Tag: liberal internationalism

Are the liberal internationalists wrong? On “being nice” and US foreign policy

I got an alert from the Foreign Policy app on my phone the other day: Tunisia had fired its UN ambassador after he opposed Trump’s Israel-Palestine “peace plan.” Tunisian foreign policy doesn’t usually make waves, but this caught my attention. It’s a sign that, while Arab states aren’t enthused about this plan, they are unlikely to push back strongly. It got me thinking about a bigger question: whether Trump will face any costs as the result of his unilateral and aggressive foreign policy, as liberal internationalists might expect. The answer seems to be no, and that has big implications for US foreign policy.

Anyone who was around during the Bush-Obama transition remembers the debate. Liberal internationalists argue the United States has an interest in compromising with other states and working through multilateral institutions like the UN. It’s not just “being nice,” it actually advances US interests better than unilateral actions. We increase our influence with other states, making it more likely they’ll cooperate with us in the future. And we decrease backlash against and anxiety over US power. So, the argument went, the neocon policy of George W. Bush will actually undermine US interests by making it harder to get things done internationally.

The Obama years seemed to validate this argument. Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize just being Barack Obama. America signed a ground-breaking nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the New START. The United States negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran, and was part of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change.

Then Trump came. He withdrew from the JCPOA and the Paris Agreement. There are signs New START is going to fall apart. Trump was skeptical of other international commitments, withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty and signalling he may withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty. The United States left the UN Human Rights Council. Trump was openly disparaging of NATO. And he was generally not nice in his foreign policy, bullying Canada and China over trade agreements, demanding South Korea provide more money for US troops based there.

Based on the logic of liberal internationalism, US influence should be waning. States will tire of Trump’s aggression and stop following US directions. America will find it harder to get anything done.

But…that’s not happening.

There are some signs of waning US influence. The UN General Assembly famously laughed at Trump during a speech, and NATO leaders mocked him behind his back. China seems to be increasing its sway over the UN.

But that doesn’t seem to extend to substantive complications in US foreign policy. Canada still went through with the new US trade deal despite irritation with Trump’s tactics. South Korea has been scrambling to keep Trump happy, even as they’re frustrated with his pressure. And as we saw, Trump’s unilateral and imbalanced Israel-Palestine deal isn’t provoking much anger among Arab leaders.

So what does this mean for liberal internationalism?

One could argue that America is just so powerful it can get away with behavior like this. But that would be an important caveat for liberal internationalism, which often argues that it’s in America’s interest to be nice.

One could also argue Trump is doing long-term damage to America’s influence. Basically, wait for it. This sounds uncomfortably similar to realist defenses of their predictions that the world will balance against a unipolar America, though. With two of three 21st century US Presidents pursuing aggressive unilateral policies, we should be seeing definite signs of strain by now.

But I think it is very possible that liberal internationalists are just wrong. It is not in a states’ interest to be nice in their foreign policy, especially when that states has the resources to be mean. And maybe, as the neocons argued, it is even necessary to be tough when dealing with other states if you want to maintain your influence.

So where does that leave everyone who opposes Trump’s foreign policy?

Well, we could point out that his approach is effective in advancing his Administration’s interests, but those are not necessarily America’s best interests. For example, Trump may succeed in getting NATO to “pay more” for America’s support, but that doesn’t actually help America much. The benefit of multilateralism and cooperation, then, is not that it advances America’s interests; the process of working with other states helps us better understand what those interests are.

Or it may provide further support for the growing restraint crowd. Maybe the only way to lead the world is to be mean. And if we want to be cooperative and helpful, we’ll have to sacrifice some of our expansive interests. So…we sacrifice those expansive interests. If the only way to lead the world is to act like Trump (or George W. Bush), then we must be satisfied with a more restrained foreign policy.

I’m happy to be proved wrong; please feel free to provide evidence of Trump facing real substantive challenges in foreign policy due to his approach.


Taking Liberalism on Intervention Seriously: a 12-Step Program

500px-Coalition_action_against_Libya.svgEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Tim Dunne. He is Research Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect at the University of Queensland and the past editor of the European Journal of International Relations. tl;dr warning: ~2400 words.

In a recent lively and provocative post, Stephen Walt argues that liberal imperialists are like ‘neocons’ only more human rights-friendly. They are alike in the sense that both ‘are eager proponents for using American hard power’. And combined, these two sets of protagonists have been responsible for bad foreign policy decisions ‘to intervene in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today’s drumbeat to do the same in Syria’.

To help cleanse the US policy community of liberal imperialist tendencies, Walt offers ’10 warning signs that you are a Liberal Imperialist’. If you fail the test, as I did, then you have the option of (1) coming out as an interventionist (2) engaging in a form of realist immersion therapy by reading texts about why interventions fail. ‘And if that doesn’t work, maybe we need some sort of 12-step program’.

The question I want to pose is whether failing the test commits you to being a liberal imperialist? Or does the particular identity construction creak and crack under scrutiny, such that it is possible to adopt a liberal position on intervention that does not ascribe to the folly and naiveté that is attributed to it?

To help address this question I’m going to offer an alternative 12-step program that critics of liberal thinking on intervention may want to enroll in. My principle reasoning is that Walt’s ‘warning signs’ lump together – and obfuscate – critical debates and distinctions within liberalism, which is why many liberals opposed the 2003 Iraq War just as they oppose a military escalation in Syria today. Some even plausibly argue that Libya came dangerously close to an illiberal intervention on the grounds that the mandate of protecting civilians morphed into the goal of regime change. Yet what no liberal countenances is ‘another Rwanda’ in which the great powers (individually and collectively) failed to take the decisive action that was being called for by the UN force commander on the ground in Kigali. Avoiding the twin problems of indifference and recklessness has been the driver of the intervention agenda that the UN has embarked upon since the turn of the new century. And this agenda has been drive forward by the search for an effective capacity to respond to mass atrocities that is anti-imperialist. I develop this point in stages 9-11 of the recovery plan. Continue reading


The New Grand-Strategic Divide? A Response to Thomas Wright

Teddy_RooseveltThe style of this piece deviates from what I usually put up here. By way of explanation: I wrote this after some initial indications of interest by Foreign Policy in running a response. But they’ve got a lot on their plate and they no longer seem intrigued. Frankly, that’s for the best; this is now about as long as Tom’s initial piece. So I’m posting it at the Duck. Full disclosure: I served on Tom’s dissertation committee and co-authored an article, “What’s at Stake in the American Empire Debate,” with him. So this should be viewed as a friendly, if spirited, rejoinder. For another reaction, see David Schorr’s piece at Democracy Arsenal.

Thomas Wright’s “Neocons vs. Realists is so 2008” gets a lot right about the emerging grand-strategic debate in the United States. He argues that it stretches between  two poles. One is composed of “restrainers” who “believe that the United States is overcommitted in the world” and seek some kind of retrenchment combining “nation-building at home” with a reduced emphasis on shaping the global environment. The other is occupied by “shapers” who advocate a continued–or even expanded–American commitment to ordering international affairs. He contends that Obama’s second term will likely be dominated by a specific breed of “restrainer,” one that “want[s] to preserve America’s core alliances” but also “to avoid any new entanglements that go beyond core commitments” and relies on allies to shoulder a greater burden in future interventions. Although the administration has “been a shaper in East Asia and a restrainer in the Middle East,” the impulse for restraint looks poised to dominate future foreign-policy decisions.

Wright paints a plausible picture of the current ideological balance in the Obama Administration. It clearly prefers to “invest” in long-neglected capital projects over maintaining current levels of defense expenditures. Given the current fiscal-political environment, pursuing such a preference will require continuing efforts to convince allies and partners to accept a greater share of the military burden. Wright also offers an important corrective to the assumptions of some of the “restrainers.” We should not over-interpret the long-term implications of current US economic performance and the general fatigue created by the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. India, Brazil, China, and the rest of the rising-powers crowd face their own challenges. Some of these may prove more intractable than the self-inflicted wounds created by Washington’s current dysfunctions.

Moreover, the odds suggest the formation of the kinds of foreign-policy coalitions Wright anticipates–including the increasing alignment of liberal and conservative “shapers.” This entails situational alliances among neoconservatives, primacy realists, and muscular liberal-internationalists. All three camps fit within the “shaper” rubric insofar as they believe that the United States can, and should, maintain international primacy–what scholars call “hegemony”–for as long as possible. However, they disagree about many things. Primacy realists are constitutionally skeptical of placing the maintenance and expansion of liberal order at the center of American foreign policy. When they conflict, the argument goes, realpolitik considerations should always trump the promotion of liberal values–whether human rights, democracy, or multilateral international governance.

Continue reading


ISO: American Grand Strategy

Europa Universalis 3 - Alternate HistoryThe first decade of the 21st century was a heady time for foreign-policy wonks. Why? Because their world was awash with Great Debates about Grand StrategyTM.

Now things seem much less exciting. Perhaps that’s because, despite the best efforts of the usual suspects, the partisan debate no longer maps well onto big ideas about grand strategy. Remember how vacuous the Romney-Obama debates were on foreign policy issues?

Yeah, that.

Continue reading


The Triumph of Liberal Internationalism?

Robert Golan-Viella reflects on a tectonic shift in partisan foreign-policy debate, i.e., the fact that the Democrats have the upper hand. He chalks this up to campaign politics: the key to a Republican victory runs through the economy. I agree that there are “strong critiques” of Obama foreign policy and that “leading Republicans aren’t making them.” But I don’t think this is “politically smart,” insofar as leading Republicans are making attacks on Obama foreign policy–just not very good ones.

As Blake Hounshell noted on twitter of the latest broadside from the Romney campaign:

I expect that I will return to this theme on a number of future occasions, but I should note that this is something quite similar to what’s been happening on the domestic politics front.

While there’s plenty of room to eviscerate Obama, the Republicans have painted themselves into an ideological corner from which they’re forced to make a lot of deeply questionable claims. This is what happens when you’ve convinced your base that the label “socialist” is broad enough to include a center-right President whose major domestic initiatives — national Romneycare, a tax-cut and infrastructure oriented stimulus, a cap-and-trade approach to reducing carbon emissions — were mainstream Republican positions only four years ago.

Indeed, the fact is that Obama foreign policy doesn’t look that much different from what Bush was doing in the later part of his second term. Sure, the Obama Administration cancelled an inferior BMD program and replaced it with a better one (props to Sean Kay for that phrasing). But on Iraq and Afghanistan Obama largely followed the path developed toward the end of the Bush administration. Even its position on Iran is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Obama’s more explicit offer to engage with Iran  highlighted Teheran’s intransigence; to the extent that it “worked,” it did so by generating greater international support for tougher sanctions — it convinced other countries to get behind preexisting US policy. Even the “Israel” issue is often more about style than substance (cf. Erik Voeten on the status of Jerusalem).
In that sense, it isn’t surprising that Russia has become a focal point. The “reset” policy really was a break from Bush foreign policy. On the one hand, though, that “break” has worked to secure Bush administration objectives, such as expanded transit routes to Afghanistan via Russian territory. On the other hand, we can imagine that McCain administration might have been much more aggressive on Georgia and not have pursued New START. I can see a case for recalibration of the US policy toward Tbilisi, but August 2008 pretty much revealed the limitations of full-throttle support for Georgia.
Nuclear-weapons policy, however, provides an opening for real attack on the Obama Administration. But once again, we’re not getting substantive criticism about nuclear doctrine but rather blog-serious level discourse about selling out US interests to Moscow on BMD and the aggregate size of the US nuclear arsenal. Recall that US-Russians relations have deteriorated lately precisely because Washington won’t capitulate to Moscow on matters such as Syria policy or EPAA.

One lesson of this, I think, was that we didn’t need all of that “security Democrat” handwringing during the first five years after 9/11. Remember all those people who were in a tizzy about how liberals and progressives needed to come up with “new thinking” to respond to the neoconservative challenge? That all looks pretty silly now. The Obama Administration’s foreign policy fits pretty squarely within the broad liberal-internationalist tradition, albeit with, on some issues, a significant lean toward its “pragmatic realist” variant. Indeed, with a few exceptions — such as the aforementioned disaster that was US policy toward Georgia — the Bush administration basically abandoned neo-conservativism after the 2006 midterms.

That’s not to say that we won’t get another taste of neoconservative crusading bluster if Romney wins. My guess is that his impulses aren’t in that direction, but foreign-policy novices often go where their advisors take them. But I think what the record of the past two decades suggests is pretty clear: Republican and Democratic foreign-policy centrists never needed to “rethink” anything. Their ideas have acquitted themselves quite well. Neo-Reaganite foreign policy? Not so much. 


Clashing Networks and Foreign Policy

Anne Marie Slaughter and Dan Drezner had an interesting debate last week on the role of nonstate actors in foreign policy. AMS stakes out a “modern/liberal-social” position highlighting the role of nonstate actors, whereas DD takes a “subtle realist” view, maintaining the priority of states and national interests. DD sums up their differences this way:

I’m skeptical about the viability of transnational interests to effectively pressure multiple governments to adopt a common policy solution, and I’m super-skeptical that these groups can supply broad-based solutions independently of national governments.

My own take is that DD underestimates the extent to which transnationally-linked domestic coalitions affect policy, but that AMS takes too narrow a view of the civil society actors involved. I agree with DD that nonstate actors alone will not provide “broad-based solutions” themselves–although I don’t think that AMS would go that far anyway.

Most international issues do not pit states against nonstate actors, with each lining up on different sides of the issues. Rather, what we see are networks on each side, usually with states representing key components. Keck and Sikkink made this point years ago in a book that revived the scholarly debate on transnational relations. But the presence and importance of states in networks is often overlooked. States must be a major part of network studies because, in the end of course, they make policies.

On a day to day basis within networks, however, states are not necessarily the leading forces. When it comes to projecting the ideas and rallying the interests that go into policy outcomes, civil society actors play key roles. Acting as interest groups within states, they seek to shape governments’ preferences. Acting as NGOs across state borders and in international institutions, they exchange ideas, personnel, and money, affecting both domestic and international policy.

Notably as well, these networks are not all “progressive,” although most of the scholarly and journalistic attention has focused on human rights, environmental, and global justice groups. Rather, there is huge diversity among transnational advocates, with powerful right-wing networks fighting the left. Nor is it simply the case that conservatives ally with states to oppose changes in the status quo. In the ongoing battles that comprise most of international policy making, all sides support or reject change at certain times.

Finally, the means by which policy change happens transcend the staid “logics” of persuasion—framing, shaming, grafting, deliberation, dialogue, etc.–on which much of the literature has focused. Network members do use such tactics. But these are invariably countered by opposition networks. They smash frames and deploy their own equally resonant ones. They shame the shamers and honor those who the other side seeks to embarrass. They sever grafts while making their own.

In other words, these are policy wars, not one-sided persuasive campaigns aimed at changing state policy or public opinion. The tactics that opposing sides use extend well beyond the rhetorical. They seek to exclude one another from key institutions. They invent their own institutions to keep the other side out. They seek to silence one another’s voices. And they attack one another ferociously, for misunderstanding, misstatement, and downright evil.

I’ll take a few cases that I’ve written about in my forthcoming book. Admittedly, these are not frontline national security issues, but I’d say they are nonetheless important parts of international and domestic politics in many countries.

Gay rights has advanced tremendously in Western states over the past few decades. This has been led not by governments but movements that have effectively organized and been able to achieve political and cultural change. There has been substantial transnational interaction within the gay rights movement, with domestic groups learning from one another, receiving assistance, and exchanging personnel. They’ve also been active at the UN trying to affect policy.

All the while, however, they have faced resistance from a transnational coalition of conservative religious groups, what I call the “Baptist-burqa” network. In some countries, this has helped keep gay rights off the political agenda completely. In others, it has led to continuing conflict whose outcome remains unclear. At the international level, at least with regard to UN policy on gay rights, it has kept “progress” slow and minimal. The fight has been far from pretty, with the two networks and their national components engaging in all sorts of mudslinging and competition. The current stalemate at the UN stems from the respective power of these opposing networks, in particular their ability to affect state policy choices, even if in the final analysis it is states that vote on the policies themselves.

Small arms control is another issue pitting network against network. Human rights, gun control, and development organizations organized transnationally in the 1990s, seeking to stem the global trade in weapons. But they immediately faced opposition from a transnational coalition of gun rights groups, led by America’s National Rifle Association (NRA). The two sides, complete with powerful states on each side, have fought over controls on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW) since then. In these battles, the nonstate actors on both sides have helped shape state policy, through both domestic and international politicking. The failure thus far to achieve significant controls stems in large part from the power of the gun network to influence ideas and policies in a number of states. This is an outcome every bit as important as policy change—and stemming significantly from civil society activism and clashes.

In other cases that AMS mentions, such as the landmines treaty and the ICC, networks of states and nonstate actors achieved much—but could have achieved much more but for the power of opposing states within larger ideological networks. The U.S. government was a major impediment to reaching the goals activists originally hoped for. But this was a U.S. government strongly influenced by NGOs and activists—and the outcomes are in large part a result of their ideas and sway.

Other interesting recent works that show the power of these kinds of networks, and especially their clash, include Orenstein’s on pension policy and Teles and Kenney’s on free market activism.

What about “major” international policy? DD puts it this way:

The kind of non-state actors that Slaughter embraces have not been shy in engaging issues like climate change, Israel/Palestine or macroeconomic imbalances — but I haven’t seen any appreciable change in global public policies as a result.

John M. Owen has written a fascinating new book arguing that clashing ideological networks have been a key basis for regime change for centuries. I’d argue that some of the most important foreign policy developments of the last decade stem from powerful civil society interests, affecting state policy. The role of neo-conservative networks in sparking the Iraq War is Exhibit A.

Regarding climate change, I see this issue not as involving a clash between powerful states and environmental groups but as one which again pits network against network. On both sides, there are an array of powerful states, corporations, foundations, and NGOs, supporting divergent views. The failure to reach agreement on climate change policy is a testament as much to network as to state power.

On Israel/Palestine, I’d argue that a major reason for the situation we now see is the power of internationally-linked domestic interests–in the US, a loose but real agglomeration of civil society groups, the Israel Lobby as Walt/Mearsheimer define it. Its activism has shaped perceptions of America’s national interest, notwithstanding increasing efforts to reshape that view by other civil society actors.

The end of all this interaction may not be easily predictable, certainly not in the way that structural realists purport to predict outcomes. Henry Farrell makes this point in talking about cross-border “contagion” and the unpredictability of policy outcomes that result. The “contagion” metaphor, however, with its overtones of hot zone diseases spreading spontaneously and uncontrollably only explains part of what is happening.

Often there is deliberate, strategic interaction among like-minded groups within different states. They seek to shape policy both within their own and other states, using demonstration effects at home or abroad to push for their own favored policy outcomes more broadly. True, as HF states, we may not be able to predict outcomes as easily as in a billiard ball world. But I agree with AMS here that we need to pay attention to these interactions.

Where I differ with many who highlight transnational relations is in their taking too narrow a perspective on the groups, networks, and tactics involved. To reiterate, these networks centrally involve states, sometimes politicians, sometimes bureaucrats. There is not a full-scale power shift to nonstate actors. Second, these networks by no means push only “progressive” solutions to global problems. Rather, there are conflicting networks following and often deepening the ideological divisions of modern societies. Finally, because the stakes are so high for the groups involved, the tactics they follow are bare-knuckled and hard-hitting—just like politics in any other sphere.


Against Esoteric Readings of Neoconservatvism, or Always Check the Footnotes

I’m currently working on a few difference pieces that deal with the relationship between liberalism and empire. I also, as long-team readers of the Duck know, consider neoconservative understandings of international politics as a variant of liberalism that constitutes a specific flavor of the US commitment to democratic enlargement as transformative of international politics. Neoconservatives reject the idea that international institutions, at least as currently configured, and US self-restraint pacify global politics; their liberalism is strongly inflected by particular currents of American nationalist exceptionalism.

Most published international-relations scholarship concurs with this assessment, thus I read with great interest Jonathan D. Caverley’s “Power and Democratic Weakness: Neoconservatism and Neoclassical Realism” which appeared in Millennium: Journal of International Studies (May 2010, pp. 593-614) [earlier, but ungated, version]. Here’s the abstract:

While realists and neoconservatives generally disagreed on the Iraq invasion of 2003, nothing inherent in either approach to foreign policy accounts for this. Neoconservatism’s enthusiasm for democratisation would appear to distinguish the two but its rejection of all other liberal mechanisms in world politics suggests that the logic linking democracy and American security shares little with liberalism. Inspecting the range of neoconservative thought reveals a unifying theme: the enervating effects of democracy on state power and the will to wield it in a dangerous world. Consequently, the United States enjoys greater safety among other democracies due to a more favourable distribution of relative power. Viewing regime type through the prism of state power extraction in a competitive, anarchic world puts neoconservatism squarely in the neoclassical realist camp. The article concludes by suggesting why the rest of International Relations should care about this new ‘neo–neo’ debate.

Caverley contends, in consequence, that we should see neoconservativism as a form of neoclassical realism. After all, neoconservatives see anarchy as characterized by unforgiving power-political competition and worry that the domestic politics of liberal states render them vulnerable to authoritarian and totalitarian rivals. They recommend civic virtue and strong political leadership — along the lines of Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” — as an antidote.

This combination looks, as Caverley argues, rather similar to Gideon Rose’s description of neoclassical realism as holding that

The scope and ambition of a country’s foreign policy is driven first and foremost by the country’s relative material power. Yet it contends that the impact of power capabilities on foreign policy is indirect and complex, because systemic pressures must be translated through intervening unit-level variables such as decision-makers’ perceptions and state structure.

While most of Caverley’s claims are well-rehearsed in the “how to make sense of neoconservative foreign policy” debate, I’ve never before seen his argument that neoconservatives support democratizing other countries as a way of making them weaker. It turns out there’s a good reason for that: they don’t make any such claim.

Before I explain how Caverley’s arguments combine esoteric readings of neoconservative texts with both invocation of non-existant arguments and quotations taken plainly out of context, I should touch upon a set of even more basic problems with Caverley’s claim that neoconservativism isn’t liberalism. The crux of Caverley’s reasoning looks like this:

G. John Ikenberry identifies six ‘big ideas’ shared by Wilsonianism and modern liberalism. The first four cover various paths to peace: democracy, free trade, international law and international bodies, and collective security. The final two are a progressive optimism about modernity coupled with the need for American global leadership as a ‘moral agent’. Neoconservatism clearly accepts both the importance of democracy as an American national interest and of American moral global leadership, but explicitly rejects the remaining four points of liberalism/Wilsonianism [emphasis original].

First, liberalism, of course, is not identical to Wilsonianism; liberal internationalism represents only one of many ways of translating liberalism into grand strategy. In the United States, liberal principles have undergird foreign-policy approaches ranging from a complete rejection of foreign “entanglements” to the establishing of formal empire.

Second, it is a bit silly to say that neoconservativism isn’t liberal because it overlaps with neoclassical realism. Neoclassical realism is a somewhat amorphous container for some pretty heterogeneous scholarly theories; in consequence, it provides a poor benchmark for assessing non-scholarly debates about the proper guiding principles for American foreign policy.

Third, the Hobbes-Locke debate over the relative unpleasantness of the state of the nature–which Hobbes distinguishes from the texture of relations between sovereign states–is an intra-liberal debate about the parameters of the social contract. Liberals can disagree about whether institutions such as the League or the United Nations are sufficiently robust to mitigate anarchy, let alone whether concessions of sovereignty necessary to create such institutions would be worth the consequent threat to domestic freedom and self-determination in liberal democracies.

Indeed, it isn’t difficult to understand why neconservative praxis is incompatible with realism:

  • It holds that relations among democracies are fundamentally different than those among democracies and non-democracies;
  • It holds that global politics should be understood as an ideological struggle between the forces of freedom and their antagonists; and
  • It sees no contradiction between the pursuit of liberal values, at least properly understood, and national interests.

Although specific academics who call themselves realists might accept one or more of these propositions, none are “realist” in any meaningful sense. No realist would, as many neoconservatives have, advocate a “League of Democracies” as a superior alternative to the United Nations.

Consider Caverley’s discussion of the neoconservative rejection of “liberal, transnational norms.” Caverley quotes Krauthammer as writing that “moral suasion is a farce,” but here’s what Krauthammer writes:

Moral suasion? Was it moral suasion that made Qaddafi see the wisdom of giving up his weapons of mass destruction? Or Iran agree for the first time to spot nuclear inspections? It was the suasion of the bayonet. It was the ignominious fall of Saddam–and the desire of interested spectators not to be next on the list. The whole point of this treaty was to keep rogue states from developing chemical weapons. Rogue states are, by definition, impervious to moral suasion.

Moral suasion is a farce. Why then this obsession with conventions, protocols, legalisms? Their obvious net effect is to temper American power. Who, after all, was really going to be most constrained by these treaties? The ABM amendments were aimed squarely at American advances and strategic defenses, not at Russia, which lags hopelessly behind. The Kyoto Protocol exempted India and China. The nuclear test ban would have seriously degraded the American nuclear arsenal. And the landmine treaty (which the Clinton administration spent months negotiating but, in the end, met so much Pentagon resistance that even Clinton could not initial it) would have had a devastating impact on U.S. conventional forces, particularly at the DMZ in Korea.

This is pretty par for the course in terms of US nationalist exceptionalism: bad regimes don’t care about their image in the “international community,” the US needs strength to pursue liberal ends, treaties with autocratic rivals only weaken US power, etc. Similarly, Caverley quotes Robert Kagan, who writes in “End of Dreams, Return of History” that “there is little sense of shared morality and common political principle among the great powers.” But Kagan’s piece, with a title rebutting Francis Fukuyama’s claim that great ideological struggles are over, is a call for the US to recognize the new authoritarian threat to liberalism. And here’s the full context:

Today there is little sense of shared morality and common political principle among the great powers. Quite the contrary: There is suspicion, growing hostility, and the well-grounded view on the part of the autocracies that the democracies, whatever they say, would welcome their overthrow. Any concert among them would be built on a shaky foundation likely to collapse at the first serious test.

American foreign policy should be attuned to these ideological distinctions and recognize their relevance to the most important strategic questions. It is folly to expect China to help undermine a brutal regime in Khartoum or to be surprised if Russia rattles its saber at pro-Western democratic governments near its borders. There will be a tendency toward solidarity among the world ’s autocracies, as well as among the world’s democracies.

For all these reasons, the United States should pursue policies designed both to promote democracy and to strengthen cooperation among the democracies. It should join with other democracies to erect new international institutions that both reflect and enhance their shared principles and goals. One possibility might be to establish a global concert or league of democratic states, perhaps informally at first but with the aim of holding regular meetings and consultations on the issues of the day. Such an institution could bring together Asian nations such as Japan, Australia, and India with the European nations — two sets of democracies that have comparatively little to do with each other outside the realms of trade and finance. The institution would complement, not replace, the United Nations, the g-8, and other global forums. But it would at the very least signal a commitment to the democratic idea, and in time it could become a means of pooling the resources of democratic nations to address a number of issues that cannot be addressed at the United Nations. If successful, it could come to be an organization capable of bestowing legitimacy on actions that liberal nations deem necessary but autocratic nations refuse to countenance — as nato conferred legitimacy on the conflict in Kosovo even though Russia was opposed.

Given such overwhelming evidence against neoconservativism’s illiberalism, much depends on Caverley’s claim that neoconservatives favor liberal enlargement as a way of weakening rivals by saddling them with democratic institutions. As I’ve alluded to already, some of this argument depends (fittingly enough) on a Straussian-style esoteric reading of neoconservative writings. Neoconservatives worry about the erosion of republican values in modern liberal polities. They advocate strong leadership and “new nationalism”-style programs to counter this tendency. They consider Europe as a cautionary example for the United States. But to read their various worries and exhortations as containing a hidden message that Washington should spread democracy for instrumental purposes–to enfeeble rivals–is, as one of my professors once noted of Straussian esoteric readings, “fascinating, ingenious, and totally wrong.”

How wrong it is becomes clear when Caverley moves beyond esoteric inference and claims to cite neoconservatives making this argument.

Fukuyama observes that the advocates of trans- forming Iraq into a Western-style democracy are the same people who question the ‘dangers of ambitious social engineering’. This apparent paradox becomes coherent given this idea of democratic enfeeblement. Kirkpatrick points out that because totalitarian states are inherently more threatening, the United States should focus its democratisation efforts there. Her famous essay does not criticise neoconservative enthusiasm for democratisation so much as connect it to a grand strategic logic. Because of the military advantage enjoyed by non-democracies, a United States interested in self-preservation should aggressively spread this cost aversion Muravchik succinctly states the core (and inherently power political) logic: ‘The spread of democracy offers an important, peaceful way to weaken our foe.

But by this logic would not other regime types attempt to spread democracy, preferring to be the only autocrat in a world of Kantian peaceniks? Kagan and others address this question by claiming that the existence and success of democracies is inherently threatening to the stability of authoritarian regimes. This autocratic support (perhaps unlike democracy) is not based in ideological affinity but on self-preservation and the desire to maximise power. Moreover, autocrats:

see their comparative advantage over the West when it comes to gaining influence with African, Asian or Latin American governments that can provide access to oil and other vital natural resources or that, in the case of Burma, are strategically located.

Why am I so dismissive of all of this? It seemed odd to me, so I checked the footnotes.

Kirkpatrick nowhere in “Dictatorships and Double Standards” argues that the US should focus democratization efforts on totalitarian states because they are “inherently more threatening” (at least in the sense Caverley implies). She argues that, in the struggle against communist totalitarianism, the US should support friendly anti-communist authoritarians as both, whatever their flaws, morally superior and more amenable to subsequent democratization than totalitarian regimes. The Carter Administration, as well as the American left, both weakens US interests and the cause of democratic liberalism insofar as its weakens its autocratic allies in favor of self-styled liberation movements. As she concludes:

For these reasons and more, a posture of continuous self-abasement and apology vis-a-vis the Third World is neither morally necessary nor politically appropriate. No more is it necessary or appropriate to support vocal enemies of the United States because they invoke the rhetoric of popular liberation. It is not even necessary or appropriate for our leaders to forswear unilaterally the use of military force to counter military force. Liberal idealism need not be identical with masochism, and need not be incompatible with the defense of freedom and the national interest.

Caverley’s ‘smoking gun’ quotation from Muravchik, moreover, is completely out of context. When Muravchik argues that “The spread of demcoracy offers an important, peaceful way to weaken our foe” he has a specific foe in mind: militant jihadism. As Muravchik notes earlier in the article:

what is undeniable is that Bush’s declaration of war against terrorism did bear the earmarks of neoconservatism. One can count the ways. It was moralistic, accompanied by descriptions of the enemy as “evil” and strong assertions of America’s righteousness. As Norman Podhoretz puts it in his powerful new book Bush offered “an entirely unapologetic assertion of the need for and the possibility of moral judgment in the realm of world affairs.” In contrast to the suggestion of many, especially many Europeans, that America had somehow provoked the attacks, Bush held that what the terrorists hated was our virtues, and in particular our freedom. His approach was internationalist: it treated the whole globe as the battlefield, and sought to confront the enemy far from our own doorstep. It entailed the prodigious use of force. And, for the non-military side of the strategy, Bush adopted the idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East in the hope that this would drain the fever swamps that bred terrorists [emphasis added].

That’s right: Moravchik’s argument has zilch to do with Caverley’s “democratic enfeeblement” hypothesis. Rather, it amounts to a fairly standard neoconservative claim that democratization weakens radical Islamism.

There’s something perverse about using an out-of-context quotation from this particualr Muravchik piece. Here’s what Muravchik has to say about neoconservativism in the early pages of his article:

The term “neoconservative” was coined in the 1970’s as an anathema. It was intended to stigmatize a group of liberal intellectuals who had lately parted ways with the majority of their fellows.

As a heretical offshoot of liberalism, neoconservatism appealed to the same values and even many of the same goals—like, for example, peace and racial equality. But neoconservatives argued that liberal policies—for example, disarmament in the pursuit of peace, or affirmative action in the pursuit of racial equality—undermined those goals rather than advancing them. In short order, the heretics established themselves as contemporary liberalism’s most formidable foes.

Two distinct currents fed the stream of neoconservatism. One focused on domestic issues, specifically by reexamining the Great Society programs of the 1960’s and the welfare state as a whole. It was centered in the Public Interest, a quarterly founded and edited by Irving Kristol. The other focused on international issues and the cold war; it was centered in COMMENTARY and led by the magazine’s editor, Norman Podhoretz.

The former current has little if any relevance to the controversy surrounding neoconservatism today. Much of the domestic-policy critique mounted by neoconservatives eventually became common wisdom, symbolized by President Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform program and his declaration that “the era of big government is over.” In the meantime, several of the seminal figures of the domestic wing—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer—drifted back toward liberalism.

It was the foreign-policy wing that was, all along, more passionately embroiled in ideological disputation.1 For one thing, the stakes were higher. If a domestic policy fails, you can try another. If a foreign policy fails, you may find yourself at war. Also, the battles that rived the Democratic party in the 1970’s, at a time when virtually all neoconservatives were still Democrats, principally concerned foreign affairs. These battles sharpened ideological talons on all sides.

The divisions stemmed from the Vietnam war. Not that all neoconservatives were hawks on this particular issue; some, including Podhoretz, were (qualified) doves. But when opponents of the war went from arguing that it was a failed instance of an essentially correct policy—namely, resisting Communist expansionism—to contending that it was a symptom of a deep American sickness, neoconservatives answered back. Whatever problems we may have made for ourselves in Vietnam, they said, the origins of the conflict were to be found neither in American imperialism nor in what President Jimmy Carter would call our “inordinate fear of Communism,” but in Communism’s lust to dominate.

Contrary to Carter and the antiwar Left, neoconservatives believed that Communism was very much to be feared, to be detested, and to be opposed. They saw the Soviet Union as, in the words of Ronald Reagan, an “evil empire,” unspeakably cruel to its own subjects and relentlessly predatory toward those not yet in its grasp. They took the point of George Orwell’s 1984—a book that (as the Irish scholars James McNamara and Dennis J. O’Keeffe have written) resurrected the idea of evil “as a political category.” And they absorbed the cautionary warning of the Russian novelist and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn against yielding ground to the Communists in the vain hope “that perhaps at some point the wolf will have eaten enough.”

Many in our history, both statesmen and scholars, had drawn a distinction between Americans’ sentiments and America’s self-interest. Where Communism was concerned, the neoconservatives saw the two as intertwined. Communism needed to be fought both because it was morally appalling and because it was a threat to our country.

And, as he notes a bit later on:

Even those traditional conservatives who distrusted the readiness of Nixon and Kissinger to make deals with the Soviet Union tended to share the underlying philosophy of foreign-policy “realism.” As opposed to the neoconservative emphasis on the battle of ideas and ideologies, and on the psychological impact of policy choices, realists focused on state interests and the time-honored tools of statecraft. That was one reason why, for the neoconservatives of the 1970’s, the great champions in American political life were not conservative or Republican figures but two Democrats of unmistakably liberal pedigree: Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and George Meany, the president of the AFL-CIO. When President Ford, on Kissinger’s counsel, closed the White House door to Solzhenitsyn upon his expulsion from Soviet Russia, these two stalwart anti-Communists formally welcomed him to Washington.

It was only with the accession of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1981 that the neoconservatives made their peace with Republican-style conservatism. Reagan brought several neoconservatives—notably Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Max Kampelman, and Elliott Abrams—into pivotal foreign-policy positions in his administration (and, on the domestic-policy side, William J. Bennett and others). With time, most neoconservatives moved into the Republican fold. As for Reagan’s “belligerent” approach to the cold war, it was criticized as loudly by both liberals and conservatives within the foreign-policy establishment as it was cheered by neoconservatives. But there can be no question that it issued in a sublime victory: the mighty juggernaut of the Soviet state, disposing of more kill power than the U.S. or any other state in history, capitulated with scarcely a shot.

So, while Muravchik does describe neoconservativism as sharing elements with both ‘realism’ and ‘idealism,’ his account amounts to a refutation of Caverley’s core thesis:

The military historian Max Boot has aptly labeled it “hard Wilsonianism.” It does not mesh neatly with the familiar dichotomy between “realists” and “idealists.” It is indeed idealistic in its internationalism and its faith in democracy and freedom, but it is hardheaded, not to say jaundiced, in its image of our adversaries and its assessment of international organizations. Nor is its idealism to be confused with the idealism of the “peace” camp. Over the course of the past century, various schemes for keeping the peace—the League of Nations, the UN, the treaty to outlaw war, arms-control regimes—have all proved fatuous. In the meantime, what has in fact kept the peace (whenever it has been kept) is something quite different: strength, alliances, and deterrence. Also in the meantime, “idealistic” schemes for promoting not peace but freedom—self-determination for European peoples after World War I, decolonization after World War II, the democratization of Germany, Japan, Italy, and Austria, the global advocacy of human rights—have brought substantial and beneficial results.

Belief in deterrence, alliances, and force does not a “realist” make if those instruments are deployed on behalf of a global crusade for liberalism.

Given all of this, it should come as no surprise that Caverley takes Kagan out of context in order to answer why, given “democratic enfeeblement,” autocracies don’t support democratization. Here’s the full pargraph, with the part that Caverley quotes underlined:

Neither Russia nor China has any interest in assisting liberal nations in their crusade against autocracies around the world. Moreover, they can see their comparative advantage over the West when it comes to gaining influence with African, Asian, or Latin American governments that can provide access to oil and other vital natural resources or that, in the case of Burma, are strategically located. Moscow knows it can have more influence with governments in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan because, unlike the liberal West, it can unreservedly support their regimes. And the more autocracies there are in the world, the less isolated Beijing and Moscow will be in international forums such as the United Nations. The more dictatorships there are, the more global resistance they will offer against the liberal West ’s efforts to place limits on sovereignty in the interest of advancing liberalism.

I suppose there might be something to Caverley’s arguments; as I’ve noted, one can make a case for fitting “neoconservativism” under the rubric of “neoclassical realism.” But doing so requires us to ignore not only the evidence of intellectual DNA, but also to reduce “liberalism” to its Wilsonian variant. Still, his conclusions about academic neoclassical realism might have some punch. I just find it difficult to overlook the fact that Caverley’s novel claims concerning “democratic enfeeblement” find no textual support.

All of this dovetails in interesting ways with recent discussions of peer review. This article, at least in its present form, would not have survived adequate peer review. Any reviewer familiar with recent neoconservative writings should have wondered about some of these quotations, all of which come from articles available online. So either Millennium couldn’t find appropriate reviewers, those reviewers were too  “overburdened” to do due diligence, or they just didn’t care.

Update: my claim about this being a failure of peer review only involves the out-of-context quotations that I discuss at the end of my critique–those specific to Caverley’s “democratic enfeeblement” argument. Peer review is supposed to catch that sort of thing. The rest of the issues I raise are, I think, subject to debate; reasonable people will disagree about them. Reviewers should either have rejected the entire piece or suggested a revise-and-resubmit with either (1) better evidence for “democratic enfeeblement” or (2) an abandonment of that argument in favor of more general points about how neoconservatives work themselves into a place quite similar to that of some neoclassical realists. But the current “evidence” for that hypothesis should not have made it into a published article.


Why We Fight?

Steve Walt asks an interesting question: Is America addicted to war? He gives five reasons why we find ourselves in constant war:

1. Because we can
2. Because we have no serious enemies
3. The all volunteer force
4. It’s the establishment stupid
5. Congress has checked out

The first three and the last point all speak to the limited international and domestic structural constraints the United States faces on the use of force. The fourth speaks to the agency involved. On this point he argues:

the foreign-policy establishment is hard-wired in favor of “doing something.” Foreign-policy thinking in Washington is dominated either by neoconservatives (who openly proclaim the need to export “liberty” and never met a war they didn’t like) or by “liberal interventionists” who are just as enthusiastic about using military power to solve problems, provided they can engineer some sort of multilateral cover for it. Liberal interventionists sometimes concede that the United States can’t solve every problem (at least not at the same time), but they still think that the United States is the “indispensable” nation and they want us to solve as many of the world’s problems as we possibly can.

Walt’s hook for the piece is that Obama ran as an anti-war candidate and yet not only are we still in Iraq, but Obama escalated our troop presence in Afghanistan and now we are in Libya. Walt also challenges the core rationale for the Libyan intervention:

As in Iraq, the real purpose of our intervention is regime change at the point of a gun… Moreover, as Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas and Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune have now shown, the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.

First, Walt is right on the lack of structural constraints as major factors in the frequency of U.S. wars/interventions. We fight because we can — and we can do it, by historical standards, with limited international and domestic repercussions and costs

And, second, I think this is a fair question and I think that looking at the role of the foreign policy establishment is key. We do fight a lot of wars and we do so across administrations. The military, the defense industrial complex, and the foreign policy apparatus — government and think tanks — all seem to have been socialized to a significant degree behind the idea that war or the use of force is a normal condition.

But, I think there is a bigger challenge and set of questions that need to be considered in all of this. We live in a highly globalized world where both our actions and our inactions have real consequences. We spend most of our time focused on cases of U.S. military action. This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense and I don’t want to minimize the costs and consequences of the use of force. But it also strikes me that if we are trying to understand and explain why the United States gets involved in wars and intervention, we have to study cases of non-intervention to see what factors or patterns emerge from those cases. Likewise, if we are going to evaluate the consequences of U.S. wars, we need to try to measure the consequences of not acting. And, we need to understand the use of American force in the larger global pattern of war.

In my own work, I look both at decisions of intervention and decisions of non-intervention — turns out there are more cases of the latter. (John Bolton would love us to bomb North Korea, Iran, and probably Syria too — and probably all on the same night). I’ve argued that intervention decisions are the result of political contests within the foreign policy establishment over when and where to intervene and how these battles play out through the media to influence public and political pressure for and against intervention. A number of factors such as elite consensus, executive branch information and propaganda advantages, and crisis duration are all important in these outcomes, but so too are the credibility of the arguments.

I think this is particularly important in any assessment of the influence of liberal interventionists on decision making. For the most part, humanitarian interventions are far less frequent than one would expect given the number of acute humanitarian crises that have occurred in the past two decades. In other words, and contrary to Leslie Gelb’s rant, liberal interventionists often lose their battles within the foreign policy establishment — partly because they are often internally conflicted on calling for the use of force and partly because the threat of violence to civilians is not always clear.

In the case of Libya, the liberal interventionists were able to prevail in their policy advocacy because there was a broad consensus at the United Nations, within the Arab League, in Europe, within the human rights and humanitarian NGO community, and within the White House that there was an imminent threat to civilians in Benghazi. In this regard, I think Walt’s characterization that there was no credible threat is wrong. (And, for the record, Alan Kuperman’s cut-and-paste-re-hashed-moral-hazards-everywhere op-ed in the USA today has not “shown” anything about this case.)

None of us are privy to the specific U.S. intelligence reports on Libya in the run-up to the March 18 Security Council decision, but both the CIA and the State Department now have strong war crimes and mass atrocity analysis units and we’ll have to wait for the FOIA release of their internal analysis to fully understand how the administration saw the situation unfolding. But, we can infer from a number of things that there was a broadly held view (beyond just the views of the “fiery” Samantha Power) that there were real and credible threats to civilians. In addition to my earlier post on this, we have the Arab League warning of serious threats to civilians, the United Nations Security Council has rarely acted as quickly as it did with UNSC Res 1973, and several human rights organizations issued specific warnings. In addition, both the ICRC and Medecins Sans Frontieres were forced to withdraw their personnel from Benghazi in the week before UNSC Res. 1973 was passed because of intensifying security concerns and both issued warnings about the peril s to civilian populations with the war spreading to the highly populated Benghazi.

Furthermore, we have some pretty good indicators of when episodes of mass political violence are most likely to occur. Barbara Harff’s 2003 APSR article tracks numerous instances of mass political killings — including the mass killing of civilians. Retributive politicide are strategies designed during or in the immediate aftermath of political rebellion and are often implemented by regimes when political rebellions have been defeated. We have plenty of cases of this phenomenon such as Sri Lanka, Guatemala, East Timor, Angola, and Sudan. Many of the warning signs of this type of impending violence existed in Libya — such as Qaddafi’s political ideology; the breadth and intensity of the political uprising against his rule; his prior record of violent repression against political rivals and dissidents; the tribal dimensions underlying the East-West divide in Libya (and the political opposition); and the scenario that if he prevailed by successfully using coercion as a means of regaining control, we would likely see the future use of intense repressive violence to maintain control.

Had these conditions not existed and had we not had a broad consensus on the threat to civilians, I’m confident that we wouldn’t be fighting in Libya today.

But, even more broadly, it’s not clear that the consequences of U.S. humanitarian interventions — or robust international peacekeeping missions — are all bad. We still may see a bad outcome in Libya, but the intervention decision itself is part of something broader in the world today. The use of force has been a constant in international relations for centuries, but as Joshua Goldstein argues in his forthcoming book Winning the War on War (due out in late summer from Dutton) the nature of war is changing — we are witnessing far fewer interstate wars and we are employing new approaches to the use of force to quell civil violence and to protect civilians — battlefield deaths have declined in every decade for the past five decades. Furthermore, as Ted Gurr noted noted over a decade ago, the decline of ethnic conflicts may well be attributable to the new ways the international system has been able to respond to episodes of mass violence and new tools for international conflict resolution and mitigation — much of which has come with significant U.S. military and diplomatic leadership. Lise Howard’s work and Page Fortna’s work on the efficacy of peacekeeping operations also suggest that our collective ability to deploy coercive force in selected instances may be a contributing factor to a reduction in global patterns of conflict.

AS evidenced by Walt’s post, there is considerable frustration today with the extent of American military engagement in the world — Iraq was one of the biggest strategic blunders in American history and I remain uncomfortable with the size of the defense budget and the extent to which American troops have become the face of America around the globe. I am also keenly aware of the challenges facing the international action in Libya today. Nonetheless, I’m also aware that the broader trends on conflict and war seem to be pointing in the right direction and American power (including the use of force) in some instances may be contributing to that trend.


A Different Take on the “Obama Doctrine”: Is Obama still a realist?

So President Obama has his own doctrine now, because Wolf Blitzer tells us so. It is basically what Ross Douhat of the New York Times called the “liberal way of war” in a column on March 20. Libya is the “beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention” – humanitarian, multilateral and limited. This is the same columnist who just six weeks before called claimed that the President’s “foreign policy has owed far more to conservative realpolitik than to any left-wing vision of international affairs.” So which is it? Is Obama a liberal internationalist or a realist, seeing as the two are generally seen as diametrically opposed?

Actually Obama is both, although we have to be careful by what we mean by both terms. Even the most liberal internationalist of American presidents, like Woodrow Wilson, never devoted themselves exclusively to a humanitarian or altruistic course for American foreign policy. Once we cut through Wilson’s soaring rhetoric, we find a President keenly devoted to the American national interest. He simply believed that multilateral cooperation yielded certain mutual gains that were impossible to reach unilaterally in a newly interdependent world. Obama sounded the same notes in his first speech before the United Nations.

Realists do not place nearly as much confidence in multilateral cooperation and have an even more narrow conception of the national interest than liberals. Humanitarianism should not be allowed to play too great a role. Fareed Zakaria has called Obama this kind of realist, but this is not really accurate. Obama is a realist in style but not in substance. His realism is evident in how he approaches decisions, not in the decisions that he makes. This type of realist has what psychologists call “cognitive complexity” – they weigh the pros and cons of a multitude of different considerations before settling on the proper course. This was evident in the recent speech on Libya that has been proclaimed the new Obama doctrine. America will consider both humanitarianism and strategic considerations when it judges whether to use force, just like Wilson did. It will consider whether there are allies to shoulder the burden and how the international community feels, but will act unilaterally if there is a compelling interest. It is cognitive complexity that drives Obama’s favorite rhetorical “tic”, that of the ‘false choice.’ It is not one or another; it is both, when it comes to race relations, abortion, or diplomatically engaging Tehran. Others have called it being an “intellectual.”
One might object that this is not a doctrine at all. In fact, it is the very opposite of a doctrine in that it approaches every situation de novo. Or one could say that this just splitting the difference, a middle course as some have framed it. The doctrinaire quality of it comes through in what considerations enter into the equation. Humanitarianism has never been a strong Republican suit, but this has obviously been a prime Obama consideration, even as he weighs it against other interests. In that sense he is a liberal internationalist. And we can think of cognitive complexity as ‘situationalism,’ a style (doctrine?) of decision-making that takes into account all angles, rather than some expedient to pacify both sides by throwing each a few scraps. So I think I disagree a bit with Dan Nexon’s post below, that the intervention and its justification do not tell us anything about how Obama thinks about foreign affairs as a whole, even if that was obviously not his point in giving the speech.

Liberal internationalism in a nutshell

I’m watching PBS coverage of the 2008 Democratic Convention. In response to Bill Clinton’s line about how the world is more impressed by the power of the United States’ example than the example of its power, Brooks quipped (I paraphrase): “I don’t think Vladimir Putin or Ahmadinejad will be impressed by our example.”

But that completely misses the point. The wager of liberal internationalism is that the United States can better achieve its objectives by building strong alliances through multilateral cooperation. The aim isn’t to “impress” people like Ahmadinejad, but to impress the leaders we need to place concerted leverage on Ahmadinejad.

There’s a legitimate debate about whether that kind of policy will work. Just as there’s a legitimate debate about whether the last eight years of Brooks’ preferred policies have proven effective against Ahmadinejad. But Brooks’ simplistic dismissal of the policy choices hardly, if you’ll excuse me, impresses.


David Brooks, dont’cha think?

David Brooks has an Alanis Morisette moment (except this one really is ironic):

But he has grown accustomed to putting on this sort of saccharine show for the rock concert masses, and in Berlin his act jumped the shark. His words drift far from reality, and not only when talking about the Senate Banking Committee. His Berlin Victory Column treacle would have made Niebuhr sick to his stomach.

Obama has benefited from a week of good images. But substantively, optimism without reality isn’t eloquence. It’s just Disney.

But when it comes down to it, Brooks is just being lazy with this column (maybe he had to substitute for Krugam on short notice).

Much of the rest of the speech fed the illusion that we could solve our problems if only people mystically come together. We should help Israelis and Palestinians unite. We should unite to prevent genocide in Darfur. We should unite so the Iranians won’t develop nukes. Or as Obama put it: “The walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.”

The pronoun “we” in these sentences, of course, refers to the United States, Germany, and (sometimes) Europe. In other words, The “we” is the transatlantic alliance. Obama’s speech is about the need to repair the rift between the United States and Europe in order to confront grave international problems, a great many of which involve global public goods. Of course he’s going to focus on shared concerns. What does Brooks expect, that he’s going to play “Old Europe” against “New Europe”? That he’s going to tell the European’s to “put up or shut up”? Kennedy gave his speech during the Cold War, when American troops and nuclear weapons defended Europe from the Soviet bloc.

I find it particularly ironic that, on a trip where Obama stressed the threat of Iranian proliferation, and called upon that country to accept the European proposal for ending uranium enrichment, Brooks wants to claim the terrain of “realistic” foreign policy. Indeed, Obama’s call to enhance Cooperative Threat Reduction might be “unobjectionable,” but Brooks might want to let the Bush administration know that. It’s alternated between neglecting the program and trying to cut it.

It is doubly ironic that, while Obama’s trip to Europe focused on rebuilding the greatest democratic alliance in history, Brooks thinks nattering on about whether or not the great dialectic of history has ended is somehow a breath of cold, hard political reality:

Since then, autocracies have arisen, the competition for resources has grown fiercer, Russia has clamped down, Iran is on the march. It will take politics and power to address these challenges, the two factors that dare not speak their name in Obama’s lofty peroration.

Post-trotskyites of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your primary contradictions.

Of course, I doubt that Brooks really cares whether or not his column makes any sense. The right’s decided that one of their major lines of attack against Obama is that he’s a naive hippie (note the “acid” reference; how droll).

The fact that the tactics is old enough to belong on K-Tel’s “Greatest Hits of the Republican Party: Forty Years of Campaigning” album doesn’t really matter. As far as Brooks and his colleagues are concerned, it’s tried and true. So he does what any loyal conservative OP-ED writer does: shout it from the rooftops, and hope it sticks.


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