Monday, January 15, 2007

Civilization, states, and ideology: More decline of realism

Now that the Democrats find themselves back in charge of Congress, the media chatter about "realism" (often just meaning, American friends of the Saudi royal family) has faded. But it's worth exploring realism as an historical doctrine, unhooking it from its recent perversion in connection with petro-regimes. I emphasized in previous postings that classical realism, rooted in 18th-19th century Europe, has had declining relevance to foreign policy throughout the last century, and that its significance will continue to fade. Liberal internationalism is in trouble for other reasons, and the consequent vacuum has come to be filled, in a strange turn of events, by a militant sort of neoconservatism.

Schematically, the evolution of realism goes something like this:

1. Realism was the master paradigm of European foreign policy from the end of the Reformation until the outbreak of World War I, roughly 1690 until 1914.

2. The critical year of 1917 saw the entry of the US into WWI, the collapse of the French army, the March and November Russian Revolutions, and the Balfour Declaration. Ideology, of all kinds, took off in importance, especially the most spectacular cases: Communism in Russia and Nazism in Germany. But their main effect was by taking over existing or reconstructed nation- and empire-states (Germany and Russian - later, China). Few years have been so important in world history as 1917.

The two main rising powers of the early 20th century were Germany and Russia. Their ideologies became, respectively, Nazism and Communism. Their respective civilizations were Western (on the border) and Eastern Orthodox (in a revolutionary phase).

While civilizational categories might help you understand aspects of 20th century conflict, they do so only in a very general way, as a deep historical background. The political and ideology categories are far more important, and ideology is central. We spoke of fighting Germany, but also Nazism. During the Cold War, it was common to elide Soviet into Russian, reflecting the dual nature of these conflicts: between nation- or empire-states, but also traditional political units animated by radical ideologies. No one spoke that way during World War I, which, until its last year, had no significant ideological aspect. Wilson and Lenin changed all that.

3. Ideology in decline: in the European/Western world, after the death of Stalin; in the rest of the world, since the 1980s.

Now we're in a world of geopolitical tectonic plates. The plates are civilizations, and they grind past one another, often peacefully, sometimes violently. The existence of different world civilizations doesn't mean they have to come into conflict. It just means if there is conflict, they are the basic units that must be used in analysis. The nation-state is secondary; states are important only insofar as they are exemplars of civilizations. And ideology is no longer as important as some people think.

Here we see the influence of some bad analogies casually misused - reflected in the questionable neologism "Islamofascism," for example. European models had a strong influence in the Islamic world, from the mid-19th century until about 1980, and post-World War I developments kicked off the rise of one-party secular totalitarian states: successively, French and British Enlightenment ideas; then in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, fascistic ideologies; finally, in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Soviet and Maoist Marxism. But since about 1980, outside ideologies have been in sharp decline in the Middle East, which is simply becoming more itself, laying bare the underlying culture. It's not a Western-style system of nation-states (unlike Europe or even Asia), but instead composed of tribalism, sectarianism, warlordism, and the honor-shame system - more like Europe during the wars of religion or even the Dark Ages. Of course, the AK-47 and the RPG-7 have - ahem - changed the technical details.

In the clash of civilizations between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds, certain characteristic patterns recur that fall far outside traditional realist thinking, like stateless jihadist ("terrorist") and state-sponsored proxy fighting groups. In turn, the nature of the conflict signals a breakdown of traditional nation-state-based rules of foreign policy; e.g., the Geneva Conventions (laws always written in response to the last war); the standing need for new legislation and new treaties; the question of how to deal with non-democratic countries deemed essential in the fight (Pakistan and a number of Arab countries). Troublesome policies such as rendition and detention are a direct result of this breakdown.

All these developments bode ill for realist-type theories of foreign policy. They also create serious problems for liberal internationalism, which only really works if everyone lives in a democratic-republican nation-state. That problem has been obvious for a long time; the problem with realism has been less obvious.
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POSTSCRIPT: Here's an interesting question: Western/Central Europe - the parts that are historically Catholic or Protestant - make up "Western" civilization - originally, Latin Christendom. Is the United States part of "Western" civilization? Think about it before answering. Is it not a nation-state in a new civilization, as yet unnamed?

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