Monday, January 24, 2005

Rorshach Realism

Much ink has begun to flow over the "true intent" of President George W. Bush's Inaugural Address. In particular, the "muscular ideational realists" (my term to get around the label debate on "neo-conservatives") seem to think that the speech was meant as a massive sea change in American foreign policy. Others, particularly "international realists" -- as opposed to "nationalist realists" (note to self: expand on these categories later) -- see it more as a long-term intent statement.

Of the muscular ideational realists, David Brooks of the New York Times and Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment on International Peace's positions are illustrative. According to Brooks:

Two years from now, no one will remember the spending or the ostrich-skin cowboy boots. But Bush's speech, which is being derided for its vagueness and its supposed detachment from the concrete realities, will still be practical and present in the world, yielding consequences every day. With that speech, Bush's foreign policy doctrine transcended the war on terror. He laid down a standard against which everything he and his successors do will be judged.

When he goes to China, he will not be able to ignore the political prisoners there, because he called them the future leaders of their free nation. When he meets with dictators, as in this flawed world he must, he will not be able to have warm relations with them, because he said no relations with tyrants can be successful. His words will be thrown back at him and at future presidents.

American diplomats have been sent a strong message. Political reform will always be on the table. Liberation and democratization will be the ghost present at every international meeting. Vladimir Putin will never again be the possessor of that fine soul; he will be the menace to democracy and rule of law.

Because of that speech, it will be harder for the U.S. government to do what we did to Latin Americans for so many decades - support strongmen to rule over them because they happened to be our strongmen.

Kagan, for his part, notes:

Bush still asserts that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." But in his inaugural address he has taken a step beyond that. In this third phase he has grounded American foreign policy in universal principles, in the Declaration of Independence and what Lincoln called its "abstract truth, applicable to all men at all times." The goal of American foreign policy is now to spread democracy, for its own sake, for reasons that transcend specific threats. In short, Bush has unmoored his foreign policy from the war on terrorism.

This is where Bush may lose the support of most old-fashioned conservatives. His goals are now the antithesis of conservatism. They are revolutionary. But of course -- and this is what American conservatives have generally been loath to admit -- Bush's goals are also deeply American, for the United States is a revolutionary power. Bush has found his way back to the core, universalist principles that have usually shaped American foreign policy, regardless of the nature of the threat. "The great struggle of the epoch [is] between liberty and despotism," James Madison asserted in 1823, and Americans from the founders onward have viewed the world in terms of that struggle.

Many will take a cynical view of Bush's latest pronouncements, and cynicism is an understandable response. Truman's 1947 declaration that "It must be the policy of the United States to support free
peoples" was soon followed by close ties with Spain's fascist dictator, Francisco Franco. Kennedy's inaugural pledge to "pay any price, bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty" did not keep him from supporting friendly dictators in Latin America. And when Reagan announced a "global campaign for freedom" in 1982, he had the Soviet bloc in mind, not Ferdinand Marcos, Augusto Pinochet or the military junta in South Korea.

But presidential rhetoric has consequences. Contrary to his initial instincts, Reagan wound up pulling the rug out from under those friendly dictators, propelled by his own publicly stated democratic principles. Bush may be thinking about Iran and some Arab dictatorships, not China. But the next time China locks up a dissident, or Vladimir Putin further curtails Russian freedoms, people will remind Bush about his promise that "America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains."

I believe Bush understands the implications of his universalist rhetoric. In Ukraine, Bush chose democracy over his relationship with Putin -- a first example of a paradigm beyond the war on terrorism. In Asia, too, we may be on the threshold of a strategic reevaluation that places democratic allies, not China, at the core of American strategy.

From the international realist position see former head of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department and current president of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard N. Haass's op-ed in today's Washington Post. In particular:

Promoting democracy can also be useful as one component of the campaign against terrorism. Young men and women who are more involved in their societies and less alienated from their governments might see more reason to live for their causes than to kill and die for them. With luck, they might choose to become teachers rather than terrorists.

But there are more reasons to conclude that it is neither desirable nor practical to make democracy promotion the dominant feature of American foreign policy. The bottom line is that while the nature of other societies should always be a foreign policy consideration, it cannot and should not always be the foreign policy priority.

To begin with, democracies are not always peaceful. Immature democracies -- those that hold elections but lack many of the checks and balances characteristic of a true democracy -- are particularly vulnerable to being hijacked by popular passions. Post-communist Serbia is but one illustration of the reality that such countries do go to war.

It is also difficult to spread democracy. It is one thing to oust a regime, quite another to put something better in its place. Prolonged occupation of the sort the United States carried out in Japan and West Germany after World War II is the only surefire way to build democratic institutions and instill democratic culture. But as Iraq demonstrates, the rise of modern nationalism and modern methods of resistance means that such opportunities will be rare, costly and uncertain to succeed, despite an investment of billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

So, what position is more convincing? For me, I tend toward the Haass line. (For the record, I like to think that I am somewhere between the muscular ideational and international realist perspectives -- leaning more toward the latter.) I found this portion of the Inaugural Address most salient:

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.

The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations. The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it. America's influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause. (Emphasis added.)

In other words, this is the President's intent and it provides some underlying guidance for the conduct of American foreign policy, but that does not mean that it is dogma that should and must drive every course of action. I have always thought that Walter A. McDougall, author of Promised Land, Crusader State and Freedom Just Around the Corner (full disclosure: he is also a Senior Fellow at the FPRI), made a convincing argument about the muscular ideational realist position by way of a discussion of that perspective's views of Reagan Administration foreign policy in a piece that he wrote in response to William Kristol and Robert Kagan's Foreign Affairs piece "Toward A Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy." McDougall wrote:

Having thus set the stage with a less than accurate historical backdrop, Kristol and Kagan move on to define their neo-Reaganite foreign policy. Now that the “evil empire” is vanquished, they write, the U.S. must aspire to exercise a “benevolent American hegemony.” For never has the U.S. had such a golden opportunity to promote democracy and free markets abroad, while Americans themselves “have never had it so good.” Hence, the “appropriate” goal of the United States should be “to preserve that hegemony as far into the future as possible.” The authors dismiss those gloomsters who warn of imperial overstretch or the danger of conjuring enemies, and call instead for a sharply increased U.S. defense budget “to preserve America’s role as global hegemon”; measures to enthuse the American people, perhaps through some form of military conscription; and a bluntly moral foreign policy that aims at “actively promoting American principles of governance abroad.” After all, the revolting alternative would be to pursue business as usual with authoritarian states such
as China, and such “Armand Hammerism should not be a tenet of conservative foreign policy.”

To all that I would say, first, that “benevolent hegemony” is a contradiction in terms. Such a self-conscious, self-righteous bid for global hegemony is bound to drive foreign rivals into open hostility to the U.S. and make our allies resentful and nervous. Secondly, the authors' argument again ignores the historical record, which demonstrates that U.S. diplomacy has been most successful when it weighs in against would-be hegemons such as Germany and the Soviet Union for the purpose, as John F. Kennedy said, “to make the world safe for diversity.” But Kristol and Kagan would have us arrogate to ourselves a hegemony for the purpose of making the world over in our image. Thirdly, there is a huge difference between promoting democracy for the purpose of undermining an aggressive dictatorial enemy, and turning some authoritarian country into an enemy because it is laggard in embracing American values.

Which methodology did Reagan employ? Clearly the former one, and if you are inclined to doubt that, just try to imagine a secret staff meeting in which Reagan, Alexander Haig, Caspar Weinberger, Bill Casey, Richard Allen, Fred Ikle, Richard Perle, and Richard Pipes— tough-minded strategists all— indulge fantasies of a U.S.-policed Wilsonian New World Order? No, Reagan’s genius lay in his recognition that freedom-fighting rhetoric backed (unlike Jimmy Carter’s) by military strength and deft geopolitics is a mighty weapon of war against tyranny, but not any sort of utopian blueprint. If anything, Reagan was remarkably cautious about interventions abroad, as evidenced by the fact that he sent forces abroad fewer times in eight years than Clinton did in four. Yet Kristol and Kagan would have us believe that the purpose of Reagan’s campaign to bring down the Soviets was to supplant their ideological hegemony with one made in the U.S.A.

Prediction: Muscular ideational realists will continue to point the address as evidence that American grand strategy has shifted. International and nationalist realists will point to it as more of underlying context about American society that helps shape strategy. All three schools will continue to fight it out and look to and point to every foreign policy pronouncement to argue that their position is in the ascendence, stuck in neutral, or declining. This cycle will then drive more debate and pronouncements.


Blogger J. said...

Muscular ideational realists? Never going to catch on, Anthony. There may be a tug-of-war as to whose star is on the ascendant and whether Bush's grand strategy is succeeding, but my prediction is that this speech will go down right next to the "manned mission to Mars" speech of early 2003. That is to say, Bush may have a dream, but it is unrealistic and the U.S. government will not have the resources, manpower, or patience to execute it. By this time next year, it'll be a footnote for his future library.

Did you see the WaPo article on Bush's trip to Canada?

When Bush agreed to go to Ottawa after the November election, the gesture was seen in Canada as a long-overdue olive branch. Like France and Germany, Canada broke from the United States over the Iraq war and felt alienated from Washington. Martin, the new prime minister, was eager to smooth the waters.

To avoid any unpleasantries, Martin sacked a shrill critic of Bush from his governing party, and Bush aides steered the president away from speaking to Parliament, where he might have been heckled. Canadian officials said their U.S. counterparts assured them that Bush would not put Martin on the spot on his refusal to join the U.S. missile defense system.

But Bush did confront Martin and used the sort of language that sets Canadians on edge. "He leaned across the table and said, 'I'm not taking this position, but some future president is going to say, 'Why are we paying to defend Canada?' " said the senior Canadian official who was in the room and noted that he had been assured by Rice and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell personally that Bush would avoid the subject.

"Most of our side was trying to explain the politics, how it was difficult to do," the official said. But Bush "waved his hands and said, 'I don't understand this. Are you saying that if you got up and said this is necessary for the defense of Canada it wouldn't be accepted?' "

Is this what a "muscular ideational realist" does? Yeah. Way to push that winning attitude on your allies. Can't wait to see him advance democracy elsewhere.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Um, this was my post, not Anthony's. I can assure you, he and I are separate individuals.

2:06 PM  
Blogger J. said...

Akkk. My bad. Many, many appologies. Too used to seeing Anthony's comments about "neocons" being an incorrect term. Not paying attention, mea culpa.

2:52 PM  

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