The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Less-than-ideal typifications

March 14, 2006

Over at Donklephont, Michael Reynolds tackles foreign policy through his lens of self-proclaimed centrism. In doing so, he makes some important errors.

The first, and less obvious, is that he conflates broader approaches to foreign policy with specific ideological positions within the American political tradition. Thus, he treats realism as co-equal with what he takes to be (a) contemporary American liberal outlooks on foreign policy, (b) neoconservativism, and (c) paleoconservativism.

The second, and more obvious, is that he adopts Republican talking points about the liberal alternative to conservative nationalism and neoconservativism. Both of these errors, I think, are worth reflecting upon.

Michael’s general point is that liberalism, neoconservativism, paleoconseravtivism, and realism all contain important insights into how the US ought to conduct foreign policy. He calls for a middle ground, one derived from what each perspective gets right and gets wrong about contemporary dilemmas of Amercian foreign policy.

According to him, liberalism “doesn’t get” the threat posed by Al Qaeda.

Here is the foreign policy truth that liberals in general will not speak and don’t really accept: some people can’t be reasoned with.

Liberals believe in the psychotherapeutic model of foreign policy. Lie back, troubled nation or group or culture, tell us what’s bothering you. You say you feel neglected? You say you feel oppressed? You blame America? Of course you do, don’t we all?

Liberals don’t know what to make of Al Qaeda.

I’m not sure what Michael’s talking about here. He doesn’t bother to provide evidence for his claim that liberals believe in “therapy” and “don’t know what to make of Al Qaeda.” I suspect that he’s channleing, wittingly or unwittingly, the RCN talking points associated with Karl Rove’s infamous speech. But American liberal politicians and policy walks, generally focus on multilateralism, international institution-building, and US self-restraint. They don’t seek to deal with militant jihadism through therapy. Rather, they views the problem as, in the main, a transnational one in need of a transnational solutuon. Sometimes this implies a strategic focus on policing at the expense of the use of military force, but that’s a far cry from not “know[ing]” what to make of Al Qaeda.

Michael continues:

Here is the foreign policy truth that neo-cons in general will not speak and don’t really accept: people are not all secretly just like them. Some people are really quite different.

Neo-cons believe in the liberation model of foreign policy. Everyone, everywhere wants just the same things I want, and if only we could get evil governments off their backs, all people would subscribe to the Weekly Standard, buy Thomas Pink shirts and spend their weekends reading each others’ books.

Neo-cons are stunned that in free elections Palestinians, Lebanese, Egyptians and Iraqis don’t vote for anyone associated with the American Enterprise Institute.

In my book, the first couple sentences make neoconservatives liberals. Michael’s half right here, but only half right. Neoconservatives do believe that aggressive democracy promotion will make the world safer–and that belief stems from a philosophically liberal view of human nature–but the rest is unfair hyperbole. Or at least, I think it is, and Michael doesn’t provide any evidence that the characterization is apt.

His next “type” are “paleo-cons”:

Here is the foreign policy truth that paleo-cons in general will not speak and don’t really accept: you cannot wish the world away.

Paleo-cons believe in the gated community theory of foreign policy. If we build walls, and hire a trustworthy guard, and arm ourselves with shotguns to shoot intruders, everything will be fine. Good fences make good neighbors, and what goes on beyond the fence is not our problem.

Paleo-cons haven’t felt quite right since the invention of the intercontinental ballistic missile, and have yet to accept the fact that their home is mortgaged with the Bank of China.

I suspect the American people are closest to the paleo-con belief. The average American could not name more than three foreign leaders. Or a dozen foreign countries. The American people were stunned to learn that one foreign country was selling control of American ports to another foreign country.

I haven’t noticed a rising tide of isolationalism in this country, although some polls indicate the early phases of an Iraq syndrome. The New York Times (11/17/2005) reports that

Forty-two percent of Americans think that the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own,” according to the survey, which was conducted by the Pew Research Center in association with the Council on Foreign Relations.

That is an increase of 12 percentage points since a poll taken in December 2002, before the American-led invasion of Iraq; at that time only 30 percent of Americans said the country should mind its own business internationally.

We can debate whether or not 42% qualifies as “most,” but this isn’t paleoconservativism, its isolationalism. Isolationalism is a policy–one that can stem from paleoconservativsm or from various forms of liberalism. And, as the people who conduct these polls note, the shift mostly stems from a backlash to the bungled Iraq conflict. Is there evidence that Americans are fundamentally isolationalist, let alone paleoconservatives?

Well, Michael’s own evidence, if true, proves Amercians don’t know a lot about the world, not that they want to stay out of it. The same poll I cited above showed 60% support for a strong partnership between the US and Europe. That’s not isolationalism. Nor is it paleoconservativism. Other polls show strong evidence that while Americans have soured on democracy promotion at the gun, they generally favor kinds of US engagement inconsistent with isolationalism.

An aside: Michael’s first commentator, Ed, complains that, while the post includes “some intersting points,” it “also [engages] in some useless name calling.” Michael’s response? “That’s why I included the qualifier ‘in general.'” I’ve had nothing but positive interactions with Michael, but give me a break. That’s no excuse for asserting things that are simply untrue.

Regardless, of his fourth category, “the realists,” Michael writes:

The foreign policy realists, the Kissinger/Scowcroft types think in terms of managing threats, playing chess with the world with the straightforward goals of protecting our markets and ensuring that none of those spider monkeys out there can bulk up enough to be trouble. The realists don’t care if this pawn or that knight is attractive, pleasant or moral, a chess piece is a chess piece. Saddam Hussein used to be one of the realists’ chess pieces.

Here is the truth that the realists generally won’t speak and don’t really accept: good and evil are not irrelevant, not to Americans.

To which I respond: well, if the realists are right, then why do we care about what’s relevant to Americans (except for the purpose of manipulating them through rhetoric)? I appreciate that Michael’s writing a “middle ground” screed, but it would be nice if he provided a warrant for his various claims. In fact, if the error of neoconservativism is the liberal belief that regime change and trade can bring about global peace, than why shouldn’t we accept a realist perspective? Because Saddam was evil? Well, isn’t the point: how much someone’s “evilness” matters for foreign-policy making?

Besides, this is wrong. Realists don’t like “moral crusades” for a number of reasons, but not because realists are moral relativists. Most realists I know, as a matter of fact, are pretty politically liberal. They don’t mind intervening to stop genocide, for example, as long as doing so doesn’t harm core state interests.

But the larger point is that one of these things is not like the other. Namely, realism. Three of Michael’s types–liberalism, neoconservativism, and paleoconservativism–describe American ideological movements (or, at least, how Michael understands them). Realism is a theory of world politics, albeit one practiced by some policy makers. There is no serious “realist” movement in the United States, no “realist” voting block. If we wanted to make these typologies symmetrical, we’d be talking about “liberalism” as a theory of world politics–one that stresses the capacity for states to pursue common interests, particularly if those states are democracies engaging in free trade and forming cooperative arrangements–that opposes realist conceptions of how international politics operate. The underlying sensibilities of three of Michael’s types–liberalism, neoconservativism, and paleconservativism–all embrace some of the key assumptions of liberal views of international relations. Their specific configurations may lead to differing foreign-policy recommendations, some of which might be more or less congruent with isolationalism, unilaterlaism, aggressive democracy promotion, multilateralism, or realpolitik calculations, but that doesn’t make his four “boxes” particularly useful–at least in the way he describes them. If we want to think about major alterantive approaches to how the US ought to conduct its business, we should be thinking either about more abstract understandings of international politics or more specific formulations of policy.

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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.