Monday, June 12, 2006

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Rauch, realpolitik, and realism

Eugene Volokh links to "an interesting and thoughtful column" by Jonathan Rauch in the National Journal.

Rauch argues that current policymakers should pay more attention to realism -- which requires him to define the term and then explain why it's been neglected:

[T]he United States would do well to recall and learn from President Kennedy. But which President Kennedy? The idealist who made the speeches, or the realist who made the decisions?

The idealist was the JFK of the 1961 Inaugural Address, whose clarion rhetoric -- "We shall pay any price, bear any burden... to assure the survival and the success of liberty" -- leads in a straight line to President Bush's second Inaugural Address: "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.... So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

The rhetorical kinship is evident (and not coincidental). But look more closely. Bush's call to end tyranny everywhere is revolutionary in scope and ambition. It proposes not just to make the world safe for democracy but to make the whole world safely democratic.

Kennedy, by contrast, promised to "bear any burden" to defend the free world against communism -- not to free the whole world. And notice, in JFK's 1959 remark, the telling qualifications: "If we can hold out for the long run there will be sufficient evolutionary changes... to give us some hope of success."....

In the golden haze of his speeches, one too easily forgets that JFK the practitioner was a hard-boiled realist. So were Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and, for the most part, FDR and Truman.

For 30 years, nonetheless, realism has been in bad odor. Liberals have scorned it for betraying human rights and drawing the country into Vietnam (though whether the flinty-eyed JFK would have embarked on LBJ's massive escalation in Indochina is questionable). Conservatives have scorned it for tolerating communism (though containment ultimately brought down the Soviet Union).

Ironically, the one presidential nominee in recent times to campaign explicitly as a realist was George W. Bush, who in 2000 derided "nation building" as tangential to U.S. interests and rejected as "arrogance" the notion that America should reform the world. But the realist revival was brief. Bush soon converted to the Bush Doctrine, which seeks to make the world peaceful by making it free....

Lacking mainstream advocacy, realism has indeed fallen into the hands of cranks on the left and the right, who propound bastardized versions -- the Far Left out of pacifism and hatred of Bush, the Far Right out of isolationism and cultural chauvinism. The pity is that no one in public life is making the respectable case for what is an eminently respectable doctrine.

Or, really, a respectable attitude. Realism is not so much a doctrine, aspiration, or policy as a sense of how the world works. Properly understood, it does not define U.S. interests narrowly or cynically, dismiss human rights as sissy stuff, or espouse indifference to regimes' internal structure. The essence of realism, rather, is seeing the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Specifically, realism understands that:

· U.S. influence is a limited resource that needs conservation, and that using it requires leaders to make distasteful trade-offs and to deal with bad guys.

· Because human beings are not easily governable and because chaos is a first-order strategic menace, stability should be a top-tier priority, never a mere afterthought.

· However idealistic its self-image, America has too many status quo interests ever to be a revolutionary power.

· Except in the short run, the American people care more about interests than ideals and will tolerate idealistic adventurism only briefly.

Realism does not imply giving up on democratic reform or noble ambitions. It does imply pursuing revolutionary goals on a geological time scale. The Cold War, a classic instance, spanned five decades. It was counter-revolutionary rather than revolutionary in nature. It was primarily anti-communist, not pro-democratic. And, as conservatives often complained, it was a "let burn" policy toward communism, not a policy of extinguishment.

Human rights? Important, of course; that is a lesson that realists have taken on board since President Carter....

From a realist point of view, neoconservatives and unilateralists are too aggressive, isolationists and pacifists too passive, idealists and moralists too scrupulous, and Wilsonian reformers too destabilizing. Realists can be criticized for not proffering a specific agenda of their own, and that, too, is a fair rap. Realism does not define, and should not limit, America's aims in the world.

It is, however, an indispensable ingredient of a grown-up foreign policy. If realism had the advocacy it deserves, it would be enjoying a renaissance it has earned.

Much as I admire Rauch's writings, there are a few problems with this column, and at the risk of stepping into some paradigm wars, I think it's worth pointing them out:
1) The far left and right aren't the only ones to embrac realism. Rauch overlooks a gaggle of sober, respectable policymakers and public intellectuals who would be considered realists. Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger certainly fit this mold.

Indeed, far from being out of vogue, realism has enjoyed quite the renaissance in Washington. Two years ago this week, in fact, Lawrence Kaplan felt compelled to write in The New Republic, "Indeed, it appears nearly everyone in Washington is a realist now." (though Kaplan's definition of realism was equally problematic)

2) Contrary to Rauch's assertion, realism is very much a doctrine as well as a sense of how the world works. Furthermore, academic proponents of realism are quite clear in defining U.S. interests narrowly, dismissing human rights (or at least the active promotion of h.r. beyond our borders), and espousing indifference to regimes' internal structure. Not that there's anything wrong with that or anything, but that's in the core of the realist paradigm.

What Rauch describes as realism is what I would label realpolitik... or even just "realistic". The terms are often used synonymously, but I've always viewed realpolitik as more in keeping with Rauch's theme of the husbanding of American power. Someone who embraces a realpolitik worldview does not disagree with liberal internationalists or neoconservatives about the desired ends of American foreign policy -- they merely disagree with the utility of the means. A realist disagrees over ends as well.

3) Finally, while Rauch wisely parses the gap between words and deeds in the Kennedy administration, he fails to do the same with the Bush administration. To quote myself here:

In the case of the Bush administration, the emphasis on fostering “a balance of power that favors human freedom” and “extend[ing] the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent” in the National Security Strategy must be contrasted with actions taken by the administration to prosecute the war on terrorism. In order to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has befriended several authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes, including China, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan. The administration has trumpeted Libya’s return to the fold of respectable nations in exchange for relinquishing its WMD program – despite the fact that Libya essentially remains a one-man dictatorship. Values may be invoked as a means to rally support for a strategy – but that does not mean these values are consistently implemented across the spectrum of foreign policy. (This is a fact that is embraced by even the most diehard neoconservatives. In 2004, Charles Krauthammer observed, “The danger of democratic globalism is its universalism, its temptation to plant the flag of democracy everywhere. It must learn to say no. And, indeed, it does say no.”)
Indeed, this fact roils some of the true believers among the neocons.
The Bush administration may not be pursuing a strictly realist foreign policy, but its behavior suggests they're well aware of the concept that Rauch is trying to promote.

posted by Dan on 06.12.06 at 09:03 PM


Remind me again, about the virtues of realism, Kissinger's 'brilliant' outreach to China, did
nothing to bring the Vietnam War to a close,
empowered the oligarchs of that time, who had
received a pounding from the cannibalism of the
Cultural Revolution, and put us on the same page
as Pol Pot (speaking of cannibalism)It's been more than thirty years, shouldn't there at least
a pretend election; Of course their strategic
outreach in Iraq, Iran, and Sudan, has been a great help; Lets not even really go into the
results of this policy in Yugoslavia or Iraq in
the 1980s.

posted by: narciso79 on 06.12.06 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

Remind me again why we care? There are a billion Chinese. If they don't want to run their country, why should we care who does?

Prof. D., thanks for that. I remember reading that post on Volokh and thinking that Rauch's article was neither interesting nor thoughtful, but I do law now, not IR, so didn't much care :-)

posted by: John Jenkins on 06.12.06 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

If you sift through the blog-upon-blog nature of this posting, you find that the original comment – supposedly connecting Bush’s ideas to Kennedy’s – is Pete Wehner, a “White House strategist”, who “sent journalists an e-mail”. Does no one else whiff spin?

No surprise a WH strategist should attempt to hook up ideals of the tongue-tied Bush to the eloquent Kennedy. But there is no straight line connecting Kennedy’s ’61 address to Bush’s ’04 speech. There isn’t even a dotted one. Wehner may be selling Bush's "Freedom Agenda" now that the Bush Doctrine is dead, but it is nothing more than a return to the use of diplomacy.

Kennedy’s speech doesn’t include a single reference to “democracy”; its focus is on liberty. Bush’s speech focuses on selling democracy to the world. This is an important distinction: we’ve all read how giving a country political democracy (i.e., free elections) is meaningless unless you have the institutions to support it. Iraq was the latest example and showed that the neocon ideals of promoting democracy by force were doomed to fail.

Kennedy, on the other hand, was referring to constitutional liberalism: seeking to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion – from the state, church or society. In this case it was from the Soviet's imposition of communism.

So I find myself in the awkward position of being in agreement with a lawyer (John Jenkins, above): the piece is neither interesting nor thoughtful.

posted by: St. James the Lesser on 06.12.06 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

What unfortunately shapes this debate is the notion that all theories of international relations must be synchronic in order to be taken seriously. Policies might be "realistic" in a short timeframe but unrealistic in a longer one. The key is to know what timeframe a given problem occupies, and that will not be gained from any set of general assumptions that aspire to timeless relevance.

posted by: David Billington on 06.12.06 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

The Bush Doctrine as described in the Rauch article seems little different from the Lake Doctrine of the Clinton years. And there is a reason for that. America has developed somewhat of a consensus that the promotion of democracy is in our national interest, and that we are willing to use our unparalleled power to promote democracy.

To a large degree, the foreigh policy establishment seems to agree that promotion of democracy is part of our national interest. The dispute Rauch seems to be trying to get at is really a means discussion, which should not properly involve the Realist school, as Dr. Drezner notes. Even most of the pacifist/anti-war folks probably agree that promotion of democracy is in our national interest - they just reject the use of force to achieve that interest. It is the achievement of our agreed upon ends, and the balancing of those ends in our choice of means, that we suffer much disagreement about.

posted by: Sisyphus on 06.12.06 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

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