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August 22, 2005

Foiled by Idealism? - The US Foreign Policy Pendulum
Posted by Michael Kraig

Foreign Affairs Managing Editor Gideon Rose recently wrote a very provocative column in the NYT on August 18, appropriately titled, "Get Real."  It is a Realpolitik bashing of America's proclivity for swinging wildly between unrealistic ideals in international relations and prudent balance-of-power pragmatism. He's definitely on to something, but I question his description of current policy realities.

Rose's argument is compelling: the United States has swung back and forth for decades between getting into international messes because of ideals/culture/nationalism, after which pragmatic policies reign and the US extricates itself, only to repeat the idealist debacle again under another Administration.  This pattern, according to Rose, does not respect partisan lines; Dems or Republicans are both prone to the errors of idealism, and both sides have had their chance to extricate America from its unrealistic messes.

There is one problem, however: we are not swinging back to pragmatism this time around - at least, not yet. 

First, Rose forgets what all of DC and much of America have "learned" from their supposed past Realpolitik misdeeds during the Cold War: namely, it was not idealism that led to 9-11, according to this argument, but rather Realism itself that is the cold-blooded culprit.   In the new DC Consensus, our active aiding and abetting of all sorts of authoritarian nasties during the Cold War is what got us into the current mess and made us a hypocrtical sham the world over.  According to both Dems and Republicans, it is time to make things right.

Thus, despite the debacle in Iraq, there is still a largely unquestioned assumption - growing increasingly popular to the point of becoming received wisdom - that the US can only be secure through spreading and supporting true democracy and economic liberalization the world over.  In this new Consensus, the path to Realism is Idealism.   To lessen one's ideals in the name of pragmatism is to invite disaster. 

For this reason, authors such as Reinhold Neibuhr and Hans Morgenthau, and the halcyon Wise Men of post-WW II international system building  (Marshall, Acheson, Kennan, etc.), are no longer being held up as revered historical gurus.  After Vietnam, these Realists felt vindicated in their earlier assessment that our failure was due to an overzealous application of an unrealistic "domino theory" of communism based on the obsessive need to spread systems like ours throughout the Developing World.   There is no similar vindication occurring now; rather, criticism tends to be on the Bush Adm.'s bad methods and faulty original rationales (WMD arguments), rather than criticism of the core assumption of "transforming the Middle East."

More to the point, there is no indication that Condi Rice's State Department is prepared to implement a truly "balance of power" policy of Realpolitik pragmatism and/or a progressive policy of reciprocal engagement and cooperation with the enemy (i.e., detente or rapprochement).   Rose makes much of the new and improved operation at State, but here's what's missing in our actual security policies:

--support for a new security consensus, or common security vision, between the Developed and Developing World at the upcoming negotiations in NY for UN Reform (see Thursday's Washington Post story to see what I mean);

--support for new confidence-building measures (CBMs) toward "rogues" such as Syria, Iran, and North Korea, all of which essentially say, "We recognize you as a sovereign state with legitimate security concerns, interests, and anxieties, and we will talk with you about security guarantees that will meet the interests of both of us without undermining the other." 

--(in other words: a balance of interests, which is what the Realist's balance-of-power is meant to create);

--statements to the effect that our goal toward these 3 states is not regime change, preemptive, preventive, or otherwise, but rather is one of reaching detente or a "grand bargain" that meets the interests of both sides without endangering either side's security;

--allowance of our friends and allies in these respective regions to engage the rogues, invest in them, and trade with them, without punishment from us (for instance, allowing India to negotiate with Iran on a new oil pipeline for South Asia);

--engaging Iran to better manage the threat of a disintegrating Iraq, which would make both Iran and the US massively insecure;

--in sum: the idea of Nixon going to China, with a view of transforming things gradually through achieving a balance of interests and values, rather than radical transformation through winning a competition and delivering outright defeat via coercive methods (i.e., one side's values/interests overturning the other);

--all of this based on the assumption that North Korea, Iran, and Syria are not expansionist powers chomping on the bit to kick out the Americans and win aggressive wars against their neighbors, but rather are insecure regional powers who feel under constant threat of extinction - an assumption that is neither idealistic or realistic, but is simply the truth (see for instance Leon Sigal's argument in Arms Control Today concerning North Korea's motivations and intent, based on actual behavior).

Whatever the current realities, is Rose right in his prescriptions?  Yes.  I do hope that Rose's pragmatic turn will happen soon, as laid out above, because as recently argued by Realpolitik Middle East analyst F. Gregory Gause in Foreign Affairs,

"Is it true that the more democratic a country becomes, the less likely it is to produce terrorists and terrorist groups? In other words, is the security rationale for promoting democracy in the Arab world based on a sound premise? Unfortunately, the answer appears to be no....Terrorism appears to stem from factors much more specific than regime type. Nor is it likely that democratization would end the current campaign against the United States. Al Qaeda and like-minded groups are not fighting for democracy in the Muslim world; they are fighting to impose their vision of an Islamic state. Nor is there any evidence that democracy in the Arab world would "drain the swamp," eliminating soft support for terrorist organizations among the Arab public..."

Michael Kraig, Director of Policy Analysis and Dialogue, The Stanley Foundation


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"criticism tends to be on the Bush Adm.'s bad methods and faulty original rationales (WMD arguments), rather than criticism of the core assumption of 'transforming the Middle East.'"

Completely agree. I hope Rose's pragmatic turn takes place, and I think it will eventually, but I think he overestimates how far the pendulum has really swung -- I don't really see a paradigm shift in the second Bush administration.

The real debate has to get beyond Iraq to the broader issue -- is "transforming the Middle East" doable? Would it really solve the problem of terrorism?

As I wrote on my blog earlier this week, I think F. Gregory Gause's article is a good start to this discussion, and hopefully having it published in such a prominent place will help to start more discussion of our broader strategy. If we don't learn the right lessons from Iraq, and can't get back to a more pragmatic set of policies in the Middle East, I fear that we're headed for more instability and chaos in the region -- which wouldn't serve our interests.

By the way, I'm curious how your post got posted under August 22 -- since today is the first day I've seen it, and I generally check this site every day. You might want to repost it at the top to get it more visibility.

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