Misdiagnosing an Evolved Realism in US Foreign Policy?


philip stephens.jpg
The Financial TimesPhilip Stephens published a very useful and interesting take on he rise of realism and fall of democracy-focused international idealism in U.S. foreign policy.
Regrettably the article, “Democracy Falls Victim to Foreign Policy Realism,” is not available without registering and/or subscribing — but I still want to link it. (here is a link that does not require registration)
Stephens characterizes “classic realism” quite well:

Realism has many dimensions. At its simplest, it implies no more than a willingness to treat the world as it is rather than as you might like it to be. That is what foreign policy practitioners mean when they say that the US should engage with enemies as well as friends. It talked to Moscow during the cold war; why not Tehran and Damascus now?
A little way along the spectrum of meanings, realists take a Westphalian view of sovereignty. Governments, democratic or otherwise, must be free to do as they please within their own boundaries. The authoritarian nature of a useful ally should not be seen as an obstacle to co-operation.
Further still, realism merges into cynicism, promoting a realpolitik indifferent to the nature of a regime. Dangerous tyrants are fine as long as they are on the right side. The arming of Saddam Hussein against Iran during the 1980s comes to mind.
During the cold war it was this last form of realism that saw the US jump into bed with some of the nastiest regimes in Latin America, Asia and Africa — a policy that appalled as many Europeans then as does now the pro-democracy “imperialism” of the Bush administration.

Stephens, however, sets up a bit of a false straw-man here because I believe it is unlikely that “classic realism” will ever be back in the same doses we saw in the latter half of the 20th century.

I believe that the future of American foreign policy will be articulated in hybrid form. Two leading (not dissimilar in some ways but not identical) prospects for “branding” a new course are Anatol Lieven’s “Ethical Realism” and Michael Lind’s “American Internationalism“.
Both packages of views are available in their important books published recently — so dig further there.
But Stephens is right that realism of some form is on the rise — but he doesn’t realize that there are factions in the “realist” world that matter enormously if one is to understand what is coming. There is a huge difference between realism theorized and realism applied.
John Mearsheimer is the best example of realism theorized — and he offers regularly in his speeches a brutish, Hobbesian picture of near-anarchic global conditions that only major states can tame or direct in the collaborations and collisions among nations.
Brent Scowcroft is realism revived and realism applied — but also realism evolved. Scowcroftian realism looks a bit like Michael Lind’s notion of an “American internationalist” and Lieven’s vision of an “ethical realist.” Scowcroft is a fan of the United Nations and sees many international institutions and treaties as extensions and magnifiers of American power and U.S. interests. Scowcroft also believes in doing good when and where America can — and is not the hard-headed, cynical Scroogian realist that Philip Stephens sees in our future.
Another bit of Stephens’ lucid article:

This is all the more strange because the European Union has been the world’s most successful agent in supporting regime change — in the former dictatorships of Spain, Portugal and Greece and in the post-communist states of eastern and central Europe.
That said, the US administration has not helped its own cause. In Iraq, democracy building appeared an afterthought, a cloak over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Washington was unprepared for nation building.

In other words, the Europeans have been engaged in “transformational diplomacy” for a much longer time than Condi’s declarations on the subject — and they have succeeded. Nation-building and paving the way for reform and civil society development are something that the Europeans seems to understand and know how to implement far better than the U.S.
Finally, Stephens gets to the crux of the problem of the thin, often vacuous mental maps that many carry when thinking of the term “democracy”:

There are broader lessons from that conflict — most obviously that armed intervention is unlikely to invite the most propitious conditions for democracy. Another I heard often at a conference last week at the Wye River Plantation in Maryland. Organised by the Ditchley Foundation, this gathering explored a deeper flaw in US policy. The mistake was to see democracy almost exclusively through the lens of elections: to assume the act of voting was what mattered.
Well, it does matter, of course. But elections are not a sufficient condition. The rule of law, an independent judiciary, a strong civil society, political parties, a free press and the habit of participation are also vital pillars. Building them takes time and painstaking effort. Without them elections may legitimise populist autocrats. The cross on the ballot paper, in other words, may be nearer the end than the beginning of democratic state-building.

This statement about what democracy is and is not is nearly identical to views I shared at the Hudson Institute on Monday.
I often repeat what Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass has said: “Ballotocracy is not democracy.”
After getting these definitional battles right, Philip Stephens surprises me in the kicker to his interesting article statomg that we will miss “democracy promotion” after several years of cold-eyed realism and thug-hugging around the world.
I’m not sure how he can argue that when he convinces me that Bush’s version of democracy-promotion isn’t really “democracy-promotion” at all. Ethical realists and American internationalists may be better at straddling both ‘genuine’ democracy-promotion, meaning self-determination, civil society and legal system development, political party developmenet, and the like while tending the basic interests of the U.S. in a stable international order.
The more appropriate end to his piece is that realism and liberal internationalism as we once knew them have been chastened — just like neoconservatism. What lies ahead is some form of evolved realism that understands the importance of promoting a “liberal ethic” abroad, promoting reform ‘inside’ nations but not at the expense of the basic national interest and of a new global equilibrium of interests.
What Philip Stephens should really worry about though is American rejectionism of the international system because while I think the next form of realism is “internationalist” in character and design, the back side of virulent neoconservatism has always been a pugnacious American isolationism.
Those are the threads of America’s future debates about foreign policy — and would have been a better kicker for Stephens’ good piece.
— Steve Clemons


16 comments on “Misdiagnosing an Evolved Realism in US Foreign Policy?

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  3. David Noziglia says:

    I am in full agreement with nearly if not everything that Lone Wolf and serial catowner have posted here.
    The question I have to ask is, we use the term neoconservatives. What is that? What does it mean? Who are they?
    It is my understanding that neoconservatives are originally former Jackson Democrats who moved to the Republican party because they felt that the Democratic Party of Jimmy Carter, et. al. was not forceful and strong (whatever that means) in its Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union.
    Without a Soviet Union and without a Cold War, it seems to me that the term then loses all meaning. Especially if we are including people like Dick Cheney under the rubric, who was never, ever close to being a Democrat.
    The new definition seems to be the group who were involved in writing the New American Century document during the Clinton years, in which they advocated pouring greater resournes into the U.S. military now that the Cold War is over (ironic, given that one of the chief proponents of the “peace dividend” during the Bush I presidency was Secretary of Defense Cheney, who proposed major cuts in spending on defense systems).
    As the above indicates, what neocons really are seems to be simply people with no ideals, ideology, or morals, who simply worship power. They want to be in charge, and to control events. And that’s it. They have no idea what the result of their control will be, and seem to think that the world will simply fall together as they want it to automatically (another irony).
    Another definition might be that these are people who have sold U.S. foreign policy to the highest bidders, i.e. major corporations. As they have the entire federal government. Name one major policy initative, enacted or not, that has come out of this administration that is not in service to one or more major corporations or industries.
    That’s an incredibly cynical and cospiratorial viewpoint. The sad fact is, though, that it’s supported by evidence.
    So, back to my original point. Neoconservatism implies some connection to classical conservatism, which does not exist. The name is misleading (which is why it’s used). There has to be a better term.
    Any suggestions?
    Does it make a damn’s bit of difference?
    (Don’t get be started on the whole issue of the labels used in American politics.)


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  5. serial catowner says:

    This is a charming view that policy and diplomacy are hard- and I’m sure they are hard, when you want to get something for nothing.
    When you want to appear to support democracy, while actually keeping control through your power with a local oligarchy, it’s hard. When you wish to control the spread of nuclear weapons, but are unwilling to curb your own proliferation, it’s hard.
    In reality, in dozens of places around the globe we could have promoted democracy by simply butting out. We could curb proliferation by actually stopping our own, and staying in any reasonable international treaty or organization that acted in good faith.
    Foreign policy, in earnest, need not consume the combined intellectual capacity of the world. It only requires that we “put our money where our mouth is” and act in good faith. Until we do so, no amount of cleverness will make things easy.


  6. Lone Wolf says:

    Just a quick follow up.
    I don’t think America will reject any well reasoned internationalist role based on pragmatic principles that clearly put America’s security first.
    What is a greater danger is a continued inability to find leadership with the commitment to build the right foreign policy framework and then take the time (and the hits) to sell it to the public at large.
    That’s why the Democrats have to come up with reasonable short term foreign counter-policy to Bush.
    Otherwise, Bush will harden the country’s attitude before 2008 rolls around.


  7. Lone Wolf says:

    The title of the piece by Philip Stephens is clearly wrong:
    “Democracy Falls Victim to Foreign Policy Realism” seems to imply that “Democracy is helped by Neo Con Thuggism” is a reasonable headline for the recent past.
    Iraq democracy does not exist because the country is inhospitable to it. Period. Full stop. Check out Russia for another role model. Saddam was a product of Iraq, Iraq was not a product of Saddam.
    And the neocons never embraced full scale open political debate in Egypt either. So that’s just misdirectional crap.
    The neocons are simply old fashioned imperialists. Any excuse to use force and expand influence is a good one.
    Worse, they are intellectually lazy imperialists. Short cuts are their thing. Shock and awe, greeted as liberators, decapitation as the road to enduring democracy. Need more resources? Borrow the war money, stop loss orders, involuntary recalls, and deploy National Guard units on endless rotations. It’s all short term, reactive, non-contingent planning incompetence. To dress it up as some sort of policy position, never mind an intellectual framework, is a compliment it does not deserve.
    Neoconservatism failed because it has no discipline and no residual commitment to enduring principles. Just naked power deployed to further naked ambition on a personal level.
    Forget realism. Principled pragmatism should be the next foreign policy paradigm – actually until Bush I thought that was America’s approach.
    Circumstances change, thus the pragmatic options will be different. But the principles should never change. Do good when you can. Do as much good as possible, or least as much good as you can afford. And make as many friends as possible, because you can never have too many. But know who are your principled friends (like the UK and France) and who are your pragmatic friends (like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia) and who are our non-friends/enemies. But NEVER forget your interests – America’s security, access to markets, and access to strategic resources.
    Never believe that wishing is a substitute for planning or that tough words are a substitute for resiliency and adaption in execution.
    It’s a shame that at the exact moment (9/11) America was put into reactive, vengeful state it’s leaders happened to be exploitive, short term opportunists.
    Here is the headline I hope to read soon:
    “American policy led by serious, respected intellectuals: security first mindset coexists with long term global freedom building policies.”


  8. Keith M Ellis says:

    Just a note that Zbigniew Brzezinski, for example, has been advocating an ethical realist foreign policy for decades, now.


  9. Nitnorth says:

    “Nation-building and paving the way for reform and civil society development are something that the Europeans seems to understand and know how to implement far better than the U.S.”
    By saying this, I think you give the present administration more credit than it deserves. I’m not sure I can point to any actual examples of the USA’s “nation-building”, perhaps since the partitioning of Germany after WWII and probably not even then; so I think the above statement argues from a population of one example, Iraq. That’s a false example.
    Our experience in Iraq has not been one of trying to build a nation. We did send some theorists with preconceived notions about what their small part of the rebuilding effort should look like. Without exception, they ignored the area’s history and existing institutions, choosing instead to hew to their theories; and, also without exception, the theories failed when presented with the facts. But even those attempts were patches, things thought up after it became obvious that the war wouldn’t be over in two weeks, and Iraq wouldn’t magically transform itself into a MiniMe USA. The war itself was never about building a nation in Iraq, and efforts after the fact were attempts to disguise the fact that the war itself was the entire agenda.
    George wanted a war. George wanted a war _in Iraq_. This was obvious from hints dropped well before Afghanistan distracted everyone temporarily from that effort. I won’t try to guess whether it was an attempt to control the oil supply (pehaps, as I’ve seen suggested, to provide some continuation in case of a disruption in Saudi Arabia) or just to prove that George was better than Daddy; but the war was the point.
    It was never about nation-building. Not then, not now; not ever, under the present administration.


  10. David N says:

    The trouble, of course, is that the labels do not describe the things they are supposed to point to accurately.
    The neo-con agenda for Iraq and the middle east was neither idealist or realist. It was delusional.
    Kissinger’s insistance that all international relations should be guided by a four-hundred-year-old document that was based on the idea of the devine right of kings is just as delusional.
    The fact is, quite often in history, the path to fascism and totalitarianism has been laid through democracy. Not just the fascists in Germany and Italy, but more recently the military coups in Algeria and Pakistan were in fact motivated by Western-educated generals trying to prevent the takeover of their countries by Islamists who stated that their goal was the end of democratic institutions (one man, one vote, one time).
    Thus, the simplistic, sound-bite-based insistance on elections as the sole measure of democracy has been proven false time and time again. But the idiot talking heads on the networks and stuffed shirts in the print news will never get that “nuanced.”
    The fact is, policies that are consistent with American principles of liberal, constitutional democracy, while recognizing that the world is a complicated place and our power is often (especially now) limited, are better for our security and national interest in the long run.
    Of course, that depends on what your definition of the national interest is. Right now, for BushCo, it’s profit.


  11. weldon berger says:

    I’d argue that realism hasn’t ever been a coherent practice. No administration operates without ideological blinkers or internal political constraints that make the label essentially meaningless other than in opposition to a truly radical foreign policy such as the one we’re living through now.
    One example would be Cuba. Our policy toward the country has helped shape our relationships with Latin American states on both ends, theirs and ours, and that policy hasn’t been what one could fairly describe as uniformly rational.
    Another example would be Israel-Palestine, where our policies have generally been at least as reflexive as the ones directed at our southern neighbors.
    What people describe as realism is often either flatly unrealistic over the long term or a patchwork of rational long-term goals and immediate political ones. Sometimes it’s just plain stupid. I think if you’re going to analyze the various brands of it you have to break policies down into their component pieces and examine each of them individually with an eye toward what’s genuinely strategic, which is to say based upon achieving the best possible outcome for all participants, and what’s ideologically, commercially or politically tainted.


  12. JohnH says:

    “At its simplest, realism implies no more than a willingness to treat the world as it is rather than as you might like it to be.” If so, why is it that the “realists” avoid real issues like energy security? Why are Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan rarely discussed in terms of the West’s energy needs? Is such a discussion politically incorrect? If so, what makes it politically incorrect? Or are the realists in denial like the neo-cons?
    The neo-cons led us to war under the false pretenses of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Under what pretenses will the realists maintain our aggressive involvement in the Persian Gulf and Caspian basin?
    It’s time for the national security elites to pull back the curtain on their inner sanctum and start an honest and open discussion with the American people about the real world of energy, the real costs of securing it in faraway, unstable places vs. the costs of implementing alternatives.
    Otherwise, the American people can look forward to the grim prospect of more dissembling and make-believe from a different set of elites, who will lead them in directions they barely understand and ultimately may not support.


  13. Paul in Austin says:

    Thomas Barnett is an international strategist with a growing base of support.
    He recently commented on an article by Henry Kissinger about negotiating with Iran. He agrees that to a great extent, “all the talks need to do is buy us time and a forum for starting what will inevitably be a long-term forum for regional security discussion, much like the OSCE forum was in Europe. …No, this forum won’t magically make our rapid departure from Iraq possible, and no, it won’t stop Iran from getting the bomb. The regional forum concept is not designed for magical outcomes, but slowly building the collective will for permanent security regimes to arise in the region that settle the endemic conflicts and allow enough political stability for economic connectivity to ensue, which in turn will fuel social change already underway and political change that seethes just below the surface (the great fears of the despots).”
    “Realism is just idealism stretched over time. It is a belief in inevitabilities that prefers inaction to action and cynicism to morality. But such delays do not constitute diversions much less defeats.
    …To me, the outcome will never be in doubt, just the timing.”


  14. parrot says:

    Global realism needs to take into account the actual issues facing the world. That’s the real problem–when national interests take precedents over the interests of human survival as a species. The UN was set up to work towards that. Granted that a lot of its institutions are legacies of an earlier political climate than the one we find ourselve in today. However, the grievences of the various peoples of the world need a forum in which basic human needs are actually taken seriously and resolved without violence.


  15. Zathras says:

    I’ll gladly concede that Europe has been an effective promoter of democracy in Europe, especially in countries governed by old, exhausted regimes with little external support. I’m not sure what that says about the world outside Europe.
    That point aside, I’ve always wondered why the relation of early-1970s “realism” to the relative weakness of America’s international position in the post-Vietnam period is so little recognized. Cooperation with distasteful regimes — like Mao’s China, though that is not the example most critics of American policy in that era prefer to use — is bound to be more attractive to administrations that have fewer options. The long commitment in Vietnam, social disorder at home, and lastly the Nixon administration’s self-inflicted mortal wound — Watergate — dramatically undermined America’s ability to back up any commitments it might have been disposed to make as far as altering the internal politics of other countries.
    For many critics of the realism practiced then, backing up commitments was not, and is not, the issue. What matters is that America appears, in their eyes, “sincere” about spreading democracy and human rights, exercising moral suasion even if this is often indistinguishable from empty posturing.
    Coincidentally, or perhaps not, empty posturing is about all the Bush administration has left, now that it has mired itself in an expensive, sanguinary commitment in Iraq. This underscores a fact of life; we are entering a period with some similarities to the era after Vietnam, when an America weary of foreign adventures imposed limits on what any administration could undertake as far as transforming how other nations governed themselves. It is not just Iraq; tax cuts enacted to reward campaign contributors and stave off a recession in the short term have combined with the oncoming retirement of the baby boom generation to reduce the government’s resources at the very time demands on them are increasing. Moreover, the institutions (outside the Pentagon) with which America conducts its foreign policy were allowed to atrophy during the feckless Clinton years, and have not recovered since.
    So a foreign policy less ambitious and more sensible about the difficulty of promoting democracy in backward cultures is indicated. This is not a matter of our sincerity about democracy, or of our idealism; the Bush administration’s failure in Iraq was due not to its insincerity but rather to its spectacular underestimation of how hard it would be for democracy to take root in an Arab country. The critique the administration shared with many of its liberal critics is that the problems of the Middle East, especially terrorism, was primarily a product of past American policy that had valued stability over freedom. The shallowness of that critique ought to have been evident before the Iraq war; it is blindingly obvious now that values inimical to what we understand as democracy run very deep in some parts of the world. Changing those values is the work of generations, and we have work to do elsewhere.
    If the recent weakening of America’s international position prompts some recognition of this, our recent misfortunes may yet lead to a more sober and therefore more successful foreign policy, as earlier misfortunes did in the early 1970s.


  16. km4 says:

    More appropriately Philip Stephens should have characterized it as the rise and fall of the Neocons masked in Bushco pseudo reality which has created a complete failure in US foreign policy with unprecedented damage to and hatred of the U.S.
    There is no chance for semblance of a return of “classic realism” until these despicable Bushco assclowns are gone.
    Then this country needs to expunge the Bush name from U.S. politics in perpetuity.


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