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


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