Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The decline of realism

One of the vital Western foreign policy traditions of the last three centuries (since the end of the Reformation) has been realism, a school of thought strongest among conservatives but more widely influential. Realism holds that the only thing that matters in a country's foreign policy is its power, and perhaps its economic, interests vis-a-vis other countries, and that foreign policy consists of the relationships between governments, not societies at large.

The origins of realism lie in the period after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) that established the modern Western nation-states and empire-states that survived until 1914. After more than a century of religious warfare, with dynasties and churches battling for dominance, religious peace required governments to ignore what neighboring governments were doing internally and consider only their power interests vis-a-vis each other -- most fundamentally, the balance of military power and, later, the balance of trade. The craft of diplomacy took its modern form under these conditions. Hence we use the word "diplomatic" for someone who doesn't ask too many nosy questions. (Spying came into being in its modern form at the same time, precisely to answer those nosy questions in indirect ways.) Realism constituted the dominant foreign policy paradigm of 18th- and 19th-century Europe. Conservative-realist politicians like Bismarck and Disraeli exemplified it; Bismarck christened it realpolitik.

Realism as a master paradigm died during World War I. It could not explain or accept the realities of total war involving the struggles of whole societies against one another. The 20th century was subsequently dominated by ideology. Until the 1980s, the dominant foreign policy conflict in America was between isolationism and liberal internationalism, but realism became an important secondary component in American foreign policy thinking after two key debacles, World War I and Vietnam. It has resurfaced repeatedly in reaction to liberal activism and, now, neoconservative crusading.

While it was the controlling principle of foreign policy in the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries, realism has lost ground in the last hundred years to ideology, and in the new era of globalization, it will continue to lose importance, for three reasons.

1. Societies are becoming interconnected as they interpenetrate. The backwards areas ("Gap") are those not well-connected. They need to be more connected, not less. Diplomacy has to be about more than relations between governments. The work of Tom Barnett is very good on this subject. This development undercuts the traditional realist protocols of diplomacy.

2. The end of the Cold War saw not a decline of American power and a renewal of multipolarity (what the realists expected), but an unprecedented situation of unipolarity and burgeoning integration. This undercuts the realist paradigm of competing, roughly equal states.

3. The single most important foreign policy problem facing us now is Islamic radicalism. Classical Islamic political thought is, to use Christian terminology, imperial, theocratic, supersessionist, and triumphalist. Islamic radicalism today wants to revive and enforce this paradigm. Realism has no way of coping with this.

The terminal decadence of realism is typified today by the profitable but troubled realist romance with America's dubious Middle Eastern allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, surely the last century's biggest foreign policy scam. The realists have no way of understanding what's happening in the Middle East and instead throw tantrums such as the antics of Harvard's Mearsheimer and Walt and their notorious "working paper" on the "Israel lobby." Surrealistically, the paper mentions "oil" only a few times and "Saudi Arabia" not at all. Of course, protecting oil fields, and consequently oil regimes, from their enemies foreign and domestic is the whole reason we got involved with Saudi Arabia in the first place, with all the consequences with Iraq. Part of this realist outrage is the radical transformation of the Bush Jr. administration from a realist-oriented foreign policy to a neoconservative policy of crusading "democratism." The sense of betrayal is thick. But there is also the long-standing interconnection of the realist foreign policy establishment and the Saudi government, exemplified by the careers of James Baker and Brent Scowcroft. The 9/11 attacks and the second Iraq war have rendered these connections of dubious value.

Nothing changes this fact: realism is no longer up to being the key to foreign policy. It was a living reality from roughly 1690 to 1914, but in the 20th century, it has acquired a mummified, academic air. Realism today is unreal.

But having come to bury realism, let me now praise it. While realism cannot serve as a controlling strategy for American foreign policy, it must remain with us as an important secondary layer that emphasizes reality checks, a proper relationship of means and ends, getting the most for the least, and avoiding fantasies of omnipotence. With regards to military power, we can't forget another fact: the US military is the world's most powerful, but a mere 3/4 million on active service. That's less than half what is was in the 1980s, a sixth of its Vietnam-era size, and a tiny fraction of its WWII size. Its size and US military spending are the smallest as a ratio of the whole economy since 1940. Its just that there are now no other competing wealthy-country militaries to compare it against. The present size of the active-service military places strigent limits on how it can used.

The second Iraq war was a gross violation of these rules. Had the rules been observed, Iraq and Saddam would have been dealt with, but in a way very different from the Bush approach. Two cheers for realism.

UPDATE: Here's a column by George Will that typifies the conservative-realist mindset: the proper use of military force is ... military force, not nation-building or other essentially civilian projects.

It's sobering and correct to perceive the Bush administration as very far out of line with anything recognizably conservative. Neoconservatism is not conservative at all, but a liberal heresy. Hence: the "new" Republican party as a party of hyperactivist big government and a parody of modern liberalism. (It even has its own sex scandal now!) About this, more soon.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The rise and fall of patriotic internationalism

What was patriotic internationalism? A precious but ultimately unstable amalgam of patriotism and liberal internationalism that defined popular support for American foreign policy from about 1940 to about 1990. There is still a large residual of it even now in American life. But the liberals who once were the exemplars and promoters of patriotic internationalism are today largely defined by nostalgia, if not paranoia and hysteria -- now that modern liberalism is dead and liberals are a beleaguered minority.

Patriotic internationalism is the recognition of the unique legitmacy of national self-rule, combined with the realization that no nation can go it alone. Historically, it was defined by World War II and the Cold War and had its roots in the failure to create a robust international order in the interwar years. Such an international order was successfully created after 1945. It was flawed in certain ways, but it worked, at least as far as the "old Core" (Japan, North America, Western Europe) went. The attempts since 1980 to extend it were only partly successful: it was most successful in Asia and eastern Europe, less so in Latin America, mostly a failure in Africa, and a total failure in the Middle East. A key problem in the last two areas is the lack of robust, sovereign nation-states. In one case, the weakness is due to tribalism; in the other, due to a volatile mix of tribalism and religion. In those areas, no one tried very hard either.

Since the end of the Cold War, although it makes many Americans unhappy, America has drifted into a new moralistic nationalism that oscillates between isolationism and unilateralism (confused with religion or imperialism by some people who should know better -- it's neither). Europe has drifted into a covertly imperial project of sacrificing national sovereignty to an illegitimate supernational entity, the European Union. The EU is not a truly international treaty organization (like NATO). It's an attempt at laws imposed from "above" (super) nations, not "in between" (inter) nations. (See here for more about illegitimate forms of "super"-national law -- and the parallel need for constitutional self-policing of foreign policy. This point is somewhat dated by now-acknowledged dead-end of EU governance and the Supreme Court's Hamdan decision [PDF] and consequent Congressional action in response.)

There is a real need to clear the air of the confusion and obfuscation surrounding nationalism. Nationalism is the opposite of imperialism. Nationalism is not fascism; fascism was an exceptionally violent and illiberal form of imperialism. Here's a further clue: the opponents of fascism were nationalists: Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin (when faced with German invasion), De Gaulle, Adenauer, and various anti-fascist resistance movements. The fascists, like Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, were not. The nationalist character of the European anti-fascist movements gave a unique panache to colonial independence movements. European countries had resisted fascism in the name of nationalism; so too they had to recognize the legitimacy of national aspirations of the colonial peoples they ruled.

The collapse of America's uniquely blended traditions of patriotism and internationalism, in both liberal-internationalist and conservative-realist forms, is spreading across the political spectrum. For an example of the retarded regression of the Democrats, read Sebastian Mallaby at the Washington Post. See Clay Risen at the New Republic (requires subscription) for the gyrations of Republicans no longer committed to free markets, but shameless and destructive protectionism. Since the end of the Cold War and the first Persian Gulf war, the American news media has also cut back drastically on what it invests into foreign coverage.

Everywhere, not just in the United States, political elites are abandoning the common good in favor of pandering to narrow, parochial interests. The parallel politics is a provincial narcissism, tending towards conspiracy theories, with the local and the obscure blown up into cosmic significance.

Others have noticed. Mark Lilla just published an interesting but flawed essay in TNR on this subject (requires subscription). According to Lilla, America was sleepwalking through the 80s, woke up in 1989, then went to sleep after September 2001. Lilla deploys this analysis in support of a false evaluation of Clinton's presidency. The phenomenon Lilla is pointing to is real, but he seriously misunderstands it.

After a very troubled decade in the 1970s (a decade that, in some ways, never ended in Europe), America slowly came back to its senses in the 80s, reaching a state of full awakeness between 1989 and 1991, after which it went into a deep sleep of indifference to the outside world. Clinton's 1992 election slogan ("It's the economy, stupid!") and Perot's hostility to free trade reflected a larger swing against foreign involvements, represented by the sudden intense hostility of both elites and the larger public to Bush Sr. Clinton's second term did feature a significant return to foreign policy concerns, but only in a half-blind, groping fashion and with neither party showing more than tepid support or interest. America's descent into political triviality continued, climaxing with the Lewinsky scandal. The next period, from 1998 to 2001, might be called the period of troubled sleep; the first signs of opposition to globalization and the America-dominated unipolar world appeared following the 1997-98 global financial crisis. Americans barely noticed, since their economy continued to suck in the world's savings, buy the world's surplus output, and import the world's ambitious poor as immigrants. After the 9/11 attacks, America came back fully awake. The awakeness lasted somewhat longer than a year. What put us back to sleep were the 2002 mid-term elections and the second Iraq war. Since late 2003, American politics has turned back towards self-referential triviality, powerfully reinforced by the electronic media. The Iraq war and the controversy surrounding it are mired in this self-referentiality. The real quagmire is at home.

The new force that fills the vacuum left by the decline of liberalism and the marginalization of conservatism is moralistic nationalism. It naturally tends toward isolationism, but when foreign intervention is necessary, it swings towards unilateralism. It distains both liberal internationalism and conservative realism. Domestically, its natural tendency is towards hyperactivist big government, not traditional conservatism - less Reagan, more Nixon. But its style is echt-Baby Boom: pop culture, not bookish or intellectual; less substance, more posturing and attitudinizing; less Friedrich Hayek, more Ann Coulter.

The real problem here may be the Baby Boomer generation itself, which is nothing if not narcissistic -- it's a defining generational trait. (I emphatically include Bush Jr. in this characterization.) To the narcissist - if he pays any attention to the world at all - everything in the world is about him, especially everything negative.

POSTSCRIPT: If you want to read what's wrong with foreign elites, with their insistent and myopic recycling of anti-American mythology - fully awake before September 2001, contrary to the revisionist history now peddled by Bush critics - see here for a reminder from Anne Applebaum.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

The rise of the natural resources monopoly dictatorship

It comes in different flavors, but it's here and in our faces at the UN and elsewhere: the Natural Resources Monopoly Dictatorship (NRMD). It's a widespread phenomenon in the Middle East, but it's spreading alarmingly elsewhere too: Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia.

The government controls a valuable natural resource (oil or gas typically). This sector constitutes the lion's share of the country's economy. It inverts the relationship between productive society and tax-dependent government. The government buys off the people and functions however it wishes, with no input from tax-paying voters.

The developed world can look on with concern or horror, but as long as it's using the resource, there are limits to what it can do about NRMD. OTOH, the developed world spooks itself with a false sense of doom: the NRMD does not hold a monpoly weapon ("oil weapon"), except in the short run. In the long run, the NRMD needs to sell as much as we need to buy. Roger Stern of Johns Hopkins University has analyzed this situation brilliantly in this technical economics paper (PDF download; non-technical summary here).

The solution for us is to use less of the NR that's being M'ed by the D. With oil and gas, this isn't hard. If oil- and gas-consuming countries banded together in the same way that petro-producing countries have, they could impose taxes to push their citizens out of their SUVs and "light" trucks and in the right direction. It won't do to declare "energy independence": oil and gas are fungible commodities. And there's no need for hare-brained and dubious schemes for subsidized "alternative" energy technology. If it's economical to start with, oil and gas taxes will make the technology in question attractive on price grounds alone.

And that's the point: to deny the Ds M'ing the NRs the revenue stream. Think of all the Middle Eastern mischief that could be prevented. And no Chavez buffonery at the UN (this decade's recycling of Khrushchev's shoe-banging tantrum at the UN in 1956 -- but this time, less tragedy, more farce). $75/barrel oil buys Holocaust-denial from Ahmadinejad. What would $40/barrel oil buy? Or $30/barrel? Would we even be hearing from the wacky mullah-ocracy in Iran?

Related thoughts from Tom Friedman here, and from the Washington Post.

POSTSCRIPT: The oil minister of Venezuela in the 1970s once famously referred to oil as the "devil's excrement," because of the topsy-turvy things it does to the country whose economy is addicted to selling it. But the countries buying it help things along. Here's a cute cartoon from Venezuela that underscores the point. Translation:

Chavez: "You're a devil, you smell like sulfur, you're a drunk, you're the demon, you're a genocidal Mr. Devil, you're a dictator, you're an assasin Mr. Devil, you're a ...."

Bush: "Yeah, yeah, whatever you say ... fill the tank, kid!"


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Friday, September 22, 2006

L'shanah tovah u-metukah

It's Erev Rosh Hashanah 5767. A sweet and good new year to everyone!

More soon.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

The blessed B's get it right :: Remembering Fallaci :: Angry brown males

Barack Obama tells us that the Democrats are the "party of reaction." That's been true for a long time. Back in the late 1970s, with some help from then-sane Kevin Phillips, then-editor of the New Republic Michael Kinsley identified "reactionary liberalism" as the probable future of the Democratic Party, and he was right. It's a major theme of liberal blogger Mickey Kaus.

It is nice to hear a Democratic politician say it, though. I'm not sure I'd vote for Obama at this point, but he has my attention. It would be even nicer if we had two serious parties, instead of one serious but flawed party and a second, unserious one. Conservative journalist Jim Geraghty of National Review has a new book about this distressing situation. This podcast interview with Geraghty obviously betrays a conservative yearning for a more balanced and competitive politics and a Republican party better disciplined by a credible rival.

Oriana Fallaci, postwar Europe's most important journalist, was a fixture of my youth. She died this past Friday. A fearless woman of the democratic Left, Fallaci started her career as a teenaged member of the anti-Mussolini Italian partisans (partigiani) in 1943-45, after Italy's official surrender to the western Allies in September 1943 and the consequent German invasion of Italy. (Germans: invading Italy for 1600 years!) She remained a woman of the Left, but would have no truck with political correctness and thus drifted away from the transformed post-modern and nihilistic Left that emerged from the 1960s, with its fantasies of Third World noble savages. Her final cause was attacking the rise of radical Islam in Europe and sounding the warning. A Cassandra? Look at Europe and judge for yourself. See here, here, and here for more remembrances of this remarkable woman. And Cassandra was right.

Closely related are the recent and entirely appropriate remarks of the new Pope about Islam. It would be a shame if the Pope had to retreat in any substantive way from what he said: a principled rejection of the use of force in religion (something stipulated in the Qur'an but historically observed usually in the breach) and an historically-informed defense of the Western intellectual tradition of reason in philosophy, science, and religion, starting with classical Greece. It's especially gratifying to hear a Pope say such things and especially revealing to watch how much of the bankrupt pseudo-intellectual establishment of the West can't process it.

What will get the West to stop enabling the weird mixture of the medieval and the post-modern (charges of blasphemy mixed with bogus claims of victimhood) that dominates this conflict between civilizations? That's how we end up with angry, violent Muslims protesting stereotypes of angry, violent Muslims -- which just confirms what Fallaci and the Pope said. Another woman of valor, Anne Applebaum, makes the same point: non-Mulsims need to stop apologizing and start stating the plain truth, over and over. All of us need to get off the "Muslim rage" bus and look for a different route. Political correctness does not work.

This Pope's predecessor made stunning progress in undoing the damage done by the Church's history of religious persecution, and the Christian churches in general have spent 500 years (often unwillingly) returning to Christianity's original, pre-Constantine status as a free religion not annexed to a civil power. Can Islam do the same? If the current Pope helps this along, he will fulfill the literal meaning of his name, Benedict.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Kavanna returns

I've been "off the air" for two weeks of vacation, attending to life, and fixing some technical problems with the blog.

As a follow-on to my posting on the clash of civilizations (Islam versus everyone else), read this perceptive essay by Martin Amis from the Guardian. It is based, in part, on the Paul Berman's fine book, Terror and Liberalism. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity" (Yeats).

More soon.

UPDATE: Don't miss these postings on Khatami's appearance at Harvard and the protests it inspired, from PubliusPundit (with help from HamsaWeb), Teresa of Technicalities (who got lost in Cambridge, but who doesn't?), and Miss Kelly.

What IS wrong with Harvard these days? The decline and fall of American academia: that deserves a few postings all by itself ....

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