The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

I don’t think we’re speaking the same language

October 23, 2005

Adesnik’s latest post confuses me.

Much of the incoherence at the heart of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy reflected an inability to reconcile realist anti-interventionism with an idealist commitment to human rights. Today we tend to think of Carter as exclusively a dove and an idealist, but his strongest supporters included liberal realists such as Harvard’s Stanley Hoffmann.

When Reagan embarked on a crusade against communist Nicaragua, his liberal critics often invoked the realist principle of respecting state sovereignty as a justification for leaving the Nicaraguans alone. Yet the exact same liberals eviscerated Reagan for supporting a brutal right-wing dictatorship in nearby El Salvador.

What the Democrats have constantly been searching for is a synthesis of realism and idealism, a proverbial Third Way that would allow them to anchor their situational preferences in a coherent and consistent doctrine. My sense is that they are no closer to finding this golden mean than they were when Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

First, “state sovereignty” is not a realist principle.

Second, people make all sorts of arguments to justify foreign policy preferences that lead to logical inconsistencies or, more typically, reflect very different ideas about how the world works. Given that this was one of the issues in the Dan Drezner post that inspired David’s commentary, why does he find it necessary to conclude by bashing for liberals for not having a “coherent and consistent doctrine”? (note: question is rhetorical.)

Third, what in the world is the contradiction between arguing both (1) it is wrong to interfere in the affairs of Nicaragua because it is a sovereign state and (2) it is wrong to interfere in the affairs of El Salvador because the US is aiding and abetting gross violations of human rights?

Fourth, it is true that people – from street protesters to Presidents – are notoriously inconsistent about the application of “sovereignty” as an argument against interventions or other forms of interference in the domestic affairs of states, but this is another matter entirely. In fact, I seem to recall this argument occupying a prominent place among realist objections to the causal and moral significance of the “sovereignty” norm.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.