined, is all a government is obligated to pursue - and all they should pursue. Jonah is having none of it.
Realists work on the assumption that government follow their national interests which they then define in incredibly narrow terms of power, security and money. In effect, realists are a breed of utopian because they expect governments to be purer than the people they represent.

Second, I think it is impossible identify clear and bright lines between what is morally right and what is right simply in terms of national interest. Cost benefit analysis is unreliable when dealing with the question of, say, whether we should honor a commitment to an imperiled ally or persecuted minority. We dishonorably abandoned the Kurds and Shiites during the first Gulf War in the name of realpolitick and we paid a price in terms of realpolitick later.

It's not really a surprise that I'm on Jonah's side in this one. The biggest problem with realism, narrowly defined to mean increasing power - latent and actual - is that it has often focused almost entirely on the near term. Little attention was paid to long term consequences. I'm currently finishing up Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present by Michael Oren - an incredibly interesting study that, among other things, examines what has driven American policy towards the Middle East. Oren shows how the quest for power and America's "faith" - that is, both religion and the more secular American values of freedom and liberty, have often come into conflict with one another in influencing American policy (and European policy, when he focuses on that as well).

He hasn't said it yet - maybe he's saving it for his conclusion - but one thing I've noticed is interesting. When power - or the threat of power - was used appropriately in pursuit of both idealist and realist goals, the outcome was generally favorable. A few examples include freeing the Americans held captive by the states of Barbary or intervening in Egypt to put down riots in which hundreds of Jews were killed - and then setting up clinics and shelters for anyone who needed them. In the latter case, the United States earned goodwill from both the British and French (for putting down the riots) and the Egyptian people (for the clinics and shelters) - and at no time before intervening could the United States have known the the results would turn out the way they did. A strict reading of the national interest would have cautioned against flexing too much military muscle in what the British determined "their" territory, especially at a time when Anglo-American relations were not at their best.

When power was used - or not used - strictly for narrow economic or political interests, the result did not fare so well. The first example was the Armenian genocide. Despite being urged by nearly all sides - including a bipartisan Congress - to intervene, Wilson refused. He did this for two reasons. First, he did not want to put the Western missionaries in the Ottoman Empire in a position of being harmed or used for blackmail. Though most people pointed out that they could just leave for a while, and then return, he still refused. The second reason was his desire to avoid having the fight the Ottoman Empire. In the end, the US still wound up at war with Germany, but Wilson still tried to avoid declaring war on the Ottomans. The result, of course, was hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions dead. Another result was America's comparatively small role in determining the political future of the former Ottoman Empire after the war. Instead of Wilson's 14 Points, we got European mandates - and we know how successful that was.

Which brings me to my next example. Wilson is often maligned for his policy of democratization, but what is often overlooked is that very little of his Fourteen Points plan - or his larger plan for self-determination and democracy - was ever fully implemented - especially not in the Middle East. He argued, "the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of an autonomous development." Instead, because of a combination of Congressional opposition at home and European reluctance to lose vast territories as well as their land and sea trading routes and, in Britain's case, their route to India, we ended up with the the mandate, this vague system whereby enlightened rule by the Europeans was supposed to ready the various territories for democracy - which would come at some unstated date. I'm not automatically opposed to this concept for developing states - a debate for another time - but needless to say, there was room for improvement on the enlightenment front.

So we'll never know if Wilson's immensely idealistic plan - fully implemented - would have worked. There is plenty of reason for doubt. There are other problems I have with Wilson's policies, most imporant of which was his emphasis on seeing national groups ruled independent of colonial rule, regardless of whether or not the leaders of these new entities were actually democratic - which they usually weren't. Nevertheless, I don't think it would have been worse that the outcome of the European policies, which were based solely on narrowly construed economic and political interests.

A final example of where narrowly defined self interest, absent any hint of idealism, has led the United States into a predicament was the founding of Saudi Arabia and the discovery of vast quantities of oil. I hate to bring this up less I sound like economic interests like oil aren't of huge importance. Nor do I want to sound anything like Chalmers Johnson, but there is something to the idea of blowback. When Ibn Saud conquered the Arabian peninsula and established the state of Saudi Arabia, the United States refused to officially recognize the state for a time due to the nature of the new regime and the means by which it took power. But that quickly changed with the discovery of vast quantities of oil.

From that point onward, little attention was paid to the nature of the House of Saud, with a few exceptions. When Ibn Saud asked for $10 million in Lend Lease aid during WWII, Roosevelt rightly pointed out that the program was meant to advance democracy in its fight against tyranny, and given the nature or his rule in Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud could get stuffed. For the most part however, all attention remained on the oil, and keeping it from the Germans during the war, and in times of peace, Britain and France. We see the result of these policies still today. Again, the vital importance of oil to our economy is not lost on me, but I think it also attests to the importance of American values in addition to strategic interest. Critics of democratization point out that elections in Saudi Arabia would almost guarantee Wahabbists in power and the creation of a virtual terrorist state. I'm not trying to draw a moral equivalence here with the terrorists, but surely we bear even the slightest bit of responsibility for the current state of affairs.

In closing, I should also mention that I think Jonah is right that "it is impossible identify clear and bright lines between what is morally right and what is right simply in terms of national interest." It may not be the national interest as realists define it, but its importance should not be ignored. If we avoid intervening - or even doing anything - in a genocide on the scale of Rwanda or Darfur, it's hard to convince people that American really actually cares about freedom or liberty or any of that "nonsense" - at least for non-Americans. That makes it all the more difficult to get the job done the next time we do have to intervene or engage in military action that realists approve of, because we've disillusioned so many people as to our intentions. Realists were critical of Bush not going to war with the UN, not because they had any love for the UN, but b/c it would have shared the burden, making it easier for the US (I find that debatable, but thats also for another time). Why they would want to make it more difficult on us to fight a war because they didn't want to fight in someplace like Kosovo or Rwanda is beyond me.

UPDATE: Andrew responds to Jonah here, and I think largely concedes Jonah's (and my own) point.
The Kurds and the Shia: You say that we abandoned the Kurds and the Shia in 1991 in the name of Realpolitik. Actually, no, we abandoned the Shia (we protected the Kurds, at least to a degree) for a mixture of reasons, not the least of which was the belief that we (and, remember, that much of the Gulf War coalition would have melted away) would not have been able to handle what might have been unleashed as a result. There are some who would say that the experience of the last four years would show that was true. We'll never know. In a way, however, this is all something of an irrelevance. It's rare that Realpolitik will throw up one, "right" answer. I could have made a case (and would have done, had anyone asked me) based on Realpolitik that the Coalition should have gone on to Baghdad. If they had done, and if it had worked (two big ifs), not only would a dangerous opponent have been overthrown, but a humanitarian disaster would have been averted.
So Andrew essentially argues that the decision not to help the Shia and/or to go on to Baghdad was made on an assessment of the national interest - and he's right, since driving policy at the time were the godfathers of realism Brent Scowcroft and James Baker. But then he also argues that he would have made the case, based on the national interest, that we should have gone on to Baghdad. In other words, an assessment of the national interest could yield two completely different outcomes.

What I (and Jonah) have been trying to say is that there are many ways to determine the national interest, and that the one that includes some rationale based on American values as well as power considerations will likely have the better result. Not always, but more often than not.

I would also add that the Shia revolted because we told them to, saying we'd back them. This was based on a combination of idealism (promoting freedom) and national interest (weakening Saddam's hold on power). It was only later, after the Shia revolt had begun, that we decided not to help them - and that decision is still giving us headaches today.

I think the best way to put it is that the "hard" realists, unlike idealists, may think democracy is a nice thing to have, but have little faith in the transforming power of American values. Idealists are not blind to the concept of national interest, they just argue that those values are an important tool for realizing the national interest.


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