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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