Tag: realism (page 2 of 3)

Random Thought

Modern realist theory contains no arguments (of significance) absent in the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli or Francisco Guicciardini.

Zombie NATO? Or, the Poverty of Realism

A great many bloggers and policy wonks, motivated by the upcoming Lisbon Summit, are weighing in on NATO’s future. NATO faces a number of challenges and difficult issues, including:

While opinions differ over the health of the alliance, I’ve been particularly struck by the weakness of Steve Walt’s arguments for why NATO is headed for membership in the society of the walking dead. He isolates three major reasons for his negative assessment: Afghanistan, defense cuts, and Turkish foreign policy.

Today Walt reported the results of a debate he held in his MA international relations class (“NATO Lives!”), but reiterated his belief in NATO’s growing irrelevance:

Here the three big wild cards are 1) The effects of the latest round of European defense cuts (which will make out-of-area actions even more difficult in the future), 2) The lessons that NATO draws from the Afghan War, and 3) The rising importance of Asia. If Afghanistan is eventually seen as a successful operation that produced a positive result, then NATO’s value will appear to be reaffirmed and support for it is bound to continue. If the Afghan war ends in a defeat or even some sort of messy compromise, then more people will ask if the Alliance ought to be in the nation-building business at all. And if it’s not performing some sort of global policing duties, then what is it for? Finally, as the Asian balance of power starts to loom larger in everyone’s consciousness, NATO’s relevance will almost certainly decline even further. NATO may be willing to give the United States some modest assistance in the Gulf or in Central Asia, but it is hard to imagine Europe doing much of anything in some future conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea. Indeed, they’d be more likely to stand aloof and trade with both sides.

As Walt himself notes, he’s been beating this drum for some time; indeed, realists have been proclaiming the death of NATO since at least the end of the Cold War. Their fundamental reasoning lies in an understanding of alliances as balancing coalitions; with the passing of the Soviet threat, NATO’s purpose disappeared. Since then, NATO has searched for a rationale: policeman of Europe’s turbulent frontiers (e.g., the Balkans), democratic security community, global rapid reaction force, etc. Realists are predisposed to view each of these purposes with suspicion anyway, and every piece of evidence that they’re fraying provides, for realists, another nail in NATO’s coffin.

None of these arguments are ridiculous. NATO has significant problems. The contemporary shift of power from Europe to East Asia does, in some respects, make NATO less important to global politics than it was during the Cold War. And nothing lasts forever–at some point not only will NATO disappear, but so will most contemporary political institutions.

At the same time, Walt’s reasoning seems a bit off.

First, Turkey. I simply cannot understand why he places so much weight on recent Turkish overtures in the Middle East. After discussing disagreements over Iran and Israel, he writes:

Rising Islamophobia in both the United States and Europe could easily reinforce these frictions. And given that Turkey has NATO’s largest military forces (after the United States) and that NATO operates largely by consensus, a major rift could have paralyzing effects on the alliance as a whole.

Walt doesn’t explain why the size of Turkey’s military matters. For what it is worth, Turkey currently contributes less than two percent of ISAF’s total forces. Its contributions to other operations–e.g., IFOR, SFOR, and KFOR–have varied widely, but none of these NATO missions depended on a Turkish military presence. But even putting aside Turkey’s significance in recent NATO operations, it isn’t at all obvious why the size of Turkey’s military makes Ankara’s dispositions more important to NATO cohesion than, say, London’s, Paris’, or Berlin’s.

Obviously, NATO would face additional problems if major rifts opened up with Turkey on issues of substantive importance to the alliance. Indeed, Turkey does disagree with other important members over tactical nuclear weapons and conventional arms control. But it isn’t at all clear what kinds of NATO actions a more “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy would preclude. If the US strikes Iran, it won’t be as part of a NATO operation. If the US deploys forces in support of Israel, it won’t be part of a NATO operation either.

Second, ISAF and defense cuts. Walt’s arguments on both these fronts reduce to the same claim: the future of NATO out-of-area operations looks grim, and thus NATO will be deprived of a key rationale for its continued “vitality.”

In fact, current defense cuts make clear NATO’s ongoing importance to Europe. By co-binding virtually the entire Atlantic and European Community, whether through direct NATO integration or the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, NATO has created an unprecedented security community. Every major power (save one) on the continent has interoperable military forces linked together via multiple consultative and coordinative mechanisms. As Walt’s students correctly noted, NATO has greatly diminished the likelihood of security dilemmas, arms races, and military instability within its borders.

NATO not only plays a key role in mitigating the pathologies realists associate with anarchy, it also continues to serve a deterrence function–most notably with respect to the Russian Federation. NATO membership, or lack thereof, makes a major difference to the strategic environment faced by former members of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. Moscow would, for instance, enjoy significantly more influence Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania if the three had remained outside the alliance.

NATO security guarantees also structure, for the better, current European and US engagement with Moscow. They have done so not only by, for all intents and purposes, eliminating the threat posed by Russia to the most forward-looking NATO advocates of extensive political-military engagement with Moscow (e.g., Germany and France), but also by reducing Moscow’s ability to play divide-and-conquer games in Europe. It isn’t so much that Moscow doesn’t play those games now (it does), or that it hasn’t enjoyed important successes in doing so (it has). Rather, without NATO’s co-binding institutions and practices, Moscow’s wedge strategies might well be pulling Europe apart.

Although it may seem somewhat paradoxical, this state of affairs has been a net positive for the Russian Federation. A more realpolitik environment in Europe, even one driven, in part, by Moscow’s power-political influence, would greatly undermine Russian military and economic security. Indeed, Russia’s long-term ability to meet the challenges posed by a rising China depends on stable, predictable, and friendly relations with its major western neighbors.

Yet Walt’s line of reasoning reduces all of these effects to little more than the shamblings of a Zombie. If NATO fails to send expeditionary forces abroad, cannot come to a consensus on Iran, or plays no role in a future Taiwan straits crisis, then it is “irrelevant.” What could possibly account for such an assessment?

The answer lies in Walt’s theoretical commitments–in particular, realism’s jaundiced view of international structure. By this I do not mean, as most constructivists argue, that realists pay inadequate attention to culture. Rather, realists lack adequate appreciation for the ways in which political and social ties–including alliances–texture international relations. They see international politics as patterned by “anarchy” and “the distribution of power.” All the rest is merely “process.” But it should be obvious that NATO profoundly structures Eurasian political and military relations, and will still do so even if its ability to act collectively further declines. Whether or not one agrees with my assessment of how NATO structures Russia’s strategic opportunities, it strikes me as difficult to argue that NATO’s impact on western Eurasia has no significance for the future of East Asian security relations. At the very least, it does so not only by shaping the political, military, and economic environment confronting Moscow, but also that of policymakers in Washington, DC.

Perhaps, then, it would be most accurate to say that whether the future includes “live NATO” or “Zombie NATO,” NATO will hardly be irrelevant to global politics.

So long for now, New England

I didn’t meet many faculty on my recent tour of New England liberal arts colleges (and a few Ivies), but one scholar I dined with provided this great line about foreign language study:

“Optimists study English; pessimists study Arabic; realists study Mandarin.”

After nearly 1400 miles of driving and visits to more than a dozen schools, my daughter and I enjoyed a personal tour of the Naval War College. Then, we walked around Newport and savored the end of the journey and beautiful vistas.

Incidentally, this was a real highlight of the trip. Someone needs to export it to Louisville.

If anyone here wants to weigh in on the college choice discussion, please feel free to do so in comments. We’ll be mulling over the decision for some time yet.

More ISA highlights

I spent a fair amount of time at ISA attending panels and very little sitting in the NOLA bars. Perhaps I wasn’t fully engaged in the “business of conferencing,” though we’d all probably agree that “ISA is what we make of it.”

So, what did I make of ISA 2010 (beyond what I wrote Saturday)?

Over several delicious dinners through the week, I learned that Abita Amber is over-carbonated. This Duck recommends ordering the Turbodog.

The next time ISA selects a hotel within a short walk of a casino, I propose that a group of IR theorists nab a table and play Texas Hold ‘Em. Will the rational choice theorists prevail? Is it likely that a critical theorist will count outs and carefully calculate pot odds before gambling? Will the group be able to come to shared understandings about playable hands — and identify the sucker(s) at the table?

Alternatively, next time ISA is deep into March, perhaps a bunch of fantasy baseball fans should draft a league. So far, I have one taker.

Here are some academic highlights from conference panels I attended:

1.) Kathyrn Sikkink scolded realists for (a) telling her over the years that all sorts of (progressive) changes “can’t happen” in world politics, and then (b) for explaining after they happen that these changes were completely foreseeable and within the realm of normal politics.

I kept this in mind when informed by Robert Art that nuclear abolition is “as likely as hell freezing over.”

2.) Charles Glaser also deflated talk of Obama-inspired momentum toward nuclear disarmament by arguing that if it was going to happen any time soon, then the U.S. and Russia should be able to negotiate a new START deal in about 5 minutes. But they can’t.

Credit for the short version goes to Anne Harrington de Santana: it’s really difficult to kick a “nuclear fetish.”

3.) Jerel Rosati and Patrick Haney think it’s good that we don’t know much about National Security Advisor James Jones, even after a full year on the job. His relative invisibility likely makes him an honest broker for advise within the White House. I’m not sure that this visit to CNN affirms their point.

Hamiltonian Failure?

Yesterday, my class on U.S. Foreign Policy considered Walter Russell Mead’s Hamiltonian School — ostensibly an American realism grounded in the aligned interests of the state and business.

The Hamiltonians have their roots in Alexander Hamilton. They have always believed that the American national strategy should be modeled on the British system: use your trade to make money through commerce; government should support large business; your trade policy should be an instrument of your economic development, however that benefits you most; and then, the revenues from your international trade will support your military expenditures and interests while preserving political stability at home.

For most of U.S. history, argues Mead, Hamiltonians were mercantilists — favoring “open door” trading policies over “free” trading policies. However, after World War II, the Hamiltonians became free traders and thus embraced GATT, then WTO, NAFTA, etc.

After outlining Mead’s arguments to the class, I also presented some data that questions whether the new laissez-faire Hamiltonians have made the right call. Does the free trade system they’ve helped create build American wealth?

Dan Drezner might disagree with the limited analysis I provided, but many of the students shared the concerns I was raising.

I started the challenge with the question famously raised by Robert Reich: “Who is us?” Then, I asked the students to consider (from the Hamiltonian position) if the American state has perhaps gone too far in removing itself from global capitalism — effectively benefiting transnational corporate interests (and mercantilist states) at the expense of U.S. interests.

Essentially, the U.S. trade deficit has ballooned to historic levels, a substantial portion of that deficit is linked to trade with China. A huge problem is the loss of America’s manufacturing base:

the U.S. manufacturing sector never emerged from the 2001 recession, which coincided with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Since 2001, the country has lost 42,400 factories, including 36 percent of factories that employ more than 1,000 workers (which declined from 1,479 to 947), and 38 percent of factories that employ between 500 and 999 employees (from 3,198 to 1,972). An additional 90,000 manufacturing companies are now at risk of going out of business.

The “continental realist” John Mearsheimer argues that the U.S. has had a flawed China policy for a very long time. Yet, as the data reveal, the U.S. is helping to make China a stronger future great power competitor.

In the long run, the U.S. might be able to survive the loss of its manufacturing base — thanks perhaps to its innovative information technologies. However, in the midst of a deep recession (with real unemployment at near 20%) and huge trade deficits, the current situation seems troubling — at least it should for Hamiltonians worried about American national interests.

2010 Grawemeyer winner

Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), has won the 2010 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. The prize is worth $200,000.

The press release describes the award-winning ideas from Parsi’s Yale University Press book:

Improving relations between Iran and Israel is the key to achieving lasting peace in the Middle East, says the winner of the 2010 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.

Trita Parsi, co-founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, earned the prize for ideas set forth in his 2007 book, “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.” He received the award from among 54 nominations worldwide.

The rivalry between Iran and Israel is driven more by a quest for regional power rather than by conflicting beliefs, Parsi says. Instead of trying to isolate Iran from the rest of the world, the United States should rehabilitate Iran into the Middle East’s economic and political order in return for Iran making significant changes in its behavior, including ending its hostilities against Israel.

Parsi interviewed more than 130 senior Israeli, Iranian and U.S. decision-makers before writing “Treacherous Alliance,” which also won a Council on Foreign Relations award last year for most significant foreign policy book.

The Chronicle of Higher Education covered the story, as did the local Louisville Courier Journal. This is from the latter:

Parsi said “the thesis of the book is that what you are seeing in the Middle East right now is not an ideological battle between democracy and theocracy. You’re seeing a classic power struggle between some of the most powerful states in the region.”

Iran and Israel are using the rest of the Middle East as a stage for that competition, he said.

“When you do have a strategic competition, and a strategic rivalry, there actually is room for compromises, there is room for accommodation and there is a possibility of a win-win situation,” Parsi said. “But if you have an ideological battle, then you are left with a position in which there is only the victory of one side over the other and conflict essentially becomes inevitable.”

Paradoxically, both Israel and Iran want their competition viewed as an ideological struggle because that is each nation’s best hope for winning support from friends in the region, he said. Few of those friends would be particularly interested only in helping Israel or Iran become predominant powers in the region, Parsi said.

The antipathy between the two nations goes back only about two decades, he said.

For most of their history, Parsi said, “the relations between the Jewish people and the Iranian people tended to be very positive.”

The Louisville newspaper story points out some of the recent controversy surrounding NIAC’s alleged lobbying — and many of the smears against Parsi are reminiscent of the attacks on John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt for their book on the Israeli lobby.

I’m quoted in the press release:

“Most efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East focus on the clash between Israel and the Palestinians,” said Rodger Payne, a UofL political science professor who directs the award. “Parsi says the best way to stabilize the region is for the U.S. to act in a more balanced way toward Iran and Israel, which would de-escalate the geopolitical and nuclear rivalry between the two.”

The book is an interesting work of IR scholarship, with a fundamentally realist take on the relations between Israel and Iran. Interestingly, Parsi argues that Iran long acted upon realist thinking towards Iran even as its talk reflected ideology.

Disclosure: I chair the Department Committee that overseas the administration of this prize. This entails soliciting external book reviews, chairing a first-round screening committee, bringing together a panel of experts to evaluate and rank a set of semi-finalists, and making sure that the information gleaned from these processes is advanced to a Final Selection Committee.

The IR Analogy

Periodically, scholars of international relations point out that the “domestic analogy” fails to explain IR. As Hidemi Suganami explains:

The term ‘domestic analogy’ refers to the idea that inter-state relations are amenable to the same type of institutional control as the relations of individuals and groups within states.

Because of anarchy, realists like John Mearsheimer explain, state behavior cannot be managed by external institutions attempting to wield executive, legislative or judicial power.

This past week, I’ve been thinking about American domestic politics — particularly in the context of the ongoing debates about health care and climate change legislation — and what might be termed “the IR analogy.” In the U.S. system of government, Senators representating small states have greatly disproportionate power to their states’ population (and wealth). Alec MacGillis explained the problem in the Washington Post on August 9:

The 10 largest states are home to more than half the people in the country, yet have only a fifth of the votes in the Senate. The 21 smallest states together hold fewer people than California’s 36.7 million — which means there are 42 senators who together represent fewer constituents than Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. And under Senate rules, of course, those 42 senators — representing barely more than a tenth of the country’s population — can mount a filibuster.

In IR, states are said to have sovereign equality, but no international institution with similar voting representation has anywhere near the kind of power wielded by U.S. Senators.

Perhaps even more incredibly, within the U.S., substantial tax resources are collected in Washington and then redistributed from the largest and richest states to the smallest and poorest states. MacGillis explained how this process works in practice:

California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey are among the 10 states that get the least back per tax dollar sent to Washington; Alaska, the Dakotas and West Virginia are among those that get the most.

MacGillis may have relied upon The Tax Foundation for data, since this organization regularly compiles this kind of information. The Tax Foundation has found that most tax revenue comes from so-called “blue states,” home to constituents who elect Democratic representatives who are most likely to support progressive taxes, health care reform, and perhaps climate-saving legislation. A disproportionate share of this revenue is directed at poorer “red states,” home to constituents who tend to elect Republican representatives who are the most likely to be anti-tax, opposed to the kind of health care reform proposed by the Obama administration, and relatively unworried about climate change.

As viewed by IR theory, this is a topsy-turvy system. Realist theory certainly couldn’t be used to explain domestic politics if we tried to employ an “IR analogy.” In IR, the richest and most powerful states control the agenda, operate within a political system that benefits their interests, and mostly get what they want.

In the IR analogy, California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois are sort of like the US, Japan, Germany and Australia. Texas would be a state like Russia, sharing some interests of other major powers, but not politically like-minded.

Now, imagine that those rich and powerful nation-states not only shared equal voting power with Bangladesh, Nepal, Haiti, and Liberia in a meaningful international institution, but that they also voluntarily transferred enormous resources to those states. Oh, and they designed the institution so that a minority of states (home to fewer people in all than live in the US) could block any action favored by the coalition of big states.

That’s U.S. domestic politics viewed with the IR analogy.

Beyond the lessons of empire

Not a few people have asked me to comment on Steve Walt’s “10 lessons of empire” post. Or, more precisely, they’ve asked me “why haven’t you written anything on Walt’s post?” I guess my initial reaction was, more or less, that I’ve said my piece on empires and imperial dynamics; if a prominent academic wants to blog about the “lessons” for the US he found in a history of the British Empire that he read on vacation, then, well, more power to him. After all, most of the realist scholarly writings that invoke empire don’t go far beyond this sort of exercise. But, at the end of the day, I suppose I should probably weigh in.

In brief, Walt’s “lessons” range from pretty banal to not quite right.

1. There is no such thing as a “benevolent” Empire.

In his classic history of ancient Rome, Gibbon had noted that “There is nothing more adverse to nature and reason than to hold in obedience remote countries and foreign nations, in opposition to their inclination and interest.” Britons thought of the empire as a positive force for themselves and their subjects, even though they had to slaughter thousands of their imperial subjects in order to maintain their control. Americans should be under no illusions either: if you maintain garrisons all over the world and repeatedly interfere in the internal politics of other countries, you are inevitably going to end up breaking a lot of heads.

By this standard, of course, there is no such thing as a benevolent political community, period. As any realist worth the name should know, all political authorities rely, to one degree or another, on coercion to maintain control over their citizens or subjects. Some states are more coercive than others, of course. And some empires are also more coercive than others. The more interesting questions revolve around accounting for why empires find themselves more or less dependent on using brute force, as well as other kinds of coercive power, to manage their territories.

2. All Empires depend on self-justifying ideology and rhetoric that is often at odds with reality.

British imperialists repeatedly portrayed their role as the “white man’s burden” and maintained that imperial control brought considerable benefits to their subjects. (This is an old story: France proclaimed its mission civilizatrice, and the Soviet empire claimed it was spreading the benefits of communism. Today, Americans say we are spreading freedom and liberty). Brendon’s account describes the various benefits of imperial rule, but also emphasizes the profound social disruptions that imperial rule caused in India, Africa, and elsewhere. Moreover, because British control often depended on strategies of “divide-and-conquer,” its rule often left its colonies deeply divided and ill-prepared for independence. But that’s not what English citizens were told at the time.

We could debate whether Walt’s describing a bug or a feature of imperial control, but, yet again, self-justifying ideologies and institutionalized hypocrisy are not distinguishing characteristics of imperial rule. They are endemic features of political life. As one (admittedly obscure)
realist wrote:

3. Successful empires require ample “hard power.”

Although the British did worry a lot about their reputation and prestige (what one might now term their “soft power”) what really killed the Empire was its eroding economic position. Once Britain ceased to be the world’s major economic and industrial power, its days as an imperial power were numbered. It simply couldn’t maintain the ships, the men, the aircraft, and the economic leverage needed to rule millions of foreigners, especially in a world where other rapacious great powers preyed. The moral for Americans? It is far more important to maintain a robust and productive economy here at home than it is to squander billions of dollars trying to determine the political fate of some remote country thousands of miles away. External conditions may impinge on U.S. power, but it is internal conditions that generate it.

On the one hand, I doubt Walt would find much disagreement with the proposition that empires tend to get into trouble when they no longer enjoy sufficient military and economic resources to control their possessions. On the other hand, I’m not at all clear whether Walt is talking about global hegemony or empire. Since I’m feeling lazy, I’ll just quote myself:

Many of those who affirm the imperial character of the United States, in fact, compare the scope of its power and influence to that of Rome and nineteenth-century Britain. Both, however, controlled empires and, at various times and in various places, also operated as hegemonic and unipolar powers. We should, therefore, exercise a great deal of caution lest we declare the United States an empire through a comparison with Roman and British preeminence…. Empire, properly understood, describes a form of political control exercised by such minor powers as Belgium and the Netherlands. The concept enjoys no intrinsic relationship with the distribution of power.

Another problem with Walt’s lesson is that it glosses over the degree to which imperial “hard power” depends upon more nuanced power relations.

Much of Britain’s land power in Asia stemmed from the Indian Army, a force composed of South Asian volunteers.In fact, empires often work by recruiting local collaborators, providing benefits to at least some segment of the local population, and engaging in various forms of divide-and-rule. To the extent that empires succeed at these ventures, they lower their “governance costs” and enhance the net benefits they derive from imperial control (PDF).

In other words, an empire’s “hard power” resources are, at least in part, a function of its success at imperial management, which, in turn, depends on dimensions of power beyond those associated with simply counting the number of troops at its disposal and the size of its metropolitan economy.

4. As Empires decline, they become more opulent, and they obsess about their own glory.

Brendon’s description of the British Empire Exposition at Wembley in 1924-1925 is both slightly comical and bittersweet; with cracks increasingly evident in the imperial façade, Britain put on a lavish show designed to bind the colonies together and highlight its continuing glory. Moral: when you hear U.S. politicians glorifying America’s historical world role, get worried.

I suppose. But, then again, U.S. politicians have been glorifying “America’s historical world role” since the founding of the country, so maybe I’m not that worried. I’ll tell you what will make me worried: when U.S. planners start to realize they’ve extended far more security guarantees than they can make good on or we face multiple rebellions against friendly regimes throughout the world.

5. Great Empires are heterogeneous.

The British empire was not a uniform enterprise; the various bits and piece were acquired at different times and in different ways, and the relationship between London and the different components was far from uniform. One could say the same thing for America’s less formal global “empire”: its relationship with NATO is different than the alliance with Japan, or the client states in the Middle East, or the bases at Diego Garcia or Guantanamo. An empire is not one thing.

6. When building an empire, it’s hard to know where to stop.

The expansion of the British empire after 1781 shows how difficult it is to engage in a rational assessment of strategic costs and benefits. Once committed to India, for example, it was easy for Britain to get drawn into additional commitments in Egypt, Yemen, Kenya, South Africa, Afghanistan, Burma, and Singapore. This was partly because ambitious empire builders like Cecil Rhodes were constantly promoting new imperial schemes, but also because each additional step could be justified by the need to protect the last. History has been described as “just one damn thing after another,” and so is the process of imperial expansion.

Yes, both of these are right. Moreover, nearly everyimportantsocial-scientificwork on empireswritten in the last forty years makes these central points of its analysis of imperial rise and decline.

7. It takes a lot of incompetent people to run an empire.

A recurring theme in Brendon’s account is the remarkable level of ignorance and incompetence with which the British empire was administered. Although there were obviously some very able individuals involved, Britain’s colonial endeavors seem to have attracted an equal or greater number of arrogant, corrupt, and racist buffoons. The bungling that accompanied the U.S. occupation of Iraq looks rather typical by comparison.

Very droll. Your mileage will vary across time and space, however, when n is greater than one. Imperial history is full of both astounding brilliance and puerile incompetence. Kind of like the history of all forms of governance, when you think about it.

8. Great Powers defend perceived interests with any means at their disposal.

Great powers like to portray themselves as “civilized” societies with superior moral and ethical standards, but realists know better. Like other empires, Britain used its technological superiority without restraint, whether in the form of naval power, the Maxim gun, airplanes, high explosive, or poison gas., and the British showed scant regard for the effects of this superior technology on their “uncivilized” targets. Today, the United States uses Predators and Reapers and smart bombs. Plus ca change …

I thought we were talking about empires, not great powers.

Anyway, this reminds me of what I take to be the primary lesson of offensive realism:“states always maximize power, except when they don’t.”

Similarly, I think it is fair to say that “great powers defend perceived interests with any means at their disposal, except when they don’t.” US technological superiority in Afghanistan and Pakistan extends just a wee bit beyond remote-controlled airplanes with guns, and includes a good many capabilities the United States hasn’t used, or uses in one case but not in another. Same can be said for other great powers, past and present.

9. Nationalism and other forms of local identity remain a potent obstacle to long-term imperial control.

Britain’s supposedly “liberal” empire contained a deep contradiction: a society that emphasized individual liberties could not hold in bondage whole societies and deny the inhabitants independence. Once nationalism took root in the colonies (intermingled with other tribal and/or religious identities), resistance to imperial rule increased apace. As the United States is now discovering in Iraq and Central Asia, most peoples don’t like taking orders from well-armed foreigners, even when the foreigners keep telling them that their aims are benevolent.

Note how this point tracks with my comments concerning overplaying the centrality of “hard power.”

10. “Imperial Prestige” is both an asset and a trap.

Britain’s leaders fretted constantly about any erosion in their image of superiority, fearing that one or two setbacks might lead their subjects to rise up or encourage other great powers to poach on Britain’s holdings. As a result, Britons found themselves fighting to defend marginal possessions in order to preserve their position in the places they believed mattered. Ironically, the refusal to liquidate far-flung commitments early so as to focus resources on more vital interests may have hastened Britain’s imperial decline.

This captures one “standard model”of strategic overextension (see Habsburg Spain, the Vietnam War, etc.). Indeed, the interesting question is not whether or not these process happen, but the conditions under which metropolitan officials are right or wrong about the consequences of losing “prestige” by cutting-and-running from a peripheral conflict. I should also note that a number of other processes produce counterproductive peripheral entanglements, and it may be a mistake to treat “reputational concerns” as the most important factor involved within or across particular cases.

Balancing Behaviors?

I was listening to a CFR podcast of a special conference call on North Korea’s nuclear weapons test yesterday during my much longer than usual commute. One key part of the discussion centered around Japan’s response to the nuclear test and missile launches. Japan, it seems, is taking steps to improve its military capabilities in response to North Korea’s actions. Even the most extreme option–Japan going nuclear–seems to be lurking near the table. The conference call participants saw China as a key to the North Korean situation, with greater action possible this time in part because China wanted to keep North Korea in check to mitigate any potential Japanese military expansion.

Recently, I supervised an excellent MA thesis that examined military policy among great powers in Northeast Asia in response to China’s ongoing military modernization from a neo-realist perspective. The question driving the thesis was that China, as the rising power expanding its military capabilities through its modernization program might provoke balancing behavior from the other great powers of the region. The conclusion was that there was no classic balancing behavior, rather there was some buckpassing and “hedging.”

This raised an interesting puzzle. North Korea is nowhere near a great power. While they do have a large military, it old, outdated, and oriented toward the DMZ. They do have WMD and missiles, though the missiles are highly unreliable. China is a rising great power with a highly capable military that is increasing its ability to project power.

For Japan, a state that has constitutionally limited its military power to self-defense missions and has a deep aversion to nuclear proliferation, to consider a military build up is a big deal. For the notion of nuclearization to even be broached is quite a major step. Good old balance of power theory might lead one to suppose that it would take the rise of a significant challenger to push Japan in this direction.

But my guess is that it would ID China as such a challenger well before it would tag North Korea.

Realism, anarchy, and domestic politics: an impolitic response to Peter H.


What it is not, however, is a Realist argument. To continue my picking on Walt, if you’re going to run around calling yourself a realist and writing a realist blog, for cryin’ out loud, advance a realist argument from time to time!!!

Lets review: Realism assumes an anarchic world of rational state actors maximizing security, defined as sufficient military force to defend the integrity of a the state. In that anarchic environment, systemic pressures are the primary factor states rationally consider in security decisions.

In other words, all states act the same, the only thing that differentiates them is their relative position in world politics, ie their relative power.

I hoped that Stacie Goddard’s and my “Paradigm Lost? Reassessing Theory of International Politics would put this kind of talk firmly to rest.

Our exegesis of Theory of International Politics explains in excruciating detail why Peter’s reading of neorealism–let alone earlier forms of realism–doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In brief, the structural incentives created by anarchy only “shape and shove” state behavior; they are but one input into the processes that produce foreign policy. Walt’s own “balance of threat” theory is consistent with this variant of realism (see both The Origins of Alliances and
Revolution and War.

Indeed, Theory of International Politics spawned a significant body of realist literature doing exactly what structural realism implies (and Peter sees as un-realist): explaining variation in responses to anarchical environments by looking to domestic politics, decision-making processes, and so forth. In other words, many so-called “neo-classical realist” theories are entirely consistent with structural realism.

I apologize for what I’m about to do, but I get tired writing this sort of stuff over and over again. So I’m going to quote from my most recent article (paywalled PDF) making these claims:

We can conceptualize balance of power theories as falling along a continuum. The strongest forms of balance of power theory hold that balance of power mechanisms preclude the formation of international hierarchies. By contrast, the weakest balance of power theory holds that balance of power mechanisms need not concatenate to produce systemic power balances; nevertheless, such mechanisms remain significant factors in determining international political outcomes. Most contemporary articulations of balance of power theory fall somewhere in between, although they tend to cluster on the left-hand side of the continuum; in other words, they view systemic balances of power as likely or predominate outcomes in international politics.

Waltz’s variant of balance of power theory occupies a somewhat ambiguous position on this continuum. Waltz sometimes describes his argument in ways that locate it as a rather strong variant of balance of power theory. Consider Waltz’s claim that the present unipolar system is unlikely to last and that we are seeing the early phases of an “all-but-inevitable movement from unipolarity to multipolarity.” at the same time, Waltz insists that international structures and their associated mechanisms merely “shape and shove” units in the direction of balance of power dynamics. International structural mechanisms provide only a partial explanation for the specific foreign policies pursued by states; they account for why, “through all the changes of boundaries, of social, economic, and political form, of economic and military activity, the substance and style of international politics remain strikingly constant.”

Waltz, therefore, presents a moderately strong balance of power theory, one that allows actors to choose to ignore structural imperatives but that nonetheless expects a tendency toward systemic balances of power. Thus, attempts to discredit the theory on the grounds that many realists invoke unit-level factors—such as domestic political structures, economic arrangements, and governing ideologies—to explain specific outcomes rest on a misreading of Waltz. Structural realism is, at least in broad strokes, consistent with the neoclassical realist “middle ground between pure structural theorists” and those that deny the importance of international structures in influencing outcomes.

Defining balance of power theory in this way raises some interesting issues. First, even though waltz presents a relatively strong version of balance of power theory, he allows for the possibility that other factors will overcome balance of power mechanisms. Second, just as those influenced by structural realism sometimes uphold the general parameters of the theory while jettisoning Waltz’s specific claims about bipolar stability, we can, in principle, recast it as a weaker form of balance of power theory than the one Waltz presents. Third, if we slide structural realism far enough toward the weak side of the continuum, its claims become indistinguishable from those of most variants of contemporary realism.

There are some interesting things going on with Walt’s recent emphasis on these factors. First, as I noted above, one can read what he’s arguing as a reasonable extension of his own balance-of-threat theory, insofar as he’s describing a set of processes that (arguably) produced–and continue to produce–threat inflation. This looks like a pretty straightforward set of claims concerning why the US (arguably) tends towards power-maximizing rather than security-seeking policies.

Second, I take Peter’s criticisms to note the risk of real slippage here for realists such as Walt. The more that realists look to processes of social construction and interest-group politics (these are not necessarily exclusive) to explain variation in how threatening states find the international environment, the more they inch towards a line across which “anarchy” ceases to do any significant explanatory work. This is, in fact, why most Constructivists find balance-of-threat theory so convivial for advancing their agenda.

Third, despite the unequivical truth of everything I’ve written above, realists do have a tendency to slip into naïve versions of their own arguments. In particular, as Jacob Levy noted in his critique of the “Israel Lobby” paper, Walt (and Mearsheimer) have shown a tendency to conflate prescriptive and evaluative implications of realist theory with predictive claims. In other words, they see the United States engaging in policies that they consider incompatible with its own national interests, and find this difficult to understand.

[Mearsheimer and Walt] are committed to the neorealist view that powerful states act in their security interest. They’re also, independently, committed to opposition to the Iraq War and to what they see as U.S. overreach in the Middle East; they think that the U.S. does not effectively pursue its security interests in the region. So there’s a puzzle, an anomaly– of their own making. If you are both committed to a predictive theory and committed to an interpretation of a particular case by which it falsifies your theory, then there’s a puzzle for your views, but not yet a puzzle about the world.

What’s odd here is why realists would react to putatively self-defeating state policies as if they comprised some kind of anomaly. After all, almost all of their “timeless lessons” about international politics involve states screwing things up: provoking counter-balancing coalitions, trying to make collective security work, getting involved in irrelevant peripheral conflicts, and so forth. Moreover, their underlying theoretical architectures are, as we’ve already seen, compatible with a broad range of state behavior.

But for some reason, many realist scholars default back to the very caricatures of their theories that their critics peddle, whether in academic or policy settings. I can only speculate as to why this is the case, but I suspect it has something to do with the disjuncture between, on the one hand, realist aspirations to produce “scientific” and “predictive” theories and, on the other hand, the actual character of realism.

I’m not entirely sure what the epistemic status of contemporary realism is, but I see three alternatives:

• Realism amounts to a general argument about the parameters in which international politics take place. Call this “weak neorealism.”

• Realism is really a normative argument about the priority of “reason of state” in guiding foreign policy decisions. Following Meinecke, let’s call this “Machiavellianism.”

• Realism constitutes a heuristic for uncovering the power-political dimensions of foreign policy and international relations. Because “Critical Realism” is taken, the best I can come up with is “Critical Realpolitik.”

None of these, however, satisfy mainstream political-science criteria for social-scientific inquiry.

See, also, Stefano Guzzini’s Realism in International Relations and International Political Economy: The Continuing Story of a Death Foretold)

Un-Realist-ic Walt

Stephen Walt asks a very interesting question: why does the US overspend on defense? This is a very smart question, the kind you need to be contrarian theorist to ask. Given the global downturn in the economy, you’d think defense spending would absorb its fair share of pain.

As is well documented, the US spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined. And yet, worried that China may be less than 5 years away from sending a sub as far as Guam, there is a well developed narrative and lobby in US politics that we aren’t spending enough. So, defense spending continues to go up and up and up.

Originally, I wanted to tackle this issue head-on, but I’d rather tackle Walt head on instead. His core argument:

America’s rise to global primacy was accompanied by the creation of a well-developed set of institutions whose stated purpose was to overcome isolationist sentiments and to promote greater international activism on the part of the United States. American liberal internationalism didn’t just arise spontaneously as America’s relative power grew, it was actively encouraged by groups like the Council on Foreign Relations (founded in 1921), and a whole array of other groups and organizations.

He goes on to list many of them by name. Conversely, he finds,

By contrast, there are at most a handful of institutions whose core mission is to get the United States to take a slightly smaller role on the world stage….

In short, what I’m suggesting here is that America’s role in the world today is shaped by two imbalances of power, not just one. The first is the gap between U.S. capabilities and everyone else’s, a situation that has some desirable features (especially for us) but one that also encourages the United States to do too much and allows others to do either too little or too many of the wrong things. The second imbalance is between organized interests whose core mission is constantly pushing the U.S. government to do more and in more places, and the far-weaker groups who think we might be better off showing a bit more restraint.

In a vacuum, this is an interesting argument, worth exploring. It probably lends itself to some sort of liberal / domestic politics / organizing coalition or constructivist / national identity / lack of isolationist rhetorical commonplaces for legitimation argument, and is an interest case in which to evaluate the two ideas.

What it is not, however, is a Realist argument. To continue my picking on Walt, if you’re going to run around calling yourself a realist and writing a realist blog, for cryin’ out loud, advance a realist argument from time to time!!!

Lets review: Realism assumes an anarchic world of rational state actors maximizing security, defined as sufficient military force to defend the integrity of a the state. In that anarchic environment, systemic pressures are the primary factor states rationally consider in security decisions.

In other words, all states act the same, the only thing that differentiates them is their relative position in world politics, ie their relative power.

What Walt claims in his post is that the systemic pressures of anarchy have absolutely no bearing on US defense budgetign and policy. Rather, crazy domestic lobbies have hijacked USFP for some damn fool ideological crusade. This analysis is all well and good, but, and here’s the kicker, Walt’s theory–Realism–says this shouldn’t matter, not one lick! States can have all the internal politics they want, but in the end, systemic pressures shape security policy.

The fact that Walt can’t 1) adequately apply his own theory to one of the pressing questions of the day he poses, and 2) has to continually rely on ad-hoc explanations of domestic politics when things don’t go his way, leads me to believe that Walt has abandon Realism for either Rat-Choice Liberalism, or Hard-core, boarder-line PoMo (gasp!) Constructivism. I’m sure he’d reject both labels. If so, Be a frickn’ realist, then Steve!!! Give me a realist explanation for US defense spending over the past 20 years. It should have, as its key explanatory variable, some sort of systemic, balance of power-related force. Inability to do so constitutes a significant failure for realism, and suggests that Walt is fundamentally wrong.

Now, there are a lot of sophisticated attempts to add variation to realism, but, so far as I know, they all retain the rational states in anarchy thing, with a lot of (military) power. If this can’t give you any purchase on such an important issue, perhaps its time to re-think the theory.

Because, what you said is that Realism can’t explain the budget policies of the signal largest bastion and promoter of Realism, the US Pentagon, then as a theory it needs some work.

Sounds like a degenerative research program to me. Now I an see why no one’s a realist any more!

Walt, Walt, don’t tell me….

At one time, I kinda almost liked some of Stephen Walt’s work. At another point, I found works such as Origins of Alliances useful pivots in making an argument to move from explanations based on realism to explanations based on constructivism. But to still call Walt a “good” or “eminent” IR theorist worthy of a job at Harvard…

Walt thought it would be fun to list the top ten IR films. Outsourced to Fred Kaplan:

The most jaw-dropping pick of all, though, is Independence Day, which “makes my list,” Walt writes, “because it is balance-of-power theory in action: an external threat (giant alien spaceships) gets the world to join forces against the common foe.” Here’s the thing. Walt is a classic International Realist, the author of such gravitas-beaming books as The Origins of Alliances, Taming American Power, and Revolution and War. Yet this is his view of “balance-of-power theory in action”—the one-worlder’s wet-dream cliché about how all the nations join forces to beat back monsters from outer space? A much more cogent portrait of balance-of-power theory is the scene in The Godfather where the five families agree to get into the heroin business and divvy up the territory. (That’s nearly a metaphor for the Congress of Vienna.) Better still is the scene in The Godfather Part II in which Hyman Roth, Michael Corleone, and the chiefs of various U.S. corporations, standing on a hotel balcony in Havana, slice up a birthday cake that’s decorated with the map of Cuba.

I’ll leave the film commentary to Rodger. I’ll just say that Kaplan is dead on–if Independence Day is what counts as “Realism” these days, then Realism and Realists are in Real trouble. To call Walt’s Independence Day realism a degenerative research program might be too kind!

Medvedev’s five principles

There’s been a fair amount of reporting on an interview that Medvedev gave to German ARD, in which he talked about seeking “constructive dialogue” with the European Union. He also laid out “five principles” of Russian foreign policy, including opposition to unipolarity and a defense of sphere of influence… most notably, Russia’s.

Paul Reynolds of the BBC provides a cynical analysis:

Those therefore are the stated principles. What implications do they have?

To take them in the order he presented them:

The primacy of International Law: This on the face of it sounds encouraging. But Russia signed up to Security Council resolution 1808 in April this year, which reaffirmed “the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia… ” – and has since abandoned that position.

It argues that a Georgian attack on South Ossetia on 7/8 August invalidated its commitment and required that it defend its citizens there. But it perhaps cannot proclaim its faith in international law and at the same time take unilateral action.

This principle therefore has to be seen as rather vague.

The world is multi-polar: This means that Russia will not accept the primacy of the United States (or a combination of the US and its allies) in determining world policy. It will require that its own interests are taken into account.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted at what this really means. “There is a feeling that Nato again needs frontline states to justify its existence,” he said in a speech. He was putting down another marker against the extension of Nato membership to Ukraine and Georgia.

Russia does not seek confrontation: Again this sounds hopeful but it based on the requirement that Russia’s needs are met first. If the world agrees to its demands, then it is happy to be friends. But if not… therein lies the warning.

Protecting its citizens: The key phrase here is “wherever they are”. This was the basis on which Russia went to war in South Ossetia and it contains within it the potential for future interventions – over Crimea, for example, populated by a majority Russian-background population yet owned by Ukraine only since 1954. If Ukraine looked set to join Nato, would Russia claim the protection of its “citizens” there?

Privileged interests: In this principle President Medvedev was getting down to the heart of the matter. Russia is demanding its own spheres of influence, especially, but not only, over states on its borders. This has the potential for further conflict if those “interests” are ignored.

However we read the significance of such statement, it is clear that (1) Medvedev has articulated a classical realpolitik vision, albeit it one tempered somewhat his invocation of rules and norms of international conduct. I also think recent statements from the Kremlin suggests its awareness of the growing danger that the conflict with Georgia has greatly undermined Russia’s international position, even if, as Nicholas Kulish reports, many Germans, consider the “Caucasus… a distant concern, if they believe they concern them at all.”

But Medvedev’s statements call attention to a more analytic question. Is this, as a number of prominent scholars in my field would argue, merely more evidence of “rhetorical balancing?” Or can we now start to talk about balancing dynamics in the current international system?

Image source The BBC.

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.

Nationalism is not Neoconservatism

Donald Douglas over at American Power weighs in with a laudatory post about Brian Rathbun’s recent article — an article in which neoconservatism is equated with and defined as “moral nationalism.” “Moral” here means that neoconservatism offers something other than a set of factual observations on which to base foreign policy, but instead spins out a normative justification for the rectitude of particular policies, particularly policies involving the use of military force in pursuit and promotion of American ideals and values. Douglas, an avowed neoconservative, is very much in favor of this characterization of his position, especially since “moral nationalism” arguably stretches back to the founding of the United States — if neoconservatism goes back that far, then it is clearly a venerable American tradition instead of a novel upstart doctrine. For support on this point, Douglas calls in the big guns: none other than Robert Kagan, who traces “the rhetoric of greatness, moralism, and mission” back through several hundred years of American foreign policy history in order to make just this argument.

Unfortunately for all three of these folks, the equation between “moral nationalism” and neoconservatism just doesn’t hold up. Moral nationalism — or, better, a moralistic tone or sympathy in American public policy — has in fact been characteristic of the United States since before its founding. But to call Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman “neoconservatives” is to strain the meaning of the term beyond all recognition, and certainly beyond any conceivable analytical utility. Sure, taking these important icons from the past into the neoconservative fold has important political implications. But analytically speaking, it’s nonsense — and ideologically slanted nonsense at that.

Setting aside for the moment the theoretical issues involved in Rathbun’s decision to equate the analysis of elite opinion with the analysis of foreign policy (more on this in a moment), the basic argument of the article is that not all US “conservatives” are realists. Given the historical association between realism and the political right wing, this is an interesting if not particularly earth-shaking claim. Rathbun evaluates the claim by running a factor analysis on a data-set of elite mail survey repsonses; the analysis reveals three clusters of responses, which Rathbun labels “realist,” “nationalist,” and “isolationist.” Right away there’s something odd here, because this looks like two apples and an orange: realism and nationalism are perspectives or attitudes, while isolation is a policy. Conceptually, one could be a realist or a nationalist and prefer either isolation or its opposite, and perhaps even prefer different policies under different circumstances. Along similar lines, one could only be an isolationist under this description if one always and eternally rejected involvement in global politics, and volumes of historical scholarship have made it abundantly clear that a) no one, even the so-called “isolationists,” ever actually argued that during a policy debate, and b) the very term “isolationism” was a piece of political labeling by the opponents of a policy of remaining uninvolved in European affairs during the 1920s and 1930s. And so-called “isolationists” were perfectly happy to press for US involvement in the Pacific and in Latin America; what they didn’t want to do was to get involved in a European war. So there never were any such people as “isolationists,” strictly speaking.

What there were — and what there have always been, and continue to be — were people who argued that the United States ought to retain its freedom of action in world politics, and not bind itself to multilateral or universal institutions and rule-structures. In other words, they preferred unilateral policies. That said, unilateralism vs. multilateralism describes not a policy debate, but the possible outcomes of such a debate. A state’s pursuit of unilateral or multilateral policies is the kind of thing that stands in need of an explanation; it’s not an explanation itself. Further, those preferring or advocating unilateral or multilateral policies rarely, if ever, do so in those terms; rather, the positions taken in a debate point in a unilateral or multilateral direction, and may not (indeed, probably don’t) actually use the terms ‘unilateral’ or ‘multilateral’ in so doing. If we want to account for different positions on US foreign policy. we have to look at the terms of the debates in which advocates engaged, and not simply look at the kinds of policies that supposed adherents of each side of the debate argued for or against — doing so is likely to get us into real conceptual trouble, because we might have mis-assigned a speaker to one side or the other prematurely and thus be confused at their advocacy of a position that they “shouldn’t” be advocating. (Or, even worse, we could find ourselves attempting to make logical sense of a coalition in support of a policy that was formed on more instrumental grounds, such as the “coalition” that voted to support the present Iraq war. Different people had very different reasons for voting to authorize the use of force in Iraq, and it would make a mockery of the term to claim that everyone who voted in the affirmative was, for example, a neoconservative.)

So if we shift our gaze from policies to policy debates, what do we find that might separate realists from nationalists, and from liberal internationalists and the other kinds of schools of thought we might find? I’d say that first of all we need to stop thinking in terms of “schools,” since positions on foreign policy are rarely coherent enough for that moniker. Individual policymakers also pick and choose among the elements of the supposed “schools” when the occasion seems appropriate. So we need to start with the content of policy debates, and look for ways of analytically parsing out their elements so as to make sense of the patterns and combinations that we see in practice. [This signals a methodological difference between Rathbun and me, in that the factor analysis he employs is a technique for inferring the existence of real-but-not-directly-observed variables that cause outcomes, where my ideal-typification of existing debates is a more pragmatic, or instrumentalist, use of data. But I’m going to forego that discussion for the present post.]

So what are those elements? Two of Rathbun’s proposed three analytical dimensions — whether the US should be more powerful than other countries (“rank”), and whether the US ought to remain distant from other countries (“separation”) belong, as far as I am concerned, in the same category as “isolation” — these are policies, not justifications for policies. Rathbun’s other dimension, “distinction,” strikes me as more promising, although Rathbun cashes it out in a way that is not as clear as it could be. The root of “distinction,” I would argue, is a claim that the United States is both exempt from those rules and exempt from them on the grounds that the United States represents something special, distinctive, higher — something that trumps the rules in force for merely ordinary polities. These two aspects combine to form a venerable commonplace in US foreign policy debates: exceptionalism.

Exceptionalism puts the US in a category all its own, and is reasonably contrasted with stances like realism that maintain that the United States is a state like other states and needs to play by the rules of international politics (the realists — the “rules” in question here are understood not to be social products, but are instead held to be more or less inevitable consequences of life in the anarchy of the international system). But realism is not the only opposite of exceptionalism, and in fact most anti-exceptionalists in the United States have not actually been realists. They are, instead, committed to a variety of positions that situate the United States within some larger polity or universal set of standards, making the US the agent of that broader perspective. Some anti-exceptionalists accept the universalism of the exceptionalist commonplace, but reject the exemption from the rules claimed by exceptionalists; we sometimes call these people “liberal internationalists” and we think of Woodrow Wilson. Of course, we also call these people “militant nationalists,” particularly when we’re talking about Theodore Roosevelt, but a closer look at TR’s actual policy justifications reveals pretty quickly that Roosevelt was more interested in a US-led club of “civilized nations” then he was in the sort of go-it-alone unilateralism preferred by exceptionalists when they felt the need to forcibly intervene in the affairs of other countries; the distance between TR’s club of civilized nations and Wilson’s League of Nations are considerably less than we sometimes recognize. Other anti-exceptionalists avoided the language of “civilization,” preferring the more exclusive civilizational polity of ‘the West’; the logic was similar (US submerged in a larger policy/group, albeit as that group’s leader), but the implications were different inasmuch as ‘the West’ was not something one could join by choice. Hence, a mutually armed standoff, which we now call “the Cold War” (yes, Truman and Acheson were Western-Civilizationists, not exceptionalists, as I have argued in detail elsewhere).

So where does neoconservatism fit in all of this? The really intriguing thing about neoconservatism is that it manages to rehabilitate exceptionalism, but do so in such a way as to detach it from its traditional association with policies of refraining from “entangling” involvement in European political machinations, and only reluctantly and unilaterally intervening in such high-level global political and military activity when absolutely necessary — “isolationism” — and join it to a vigorous promotion of universal ideals (“civilization,” as GWB said for the first time on 20 September 2001, and numerous times thereafter). Borrowing a page or three from Reagan — actually, scratch that, writing a page or three that Reagan used as a script — neoconservatism represents a reconfiguration of the basic elements that have been floating around US foreign policy discussions for generations. That reconfiguration uses elements, and thus has some similarities with, the older uses of exceptionalism, which implied something like “build the perfect democracy here at home and let human history gradually conspire to make the world like us” (which, contra Kagan, is more or less what both the US’s founders and Robert A. Taft were saying — the US needed to be powerful, sure, but only so that it could serve as a magnetic pole to attract and defend its universal ideals, and most certainly not so that it could invade other countries and force “regime change”). In contemporary parlance, exceptionalism, whether it’s the Clinton/Albright “indispensable nation” or the beacon of civilization so often referenced in discussions of the War on Terror(ism), means something like “actively intervene in the world so as to make it resemble the ideal, and do not be too troubled about the niceties — after all, the US is unique, and represents the best of humanity, so how could it do wrong?” Contrast even Wilson’s militant liberalism, which took the European powers to task and took the United States into the First World War mostly for violating neutrality rights. That’s no “coalition of the willing,” the preferred option of neoconservatives (and it has to be their preferred option, because an exceptional/indispensable nation can’t be bound by its alliance to less-perfect countries if those alliances get in its way). And Wilson — and TR, and FDR, and Truman, and Hamilton, and Washington — were certainly no neoconservatives.

As I said at the outset, I can certainly see and understand the political value of a claim that neoconservativism is as old as the republic. But this is mere propaganda, as is the neoconservatism recasting of all of US foreign policy history as debate between militant nationalists (like themselves, they argue) and conservative isolationists (which is quite ironic, since those conventionally labeled “isolationists” were the traditional upholders and utilizers of the very rhetorical commonplace — exceptionalism — now so central to neoconservative thinking). Exceptionalism is as old as the republic, but the implications that neoconservatives draw from it are relatively novel. What this implies about the desirability of neoconservatism I am not entirely sure about; I personally don’t think it implies much of anything, but others might disagree.

The emerging multipolar order

Parag Khanna has, in essence, a précis of his forthcoming book in today’s New York Times Magazine. The article, entitled, “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony”, contends that American hegemony is already over, that we’re seeing the emergence of three new “empires”–complete with different imperial styles–centered around the US, the EU, and China. Khanna thinks the US needs to adapt soon to his new great game, in which the “second world’s” orientation will determine the global balance of power, and, among other things, abandon the us-versus-them attitude which undermines its influence and makes great-power concert-style management difficult.

Khanna’s put his finger on many key contemporary trends. Unlike Kagan, he doesn’t try to interpret the new struggle for influence in quasi-Marxist terms, i.e., as a great ideological clash between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. Khanna understands that Kagan’s view, if it drives US foreign policy, will prove counterproductive to US power and influence.

I only have a few criticisms, and they are largely those of an academic reading a work intended for a popular audience.*

1. I don’t care for Khanna’s “marketplace” analogy, which downplays the degree to which geopolitical competition for influence among clients and other weaker powers involves coercion, domination, and resistance.

2. Khanna is too dismissive of the implications of Russian assertiveness. He’s right that the long-term trends–particularly demographic–don’t favor Russian geopolitical influence, but we should be careful about projecting too much based on current trends.

And right now, the Russians are unhappy and resurgent; their capabilities far outmatch most of their neighbors, and they’re starting to adopt more sensible development policies designed to diversify their economy.

3. I wish Khanna didn’t fall into the trap of implying that the Shanghai Coopertation Organization (SCO) is a big deal because it might be like NATO some day. The SCO represents a strategy of “public goods substitution”–from its counter-terrorism to its election-monitoring activities–that seeks to undermines US influence. I doubt it will ever be upgraded to a NATO-like entity, and focusing on that question misses its significance.

4. I think Khanna’s a bit too fast to declare the passing of US hegemony. This is less his fault than that of the “unipolar moment” crowd, many of whom overstated–and continue to overstate–the implications, as well as the degree, of American primacy.

American primacy never implied that the US could “make its own reality” or largely ignore resistance to its policies and position. US power depended, and continues to depend, as much on the micro-politics of its foreign relations as upon its raw military and economic might.

So while (a) the US has mishandled many of those micro-politics over the last decade, (b) current trends do point towards a power transition, and (c) the US faces serious counter-hegemonic challenges, we should be careful about equating diminished US primacy with some form of tripolarity.

That being said, the book is really excellent. I consider it one of the most important contributions to the debate over American grand strategy to make its way into the public sphere in quite some time.

UPDATE: Since Dan’s called me out on this, let me clarify: I think this is a much better book than most of its rivals in the same market niche, and puts some very important issues on the table. I wasn’t sure how to phrase my concluding praise, and opted for a possibly misleading statement about the “public sphere” as opposed to what might sound like a more backhanded compliment about, in effect, the “Tom Friedman/Benjamin Barber/Robert Kaplan genre.”

If I do get around to a review, I intend to make clear that the book actually contains a number of distinct arguments, that these arguments do not depend upon one another, and that some of them are much more persuasive than others. Or, as I wrote on another blog, the “three empires” vision of the world should be seen as a possible, but unlikely, future. The important part of Khanna’s argument is not, contra how many are reading it, the tag lines about the coming tripolar order and the central importance of a similarly-situated set of “second world states,” but the more significant insights about the changing terms of US hegemony and the myriad challenges it faces as a result of, for example, enhanced exit options for second- and third-tier states.

*I should probably note two potential sources of bias. Khanna, who is currently pursuing a PhD from the London School of Economics, is one my former students. A lot of my current work, moreover, is premised upon a similar view of contemporary power-political developments and trends–although not in terms of his claims about the coming tripolar order.

Realism and the balance of power: Deborah Boucoyannis weighs in

Not long ago, Charli posted about Deborah Boucoyannis’ provocative Perspectives on Politics article, “The International Wanderings of a Liberal Idea, or Why Liberals Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Balance of Power” (PDF). A number of readers and contributors commented on Charli’s post and the article. Now, Deborah responds:

Note: I’ve put the original comments she’s responding to in blockquotes. Her comments are formatted normally.

Yet her attempt to redefine realism as, in essence, hegemonic-order theory strikes me as strained.

Well, it’s not just hegemonic theory that I am defining it as; it is offensive realism too. In short, the theories that predict the opposite of a balance.

But she gives away a lot to rather weak arguments about the “degenerative” character of realism, and winds up treating a framework as a predictive theory (715). Realism is consistent with a range of distributions of power as outcomes, although particular predictive theories within the realist approach may not be.

Ok, I think here we are growing apart due to language. What is “Realism”? How do you define it? Any theory that talks about power and self-interest? But this cannot be a sufficient basis of differentiation as both factors are key, as I show, in classical liberalism. If we are to distinguish the theories, we need to point to where they differ. You do not specify this here, so I cannot say more.

This is frustrating, because her discussion of contemporary liberalism immediately prior is quite good. I guess one way of putting this is that “liberalism” and “realism” are simultaneously ideal-typical constructs and things that people call themselves.

True. And the cause of this big mess we have in IR, I think, with people calling each other degenerate (well, that’s what they mean, really)! Identifying theories with what people claim to believe over the course of their careers is very problematic.

So it doesn’t strike me as overly radical to point out that actual liberal and realist theorists share a lot of assumptions, both because we shouldn’t expect them to be philosophically pure and because the source material for the traditions overlap and borrow from one another.

But again, if that is so, then what’s the difference between the two theories? Aren’t they supposed to represent alternative approaches to IR? Are we all the same after all? This is not right, it seems to me. There are fundamental differences in how Mearsheimer approaches problems and Keohane does. And this is not because Keohane is less “philosophically pure” (I’ve heard endless times he’s a confused realist). Keohane is absolutely consistent with the classical liberal tradition (he thanked me for noting that!). He shares many assumptions with realism, but he also believes, unlike realists, that institutions can make a difference. This has been, from the beginning, the hallmark of liberalism. And our IR theories should reflect that, I suggest.

Yes, both realists and liberals have argued that the creation of a balance of power checks domination and allows for the management of coercion. And some “realists” (e.g., Morganthau) argued that this would allow for the creation of robust, power-transcendent international orders. But other “realists” disagree, which has to do with how they break from contemporary “liberals.”

Let me interject, in good spirit! Morgenthau is not a “Realist,” with all the nasty short-sightedness this habitually implies! Hoffman called him “a somewhat conservative liberal in revolt against other, imprudent liberals”. Nor is Carr a Realist. Carr was a reformed socialist. Neither was realist in any meaningful way that would put him in the same political category as Mearsheimer, or Kissinger (the practitioner, not the book-selling entrepreneur). Marx and Karl Schmitt had some pretty similar “realist” critiques of liberalism; this does not make them fellow travelers.

Just to be provocative, this is a bit of the Jonah Goldberg way of lumping people together: find one point of convergence, and they’re all one thing. Williams, in his wonderful book (which I wish I had read before I sent the article in—thanks to your blog for bringing it to my attention!), actually does call Morgenthau’s “realism” a form of liberalism (p.130), though he stops short from actually calling Morgenthau liberal, even though this is what he is trying to prove throughout the book.

But Morgenthau is a good old-fashioned liberal; this is clear throughout his work on domestic politics, he is committed to greater state power, which alone can combat private concentrations of power (Purpose of American Politics, 311-12), and to the institutional management of power. He supports the New Deal and even places Castro on the side of Eisenhower and FDR, vs. Battista and Trujillo on the narrow question of “justice” to the people, despite his autocracy (see the Lang book on Morgenthau’s lectures on Aristotle—fascinating!). He is a “realist” as far as “philosophy and method” were concerned: his dispute with “liberals” was on those levels, not on goals: he affirmed that, at least in the US, all sides were committed to progress and improvement. “Conservative in philosophy and method, revolutionary in purpose—such has been our political tradition from the beginning of colonization.” (Purpose of American Politics, 297). A statement that could perhaps confidently be made in 1960, though not so today. Just look at what he was telling students about racial and gender equality (in the Lang book). It is simply odd to think of Mearsheimer or Kissinger as part of a “revolutionary” political tradition (well, compared to the mullahs, Charles Taylor, or Putin, they are of course democrats, but within the democratic arena, they are not “revolutionary”). Reading Morgenthau’s “domestic” works is simply a revelation. As is Carr on “Nationalism and After”, or on “The Prospects of a New International Order” in the 20 Years Crisis.

We cannot ignore half of these men’s work, simply because they subscribe to a realist, “pessimist” approach to human nature or human affairs, seems to me. We need to understand what these thinkers actually meant when they said they were “realist”. And we have to take each at his word when, Carr e.g. wrote in The New Society, in 1951: “We are committed to mass democracy, to egalitarian democracy, to the public control and planning of the economic process, and therefore to the strong state exercising remedial and constructive functions.”

No, these are not “Realists.” No pun intended, but if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

My whole point in the end is that having a “realist/pessimist” view of human affairs does not condemn you to blinkered views about the possibility of change or the institutional management of power; in fact, it can make you a prudent, responsible, and much more effective promoter of the collective good. Mearsheimer et al will always say they are prudent and more responsible, but they explicitly reject change and institutional management of power; Morgenthau and Carr defended both—and this is the key distinction between a conservative and a liberal/progressive.

Anyway, if this article is any indication of her depth of thought, I can’t wait to read her multi-award winning dissertation

.That is really kind! And entirely reciprocated: we have been following parallel paths in, it seems, everything we do, from a dissertation on state formation in Europe to articles on how Waltz is ‘really not as bad as most people think!’ Yet always from slightly different angles. I greatly look forward to further exchanges of this kind, especially on our book projects!

And a few more points on comments posted, though I cannot do justice to all:

1. To LC: You’re not a weakling if you don’t predict or prescribe power balancing, but liberalism is weakened when it fails to make power a central concept, as it mostly does today. What I am saying is that the balancing hypothesis is the distinctive way liberals developed to deal with the problem of power, and contemporary liberals should recapture that.

2. To Matt: Points 1-6 deftly express the conventional wisdom, but are exactly what I spend the whole article arguing against. Point 7, on why the balancing idea does not transfer to the international level, what I am saying is that it has: this is what Waltz did, which is why the section on him is called “Adam Smith goes Security”. And as Richard Tuck and others have argued, the whole liberal turn to the individual received its theoretical foundation in treatments of the sovereign state system, so even if the balancing idea did not emerge in this context, the two realms have always been informing one another.

I’ve seen various iterations of Boucoyannis’ article, although always through third parties. A really nice piece, but not entirely convincing. For example, Guicciardini gets labeled a “humanist” and Machiavelli a proponent of “realpolitik,” but the reason for this distinction remains unclear.

The main point still stands: Guicciardini supports a balanced internal order that does not seek expansion; in this, he is closer to the classical ideal. Again, this is a distinction that has been made before (Waltz and Butterfield did, and Deudney mentions it as well). Guicciardini has been seen in this to draw on humanists like Bruni; James Hankins has written a great paper on Bruni’s vision of the Italian system as a precursor to the federation of free republics in Montesquieu’s sense. So there is a family of ideas and Guicciardini is, in this, closer to the classical view, whereas Machiavelli is often seen to lean in the imperialist direction (though these are always crude simplifications).

It is also not true that Machiavelli lacks any notion of the international balance of power;

But I do not claim he does. Note, I am not using “balance of power” in the generic sense of the term (“what matters is power, so let’s see how it is distributed”), but in the specific one, that the individual pursuit of self-interest by all will/should prevent domination by one.

She notes, on at least one occasion, that bandwagoning produced the subjugation of Italy (this is the diagnoses of Guicciardini’s History of Italy). While he does “opt” for imperialism, moreover, he also argues that republics *can* opt for a strategy of being armed to the teeth.

Well, I think Mac’s polarity is between imperialism and stasis. That said, the point is well taken, only I would add he claims that “Without doubt…if the thing could be held balanced in this mode, it would be the true political way of life and the true quiet city.” (Discourses I.6.) But then he admits that due to the inherent instability of human affairs, such a delicate balance over the long haul is simply unsustainable, and thus to preserve liberty states must be ready to expand and to be able to keep what they gain, so that the people do not become “effeminate or divided.”

In general, I think there’s some important slippage between the valence of terms like “liberal” and “realist” in various philosophical traditions and the valence of those terms in contemporary IR theory. By much the same token, I am unconvinced by the dismissal of republican theory as an alternative root to the balance-of-power notion; but once republican theory can produce the balance-of-power notion, it follows that one need not be liberal to affirm it.

First, let me say that I understand the appeal of republicanism as an alternative to liberalism, especially in the impoverished way the latter is usually conceived. When I started, I was drawn to it too. But the republican version is very different. Republican theory states that the balance between different social orders will preserve liberty. This is to be achieved either through the mixed constitution or through the opposition/antagonism of the rich and the poor, as in Machiavelli’s famous formulation (which is of course a radical departure from the classical model, a departure that Guicciardini rejects, but I will lump them together for these purposes).

So, yes, a similar idea of balancing existed under republicanism. But every concept in the modern political vocabulary harks back to some ancient or medieval concept—we did have democracy with slaves, foreigners and women disenfranchised. Establishing familial origin does not mean we are talking about the same thing. What I am saying is that the relevant concept in IR, viz in Waltz, is drawn from the liberal transformation of the concept (via the Scots, private interest, division of labor etc). He is certainly not talking about a federation of republics.

Further, I don’t think we should be turning to republicanism; my reservations about it echo those of other liberals (as in “US Democrats”); see Ian Shapiro in Critical Review, 1990, “J.G.A. Pocock’s Republicanism and Political Theory: A Critique and Reinterpretation.” As I said, I share the dissatisfactions with liberalism—the liberal order cannot survive without a host of other inputs (see e.g. footnote 40). But I think republicanism is not an adequate replacement.

This is a fascinating topic in its own right, but I’ll have to leave it at that for now.

Is Kenneth Waltz an IR Liberal?

Deborah Boucoyannis has published a thought-provoking article in this month’s Perspectives on Politics in which she argues that neo-realism is actually most consistent with classical liberalism, and in which she articulates a new way of distinguishing realist and liberal IR theory.

If her argument is correct, most of us will have to completely rethink how we teach the two theories in our introductory classes.

In particular, she argues that “the balance of power is a liberal prediction…” (underlying the checks and balances systems of liberal constitutionalism as well as the logic of economic liberalism) and by contrast, realism is “better defined as the theory predicting that balances will not occur; that concentrations of power will form, thus destabilizing the system and threatening the security of individual units.”

There are so many fascinating parts of this article I can’t name them all. Boucoyannis’s done us an an enormous service by disaggregating classical and contemporary realism and liberalism, and sorting out the contradictions between IR liberalism and economic and constitutionalism liberalism. (That alone will help me greatly as I attempt each semester to get my policy students to forget everything they’ve ever learned about what the term means in domestic politics.) And her disassociation of Realism and state-centrism is particularly interesting.

But I see two weaknesses in the argument. First, Boucoyannis seems to confuse prediction with prescription in her genealogy of these two theories and her description of their variations. She is trying to redefine them according to what they predict about balancing. But it seems to me that the distinction between IR liberalism and IR realism is not their predictions about that, but rather their predictions about the consequences of balancing, and therefore their prescriptions for how states should act in order to avoid great power war.

Classical realism does not necessarily predict balancing. What it predicts is great power war in the absence of a balance; therefore it prescribes efficient balancing. Liberal IR does not necessarily eschew the balance of power as a prediction. But it predicts that balancing is dangerous rather than stabilizing and therefore it prescribes changes in the nature of the system (international institutions), and the nature of the units (democratic, capitalist, nation-states). So in some ways, I feel like the argument is spot on and very illuminating, but also not that revolutionary.

Second, the similarities Boucoyannis draws with domestic political theories and IR theory seem spurious. In short, her argument seems to rest on a constant confusion of the units of analysis. So while she talks about the constitutionalism inherent in domestic “balance of power” politics among factions, she makes no reference to what would seem to be the international corrolary – interstate organizations, the study of which is a staple of Wilsonian liberal IR theory.

She claims that the only institutional form that matters at the international level is the structural pattern of efficient alliance-building (which is what Realists have been said to predict). But, she then distinguishes this from Realism by distinguishing alliance-building per se from realpolitik, meaning “policy determined by practical, rather than moral or ideological, considerations.” So, does this mean that liberal alliance-building would include alliances formed on the basis of morals or ideologies (e.g. a club of democracies) rather than on the basis of the distribution of power per se? Then this would not seem, to me, to be power-balancing at all.

In the end what Boucoyannis seems to be doing is situating defensive Realism as Liberalism, and offensive Realism as Realism. This is interesting, but of course it completely evacuates the study of international law and institutions from Liberal IR theory. Then again, perhaps social constructivists could simply take up that banner.


Plenty of unwrapping to do

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

Russia observers love to trot out Churchill’s famous quote. In fact, people love to use this quote in all sorts of other contexts–to apply to pretty much anything that is difficult to comprehend.

Churchill, however, made this statement in a radio address on October 1, 1939, and was referring to Soviet intentions in adopting the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the terms of under which the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany divided up interwar Poland and the Baltics. Why would the Soviet Union allow Germany to advance eastward? Churchill argues that it can only be understood in the context of Soviet self-interest. By conceding some territory to the east, the Soviets hoped to draw a line: this far and no further. We all now how well that worked out in the long run, but Molotov-Ribbentrop did arguably buy the Soviets some time to recover the worst excesses of the purges.

Although Churchill was wrong was he said that the Nazi regime would, as a result of von Ribbentrop’s visit to Moscow, have to “accept the fact that the Nazi designs upon the Baltic States and upon the Ukraine must come to a dead stop,” he was certainly right that national interest is the key to understanding Russia. Then as now, Russia operates very much as a classically realist actor.

Russia’s idea of what constitutes national interest may vary (widely, at times) from American notions of national interest, but if you want to know what motivates the Russians, you have to examine their perceptions of national interest.*

I’ve been invited here to write occasional commentary on the political and economic situation in Russia and the former Soviet Union. I also have a strong interest in general economic issues, so I’ll probably ruminate on that subject from time to time as well. I don’t have quite as many fancy degrees as the other folks here, but I recently received a Master’s Degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, with a focus on Russia Eurasia Studies, so I hope that I’ll be able to use this platform to say a few interesting things and spark some worthwhile debates while I’m at it.

* The second rule (and equally important) of Russia-watching is “follow the money”. I’ll get to that later.

And Machiavelli hated republican forms of government, don’t you know?

Robert Farley points us to the latest chapter in the continuing story of “everything I need to know about Thucydides I learned from the Melian Dialogue.”

Let’s all remember that while realists argue that the Melian Dialogue captures a basic truth of international politics, Thucydides was cataloging, in his view, Athenian hubris and self-immolation.

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