Friday, August 24, 2007

Neocons, Interests, Ideals and American Hegemony

It's become both amusing and maddening to watch the spread of the moniker "neoconservative" over the past 6 years. It started with a cabal of select members of the Bush administration - none of whom were in Cabinet-level positions. It has since come to mean anyone that is, or ever was, part of the Bush administration, with the possible exception of everyone at the State Department. That includes everyone from the President himself all the way down to the lowest political appointee at the most obscure government agency. The term no longer has any meaning other than "Republican" or "someone who thinks war is sometimes necessary" (The latter definition is used to rope in people like Joe Lieberman), and it is a monolithic entity with every member marching in lockstep.

To show the degree to which the actual meaning of neoconservatism has been lost to history, take a look at Matt Yglesias' attempt to rebut Jonathan Chait's argument that neoconservatives were ever idealistic (in the good way).
Now, of course, the original neoconservative foreign policy doctrine was to oppose Jimmy Carter's injection of a larger dose of human rights into US foreign policy and to argue in favor of more vigorous American support for anti-Communist dictators.
That is, of course, absurd. What would later be pejoratively labeled neoconservativism began to coalesce as a set of ideas long before Carter ran for president. Focusing solely on foreign policy, neoconservatives looked around them and found both the left and the right willing to make concessions to the Soviet Union under the mistaken belief that it was "here to stay." Democrats were trending towards the McGovernite wing, while Republicans were pushing detente hard. Neoconservatives generally backed Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Henry "Scoop" Jackson in 1972. By the 1976 election, many were beginning to make their way to the Republican Party, but the GOP nominee that year was Ford who, together with Henry Kissinger, had continued the policy of detente after Nixon left the White House. As a result, many neoconservatives once again supported Jackson in the primaries. Once Carter won the nomination, many still continued to support him, even if that support was less enthusiastic than the support for Jackson had been. The neoconservative movement to the GOP didn't begin in full force until 1980, after four years of Carter.

Then there's this notion that Carter "injected a larger dose of human rights into US foreign policy." What bothered many neoconservatives about Carter was his utter hypocrisy. He made a big show of opposing dictators and injecting human rights, and publicly opposed a few right-wing bogeymen like Pinochet and Somoza to show he meant it. But then he continued on supporting dictators, both right and left-wing, in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Indonesia, Philippines, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, China, Panama and elsewhere, including throughout the Middle East.

Carters made a number of mistakes in implementing his "idealism." Until he promulgated the Carter Doctrine, which came far too late into his term to make much of a difference, he made no attempt to link idealism to any concept of American strategic interests. He saw idealism as the polar opposite of force projection - two concepts that could never work together. As a result, his foreign policy was rudderless. He made the common mistake made by American presidents at least as far back as Wilson of believing that "human rights" meant "freedom from imperialism," but gave little connection between the actual type of self-government and human rights - to Carter, if it was self-government, it was inherently "good." What we wound up with was far from ideal - instead we had our president running around making nice with every tin-pot dictator other than the ones the left really didn't like, like Pinochet.

Yglesias does generally get the argument of the "second-wave" neoconservatives (Bill Kristol's generation) correct. This argument, roughly summarized by Yglesias, is two-fold. First:
Thus, standing up for our principles around the world will do good. They also believe that standing up for our principles around the world were enhance our predominant geopolitical position. We'll be doing well by doing good. "American foreign policy, should be informed with a clear moral purpose," they write, "based on the understanding that its moral goals and its fundamental national interests are almost always in harmony."
But not only are the interests of American hegemony identical to the pursuit of American values, but the pursuit of American global domination is what the rest of the world wants, too: "Most of the world's major powers welcome U.S. global involvement and prefer America's benevolent hegemony to the alternatives." And it's also good for the Republican Party, since "Over the long term, victory for American conservatives depends on recapturing the spirit of Reagan's foreign policy as well."
Naturally, Yglesias expresses disbelief at both of these arguments, calling the first "mighty convenient" and the second "confusion." He doesn't really do much to rebut these arguments though. The first argument brings me back to the review I posted last month of Michael Oren's Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776-Present. He argues that American success in the Middle East came when it "responsibly wield[ed] its strength and consistently up[held] its principles." Conversely, America's most spectacular policy failures came when decisions were made either on the strict basis of national interest with no acknowledgment of American ideals or when decisions were made based solely on idealism with little attention paid to strategic interests or power projection. For the most part, Oren argues that each president since Franklin Roosevelt has had successes and failures, but he is especially critical of the Middle East policy of five presidents, who were either too focused on narrow strategic interests, or too naive with regards to their "idealism." From my review:
[Oren argues that] US policy toward the Middle East cannot be based solely on a cold, detached realpolitik, but must also include recognition of American "idealist" values. At the same time, however, power and focus on strategic interests is a necessary component, otherwise American policy becomes aimless and consists of seeking peace at all costs. Oren argues that this (mistaken) approach was followed by presidents like Kennedy, Carter and Clinton. Let me add now, that lest you think this is some partisan screed, Oren is equally as critical of Republican administrations and saves some of his harshest criticism for Nixon and Reagan, the latter of which he argues (and I would tend to agree) pursued the very realpolitik policies in the Middle East that he denounced in US policy toward the Soviet Union.
I add:
There seem to me to be two additional lessons to learn from Oren's history, that he doesn't get into, beyond the appropriate balance between power and ideals. The first, which I've already touched on, is that many of the headaches America experienced in the region came not from a failure to apply "ideals" to foreign policy, but a mistaken notion of what those ideals were. This goes back at least as far as Wilson, who argued for self determination and an end to colonialism, but failed to take into account the nature of the regimes that would replace the colonial administration. As I've mentioned, independence is a necessary ideal, but not sufficient on its own. It must also be accompanied by some sort of legitimate rule whereby the needs and desires of the people are appropriately addressed by the government. From Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy in Egypt, through to Carter throughout the Middle East, Reagan in the Palestinian Territories and Bush 41 in Kuwait after the Gulf War, American policy has addressed "ideals," but has done so incorrectly. As a result, the outcome is often worse, both for the people of the country and for US strategic interests, than what came before.

The second lesson one could draw from Oren's history is that when American policymakers have pursued strategic interests with little regard to American values, they mistakenly assumed that the dictators had the same interests as the United States, and that they would act in good faith. Time and again this proved to be false, as Nasser turned against the US after we had sided with him against our traditional allies; as continued attempts to negotiate with Arafat proved fruitless as he continued to support terrorism, whether covertly or overtly; as Iran failed to uphold its end of the bargain it reached with the Reagan administration to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon; and as Saudi Arabia continued to fund anti-Western Wahabbist propaganda that would eventually inspire terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Americans.
It really is remarkable how cleanly American foreign policy in the Middle East fits into these three paradigms - strategic interests, rudderless idealism, or linking interests with ideals - and how few of the policies based on the first two were successful compared to policies based on the last one. Neoconservatives do not disavow policy based on strategic interest - but they see American ideals as some of the most valuable tools for formulating policy to achieve those strategic interests.

As for Yglesias' incredulity at the idea that the world might welcome American leadership, or at least not actively oppose, there really isn't much empirical evidence to lend credence to that disbelief. Let's start with history and basic IR theory. Realists argue, and the historical record does tend to support this, that anytime a single state gains too much power at the expense of the rest of the international system, a coalition will form that will balance against the hegemon. Realists face an unfortunate problem, however, when forced to explain why no such coalition has formed to balance American hegemony. To some degree this is because of barriers intrinsic to the relationship between other powers, such as the numerous obstacles - historical, demographic, geopolitical and military - keeping Russia and China from forming some kind of military coalition to balance against the United States.

As many have argued, however, this lack of a balancing power or coalition is also due to the nature of American hegemony that makes it different from past hegemons. The United States provides public goods that offer economic, security and political reasons not to actively try to balance against the United States. Even if they are not thrilled with a hegemonic America, even if they wish , say, that France or Germany or India held equal or greater power than the United States, when faced with reality and forced to consider a world with a hegemon other than the United States or a bipolar/multipolar world with Russia, China or some other country holding the same amount of power as the United States, many reach the conclusion that a hegemonic America is the best alternative. They recognize that the international system with the US as a hegemon is far more conducive to their interests than any of the likely alternatives.

Not wanting to give up on balancing, many realists tried to work their way around this predicament. Kenneth Waltz has been arguing for years that multipolarity is just around the corner. A more feasible argument has been that other countries have turned to this idea of "soft balancing," whereby they might not be able to balance against the US militarily, but would utilize other forms of economic and political power to inhibit America's ability to carry out its foreign policy and counter its hegemony. This concept hadn't been around for very long before academics of varying ideological stripes began expressing their skepticism. It appeared all the examples used by the soft-balancing advocates of how countries were trying to make life hard for America either never occurred or failed miserably in preventing the United States from implementing the parts of its foreign policy with which they disagreed.

Maybe Yglesias has a better answer, I don't know. But he has to come up with something more than writing it off as "confusion." For all the protests from Europe about President Bush, for all the insistence of former Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov - long before Iraq, and under a different American President - that we already lived in a multipolar world, for all the claims that Iraq was a watershed moment in US hegemony - after which everything would change, and for all the claims that the EU is poised to become the new superpower, you simply can't explain away the fact that the few attempts there have been to counter American hegemony have been infrequent, half-hearted and entirely ineffective. Furthermore, these infrequent and weak attempts at balancing American hegemony are far outnumbered by the countless times the United States has been expect to act to counter genocide, tyranny, the effects of natural disasters and just about every other kind of human suffering in one corner of the globe or another.

What possible explanation is there for this reality other than that, while the world might not always agree with the United States, and may sometimes strongly disagree with it, nevertheless sees the alternative(s) to American hegemony, and have no care for them even less.


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