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Thesis & Antithesis

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greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

24 January 2006

Condi & realism

In a very thoughtful article on Condoleezza Rice, Sebastian Mallaby adds to the growing consensus that realism is an outdated foreign policy doctrine, that it offers no useful guide for policy, and that it has no answer to the real threats of the new era. I have always found attacks on realism to be misplaced, if only because, in picking apart the fine print of realism, they miss its broader lessons.

Let us start with Mallaby’s point that threats now come from weak states rather that strong ones, a thesis found also in George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy of 2002. This is a curious conclusion to draw from September 11. Osama bin Laden found refuge in Sudan and Afghanistan, not because those were failed states which offered a hospitable environment, but because both governments were happy to host him (Sudan changed its mind later and expelled him). The hijackers on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia and Egypt—hardly what one would consider weak states. Even more, if weakness is the chief problem, then strength has to be the solution; yet there is no such diagnosis and there is no such cure to be found anywhere on the foreign policy landscape.

There is no contradiction, as realism’s attackers claim, in recognizing that the domestic realities within a country are important, maybe as important, as its foreign policy; this attack on realism is persistent and ill placed. What a realist recognizes is that domestic and foreign policy need not be identical—that a country may serve America’s interests independently of what it does at home. And while terrorism does spring from the suffocating political space in places such as the Middle East, it is many regimes’ indulgence in nurturing it that is as an equally plausible explanation into why terrorism has manifested itself so loudly on the world state.

For a realist, America’s problem lies in creating an identity between domestic and foreign policy. America is presuming, with little basis, that any domestic change which incorporates into the political process a broader spectrum of the population will, de facto, offer an improvement in that country’s foreign policy as it pertains to America. In that sense, it becomes inconceivable that domestic and foreign policy may move in opposite directions. It does not take too much of a pessimist to imagine a variety of domestic arrangements in the Middle East that could produce regimes which pose a graver threat to America that the status quo.

It is too easy to presume (oftentimes accuse) that this analysis is nothing more than a defense of a failed status quo. And yet it is no such thing. The main issue here is whether the combination of America’s goals has a chance for succeeding. One reason it may not is that it is courting the forces which are the weakest in the region; the leaders who can put a stop on terror are given no incentive to cooperate since that could spell their own end as well given that America is increasingly challenging their legitimacy.

In a way, this is the essence of an over-ambitious policy: in trying to do too much, it achieves too little. This arises, in no small part, from the complexity of America’s interests in the region. While the status quo is undesirable, it still offers enough benefits so that America cannot put its full weight behind changing it. In other words, America is pushing neither too hard because it still has some stake in the status quo, nor is it offering an incentive to win over the forces which could assist it in quelling down terror.

There is no doubt that there is a symbiotic harmony in the American grand strategy—a presumed continuum between moral values and strategic defense, between what is right now and what is right in the future. But this presumed identity obscures a deeper problem: in creating a logical continuum, this grand strategy allows America to avoid a prioritization of its interests. And yet this sorting is necessary; it would begin from protecting the physical defense of the United States by communicating to friends and foes that nurturing sinister forces against America is unacceptable. By offering legitimacy in exchange for compliance, America could hope to court the governments in the region which could implement such policies

Having taken this first step, America would be confronted with the following dilemma: how to ensure that the immediate crackdown did not produce a longer-term disenfranchisement that would threaten America’s interests in the future. The simpler, but by no means the only, way to achieve this would be to create a broader political space that preserved authoritarianism—essentially, this would allow political voices to be heard as long as they did not call into question the main elements of a country’s survival and structure. This is similar to what exists in China or in Eastern Europe during the cold war, in that civil society emerged first and only later did it manage to create a critical mass that involved itself in politics. But making elections the first step of reform, America is alienating the rulers in the region without fostering the underlying conditions that allow the largely procedural act of election to turn into the meaningful substance of democracy.

This may seem like a long way of making a point for realism. But whatever the moral allure of liberalism or Wilsonianism it has always presumed a grand unity which easily allows one to think that foreign policy can achieve everything at the same time and which pays ignores the underlying political forces that can make one’s desired outcome possible. This is, after all, realism’s chief belief: that diplomacy should be targeted at manipulating relative power so that one’s desired outcome becomes possible rather than directing diplomacy at the outcomes themselves. And this is a good lesson today as it ever was.

(1) Sebastian Mallaby, “Rice’s Blind Spot,” Washington Post, 23 Jan 06 (link)

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