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Two Kinds of Realism

Note the post below for indication that one important premise of this post may be off base.

Ahem. Bush in his speech tonight once again recommitted himself to the neoconservative view of foreign policy that promoting democratic change in the Middle East through a policy of confrontation with anti-American autocracies (Syria and Iran, at this point) is the best way to secure long-term peace. In the American political context, this view tends to get contrasted with one labeled "realism" and associated loosely with Brent Scowcroft. This view, which I'll call "Scowcroft-realism," emphasizes the overwhelming importance of stability to American national security largely because instability risks bringing Islamist governments to power. I've been noticing through my reading lately that Scowcroft-realism seems to have little relationship with the sort of theoretical neorealist position one sees in academia. The core relevant contention of the neorealist analysis of international relations is that regime type is irrelevant to international relations. This is, indeed, in tension with the neoconservative view, which espouses a form of democratic peace theory. But it's equally in tension with Scowcroft-realism, since neorealism would seem to hold that even if Islamists come to power in Egypt (or Pakistan or Iraq or wherever) this will make no difference to American security.

February 3, 2005 | Permalink

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» Two Kinds of Realism from Outside The Beltway
Matthew Yglesias revisits a familiar topic: the conflict between neo-conservatism and neo-realism. Matt comes up with a new twist, though: Bush in his speech tonight once again recommitted himself to the neoconservative view of foreign policy that... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 3, 2005 9:47:21 AM

» An Impossible Situation from Lawyers, Guns and Money
There are a couple of important points to remember when you're trying to use neorealism to analyze foreign policy. The first and most important point is that neorealism can't be used to analyze foreign policy. [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 3, 2005 1:11:19 PM

Comments

The trouble with all this reincarnated Domino theory stuff (with the direction reversed), is that it is fundamentally at odds with reality. On 9/11, who were the people that hit us? Why, the Saudi Arabians and Egyptians, mainly, (what, was it one Jordanian?). Well, we are not thinking about violent regime change there. And yet, 19 of the citizens of these countries felt the need to kill a bunch of Americans.

And that is the crux of the matter -- we are doing almost nothing to address the root of the problem. Namely, it's quite possible to convince citizens of nominal US allies in the mideast to kill themselves attacking us. The idea that peace and democracy will fix everything is nice and all, but it has two major fucking problems: we don't have any way to effectively institute peace and democracy without creating an entirely new generation of terrorists, and killing a lot of innocents. And secondly, we have done nothing to change the reason they hate us in the first place: we treat them like shit. We support governments that trample their rights. They elect democratic leaders, we have them assassinated and put monarchs back in power. We unflinchingly support enemy no.1 of Middle Easterners. One can yammer about them hating our freedoms to fire up the home-front, but it's transparent bullshit.

Getting around these problems is damn hard, to be sure. But, if you think the Neocons completely failed vision for how to do it has a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding, I have some land I'd like to sell you.

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Feb 3, 2005 2:36:30 AM

Scowcroftianism is as close to pure, cynical realism as it gets in America. Its sole purpose is to maximize US power and hegemony. It advocates sticking up for democracy and freedom only as far at those policies advance material US interests (political, military, economic) - or, at least, don't damage our interests. If our interests mean allying ourself with (and propping up) nasty anti-democratic regimes (Putin, Saud, Musharraf, etc.), well, that's what they require. It's sad that Allende had to get whacked, but we needed a strong ally in Chile, and that's the way the cookie crumbled.

Neo-conservatism, is a variant of this which is more keen on the notion of democracy itself as a tool for expanding US power. Neo-cons play at being realists (with their tough talk and their willingness to bomb countries into democracy), but their semi-mystical beliefs in the Power of Democracy is the opposite of realism.

I think the Scowcroftians are horrified by Neo-cons. Scowcroftians would never allow the entire US army to be trapped in Iraq for years at a time, crippling our leverage elsewhere in the world (like, say, Korea), nor would they support free elections in Iraq (which would have the geopolitical effect of enhancing Iran's power while diminishing our own), nor would they allow the other components of the US system (like the series of alliances and institutions that keep the US on top) to fall into disrepair like Bush has. One guiding goal of Scowcroftianism is to prevent (or delay for as long as possible) the emergence of a counter-veiling power to US hegemonic influence. Bush's ham-handedness and disregard for the sensitivies of other actors in the international system has meant the empowerment of an independent European foreign (and military) policy, Japan and South Korea setting their own foreign policies, and the wasting of hundreds of billions of dollars of treasure while the two new rising Great Powers (India and China) concentrate on growing their ecnomies at record paces - pretty much the exact opposite of what the Scowcroftians would consider a successful foreign policy.

Posted by: Fmguru | Feb 3, 2005 3:18:25 AM

Here's the way I've always understood the difference:

The main difference between the realists and their opponents is their account of what counts as an American interest. Realists tend toward the view that states exist to seek their self-interest, and that self-interest is ultimately an economic matter. They tend to put a high value on stability, because by and large stability is conducive to trade and economic prosperity, and the accumulation of power, because power is a kind of savings that can be expended when the time is right to secure more wealth.

But of course realists don't regard stability as an absolute value. They are more than willing, when the time is right, to engage in destabilizing policies if they believe there is sufficient payoff. As for the use of aggressive war, they are perfectly willing to use it for national gain. They oppose it when they see its cost, including its diplomatic cost in terms of international countermeasures and hostility, as exceeding its benefit. The well-being of extra-national peoples is only relevant to the extent that their well-being contributes to our own.

A realist will support the spread of democracy, in a given historical context and in a given place if he can be convinced that that the spreading will serve those ultimate American interests, and in such a way that the cost incurred in terms of risk to security etc. is paid for by some benefit in terms of added wealth and power.

Neoconservatives have a more expansive view of American interests. They argue that spreading democracy is in itself an American interest, that America has moral or ideological interests that extend beyond the pursuit of its material well-being.

That's why the neocons are so contemptuous of realists, whom they regard as advocating a cold, amoral and pathologically miserly and materialistic view of the world. The neocons all have liberal backgrounds, and regard themselves as moral and idealistic. Spreading democracy is good not because it pays - although they usually do think it pays - but even if it doesn't pay.

Some realists support spreading democracy in the current Middle East context, because they believe it pays for America in the long run. But some other realists, of course, will argue that spreading democracy into Iraq, or other places in the Middle East, may not be good for us in the material sense because it will make it more difficult to control the region, cost us too much money, etc. These realists have a theoretical or philosophical disagreement with the neocons, but only a disagreement about the best means to agreed-upon material ends with their realist colleagues.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Feb 3, 2005 7:15:57 AM

'Democracy' doesn't exist, but the thing you call 'democracy' (giving limited power to elected representatives) - they hate it like poison, both ideologies do: the realists and the neocons. And that's quite natural: corrupt autocrats are much easier to deal with (to bribe and to bully) than people's representatives, who have at least some degree of accountability. Recent incident with Turkey refusing US troops deployment is a good illustration.

The neo-realists are different, as they, I think, would actually prefer a stable democratic system - should it emerge. I know I would.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 3, 2005 8:20:24 AM

Don't call it "Scowcroft-realism." Call it "petro-realism." He's not worried about the rise of Islamist regimes per se; rather, he's worried that those regimes won't play ball in the way that we've come to love in the Saudis. A Taliban, for instance, that seemed to cause only internal problems, was no big deal.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Feb 3, 2005 9:53:07 AM

Dammit

Posted by: bobo brooks | Feb 3, 2005 10:01:36 AM

Neocons are just realists who are better at doublethink.

Neocons hate Chavez to death and just flat ass make shit up to make him an authoritaian dictator they tell themselves a bunch of lies or let other people tell them a bunch of lies (They probably never questioned for a second the infamous shot of a Chavatista supposedly firing into a crowd of peaceful protestors that when viewed from another angle was actually one guy trying to return fire from an anti-chavez sniper and the street was empty). It doesn't matter that none of their FUD has any basis in reality, when democracy doesn't turn out their way they just pretend the place is a tyranny.

Posted by: absynthe | Feb 3, 2005 10:41:39 AM

The core relevant contention of the neorealist analysis of international relations is that regime type is irrelevant to international relations. This is, indeed, in tension with the neoconservative view, which espouses a form of democratic peace theory. But it's equally in tension with Scowcroft-realism, since neorealism would seem to hold that even if Islamists come to power in Egypt (or Pakistan or Iraq or wherever) this will make no difference to American security.

This doesn't seem quite right to me. Realists don't say the type of regime that governs a country is irrelevant to international relations, and specifically to American interests. What they say is that it is only instrumentally relevant. They argue that if US material well-being is best advanced by gently promoting democracy in Egypt, we should do it; if it is best advanced by aggressively promoting democracy in Egypt, we should do that; if it is best advanced by solidifying the hold of the non-democratic Egyption regime, or working to install an even more undemocratic regime, we should do that. And they argue that while the rise of an Islamist regime might be relevant to US interests, it is only relevant to the extent of its cash value for the US in terms of wealth and power. Obviously, there is room for a tremendous range of disagreement here over the best means toward US material ends, which accounts for the vast range of policy differences among realists.

The neoconservative view is that democracy in Egypt would be a good thing in itself, a manifestation of deep American values, and thus advances US moral interests, even if it comes as some material cost to us. That doesn't mean that they think democracy is the only good thing, and that pursuing it shouldn't be balanced against other values. But they assign it a non-instrumental value as an end, and that leads them to put much more weight on it in their deliberations, to the extent that they will allow it to play a role in overriding material considerations.

The problem is that in everyday political discourse deep philosophical differences are obscured, because polemicists for all sides intentionally finesse the philosophical differences so as to gain the maximum support for their immediate policy goals. So neoconservatives love arguments that purport to show how promoting democracy in Iraq (or Syria, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia)through war will have immense practical benefits for the US of a less idealistic sort, because these arguments hold the promise of winning them more traditionally conservative, realist allies.

People like Scowcroft just happen to think the neocons are wrong about this, that the alleged material benefits for the US of Middle East democracy have been oversold, that the democratic regime in Iraq may actually challenge our interests - given the current nature of popular opinion in the region - more than Saddam's did, and that the monetary and diplomatic costs, and costs in terms of the expenditure of American lives, are prohibitively high. And for realists like Scowcroft, these later points cannot be trumped by an argument of the form "yeah, but it's the right thing to do anyway."

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Feb 3, 2005 10:45:45 AM

Here's my question....where is Osama bin Laden? Bin Laden and cronies are the guys who attcked the US on 9/11. Has George Bush finally succeeded in getting all of us to take our eyes off his failure to find/capture Bin Laden?

Have we finally all succumbed to celebrating the demise of the evil Iraq that has fueled
Bushian paranoia for years? Has he succeeded in finally getting all of us to identify our national security problems with Iraq...not bin laden?

Bin Laden has disappeared from our national discussion. We're talking about everything but Bin laden.

I have to hand it to him. Bush is one clever bait-and-switch politician.

Posted by: Deborah White | Feb 3, 2005 11:26:27 AM

Neocons are just realists who are better at doublethink.

Neocons hate Chavez to death and just flat ass make shit up to make him an authoritaian dictator they tell themselves a bunch of lies or let other people tell them a bunch of lies (They probably never questioned for a second the infamous shot of a Chavatista supposedly firing into a crowd of peaceful protestors that when viewed from another angle was actually one guy trying to return fire from an anti-chavez sniper and the street was empty). It doesn't matter that none of their FUD has any basis in reality, when democracy doesn't turn out their way they just pretend the place is a tyranny.

I don't think it is doublethink so much as ruthlessness. Neocons are so fixated on a narrrow range of abstractly defined and deceptively simple, but dubiously clear, moral ends they that they tend to ignore other valuable ends, and thus make perverse calculations in selecting appropriate means.

They tend to view means and ends in a simple, hierarchical tree with a sharp pinnacle at the top - the ultimate good - and have a hard time with moral complexity. This is what gives them such a sense of assurance. Like many religious people, they work with an overly-simplified moral picture of the world which exchanges accuracy for simplicity and "clarity".

During the latter years of the Cold War, when neoconservatism really took off, the neocons were so obsessed with the goal of crushing communism, and the Soviet big-C manifestation of it, that they were willing to support almost any kind of brutality and oppression that they saw as serving that end.

Critics of the neocons tend to argue that they are hypocritical, or double-thinkers, because while claiming to pursue democracy, they might work to topple a democratically elected Central American regime and install a tyrannical one. And while claiming to be working for the cause of freedom, they are willing to engage in slander, intimidation and the ruthless suppression of dissent at home. But the neocons would say that they are merely supporting smaller local evils - a brutal, but America-alligned tyranny in a small country, or an anti-intellectual witch hunt of dissident scholars in the US - because it is part of what they regard as the best means to countering the one Great Global Evil - for example, the Soviet Communist system.

These days the Great Global Evil is supposed to be "Islamofascism" or "Islamic totalitarianism" or "Militant Islamic jihadist terrorism" or something of that sort. To fight it, they are willing to kill thousands, even millions, of people and pour billions, even trillions, of dollars into the battle - because they regard the enemy, indistinctly defined as it is, as so collossally and overwhelmingly evil. Every issue becomes then an issue over whether it does or does not advance the war against Islamofascism. Peter Beinart, who in the area of foreign policy at least appears to be a complete neocon, thinks this war is the great cause of our (or maybe Matt's) generation. How appealing it is to organize one's life around the Great Noble Cause! What clarity it achieves! What a relief!

This is not just a conservative phenomenon of course. On the global left, the One Great Global Evil is US imperialism, and not a few leftists around the world seem willing to embrace almost any means that they view as thwarting that imperialist agenda.

This sort of Platonic or religious mania is a recurring phenomenon in world history and American history. The tendency to strive for simplicity and moral clarity by ideologically condensing all the world's evil into one focussed source - be it Islamic Totalitarianism, or the Soviet Empire, or US Imperialism, or Darth Vadar's Evil Empire, or the Antichrist, or the Devil or the Dark Side - returns again and again, particularly in times of stress or decline.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Feb 3, 2005 11:34:38 AM

I think the Chavez is an interesting case, because it's pretty clearly a case of "Democracy giving us something that is bad for the U.S. (and, for that matter, the Venezualan people)." Chavez is a legitimate leader from a Democratic perspective, but he's also a bad leader. I hope they've thought about this sort of thing before the Iraqi elections, since they've gotten examples before in which they're not really sure what to think of Democracy as actually practiced.

I think that people who always take Bush's side on foreign policy, and then make up a rationale after words, like Glenn Reynolds, are doublethinkers of the type that absynthe refers to. I wonder though, who was responsible for the Chavez coup flop? If I could find records showing that Cheney endorsed the coup while Wolfowitz was screaming his head off about how we should be condemning it, then I think the neocons would gain some credibility in my eyes.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Feb 3, 2005 3:52:09 PM

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