13 May, 2012

What if the USA was run by Realists…

I have previously mentioned Realism (see here and here), the international relations framing theory that purports to describe the- world-as-it-really-is. Of course, all international relations theorists purport to say how things really are, but by describing themselves as "Realists", the followers of this school are claiming to be far closer to the truth than their rivals. The Realists say that they describe the world as it is, not as how they would like it to be. They agree that a world without war and conflict would be a nice one, but they argue that we will always face threats to our security and that we should act accordingly.

Generally speaking, Realists always come across as the bad guys when you study international relations theory. Partly this is because their "it was ever thus" outlook comes across as a bit smug and self-satisfied, and partly it is because they can come across as a cynical bunch who are only too happy to justify any nefarious activity as necessary to advance state security; Realists do sometimes claim Machiavelli as one of their own, after all. In practice, though, the Realists can often be less like the crazed warmongers that their theoretical position makes them appear. They have a sense of the limitations of state power that makes them wary of any attempt to do more than can realistically be accomplished.

And so I bring you to a recent article on the Foreign Policy website by the prominent Realist academic Stephen M. Walt. He argues that since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy has largely been under the control of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives. The former have pushed America into the business of promoting democracy and human rights everywhere in the world, while the latter have tried to seize the moment by establishing a permanent US hegemony over the world. Their interests have merged because the neoconservatives reckon that democracy and human rights would probably favour the interests of the USA, while advancing them gives an opportunity to interfere everywhere; the liberal internationalists see US hegemony as allowing for the advancing of their goals.

Walt is hostile the programme these people have adopted, not because he hates human rights or wants the USA to be weak, but because he reckons that the promotion of human rights and democracy is a waste of time and effort, while the neocons' attempt to secure global hegemony seriously overestimates the capabilities of the USA and is actually undermining the security of the USA by encouraging other powers to unite against it. In the article, Walt puts forward ten ways in which US foreign policy would have been radically different over the last twenty years if it had been run by Realists. In doing so he is not just looking back with the benefit of hindsight and advocating different policies to ones which failed, but rather he is restating policies that he and his fellow Realists had actually advocated.

What is striking about Walt's counterfactual is how much it leads to the USA doing less than it has been doing since the end of the Cold War. Walt's Realist USA would not have invaded Iraq, would not have launched a global "War on Terror", would not have encouraged NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, and would not have provided Israel with the blank cheque support it has enjoyed. The Realist USA would also have stayed out of the former Yugoslavia (good news for alternative Earth Slobodan Milosevic and Ratko Mladic) and Libya. The only thing on Walt's list that amounts to some new thing a Realist USA would have done is increase its focus on China. Realists have a bit of a thing about China. Walt is not saying that the USA should have invaded China or pursued an aggressive policy towards it, but he feels that a Realist approach would focus on trying to build Asian alliances that would stop China becoming too powerful or dangerous to US interests.

In some respects, then Walt's Realist USA would have been a lot more isolationist than the one of Clinton, Bush and Obama with which we are familiar, though it would still be taking some interest in affairs beyond its borders and trying to broker alliances where its interests appeared to need them. But it would definitely be far less interventionist than the actual USA. Many people see the USA's interventionism as the source of all the world's problems, so maybe they would prefer to live in the world of Realist USA. Or maybe not.

Still, I am not convinced that the Realists are fundamentally different from the neoconservatives. US Realists and neoconservatives are united in thinking that the USA should maximise its security by any means necessary – they just calculate differently the ability of the USA to reorder the world to its advantage. At root they are basically the same – for all Walt's apparent non-interventionism, if something were to happen tomorrow morning that greatly increased the power of the USA he probably would be quite happy for his government to continue with its policies of global intervention.

From Hunting Monsters

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