Monday, December 11, 2006

Liberal peace without change--an infantile disorder?

I set before you two very different analyses of American military power and foreign policy: the first by Matt Yglesias, the second by Robert Kagan. The former we might describe as "naive but well-intentioned," the latter as "fully self-aware and complicit." Basically, Yglesias, in response to an argument for "Truman Democrats" contra the "isolationist left," says that the obvious middle path is some form of "liberal" internationalism, in which the United States, rather than asserting its "leadership" position unilaterally, comply with international standards and institutions like the ICC and the UN. In his own words:

To take a specific example, for the United States to join the International Criminal Court would be neither an isolationist policy nor a hegemonic one, but rather a liberal policy in which we submit to an egalitarian framework of rules and cooperate with others in the effort the enforce those rules.
This sort of thinking I take to be in line with those who say that the Iraq War has been an "aberration," and that America has strayed from the path of diplomacy and multilateralism which has in the past and can in the future earn us respect. Yglesias suggests as much:

Truman did not seek to simply implement American domination. Rather, he constructed an alternative vision of a liberal community of nations featuring complex forms of cooperation between states within the framework of liberal institutions like NATO and the EU. The collapse of the Soviet Union creates, in essence, a fork in the road. The United States can either seek to fill the void with unipolar hegemony, or else it can seek to expand the scope of the miniature liberal order created during the Cold War.
To which Kagan responds, quite directly, that the idea of an "aberration" is an illusion: "Since the cold war, America has launched more military interventions than all other great powers combined. The interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo were wars of choice, waged for moral and humanitarian ends, not strategic or economic necessity, just as realist critics protested at the time." Attempts to refashion the era before the Iraq War as one of peaceful internationalism are flawed and dishonest: "There is a yearning, even among the self-proclaimed realists, for a return to an imagined past innocence, to the mythical 'traditional approach', to a virtuous time that never existed, not even at the glorious birth of the republic." The real constant has been that America is "an ambitious, ideological, revolutionary nation with a belief in its own world-transforming powers and a historical record of enough success to sustain that belief." In other words: Don't try to talk away Iraq, because wars of choice are in our blood.

My simplest response to this "argument" between the two, as I've constructed it, is both a yes and no, on several levels. On the one hand, I agree with Yglesias that his vision is (roughly) what American foreign policy should look like. On the other hand, I think that Kagan is the more perceptive of the two concerning historical trends and the facts on the ground. However, I would also disagree with Kagan that Iraq is like every other instance of American military intervention: in this instance we decidedly went it alone (much like Vietnam), we planned very, very, inconceivably poorly, and the government went to much more extraordinary measures (again, comparable to Vietnam) to deceive the populace about the casus belli. None of which, of course, excuses the war in Iraq, or makes other instances of American military intervention less suspect. Even if the war had gone swimmingly, it still would have been illegal, unjust, and disastrous (from the point of view of the civilians initially killed), which is something that no one in Washington seems willing to admit. (Furthermore, supposing that sectarian strife in Iraq was a given from the beginning, we might ask what "success" in Iraq would have to look like today: Probably it would entail control by a new form of dictatorship, this time pro-American, in the hands of Chalabi or other exiled bureaucrats. Or could the American occupying forces have prevented the current civil war in time to implement a real, functioning democracy? I'd like to know everyone's input on this question.)

My overall answer is to criticize both Yglesias for his naivete and Kagan for his embrace of barbarism. Kagan says that "Americans do pursue their selfish interests and ambitions, sometimes brutally, as other nations have throughout history," and, "This enduring tradition has led Americans into some disasters where they have done more harm than good," while obviously approving of the historical trend on the whole. I don't think that one can justify such statements while remaining committed to true worldwide liberalism (i.e. the right of self-determination for nations, the doctrine of waging war only in self-defense).

Yglesias has the nobler idea, but I really don't see how it will ever materialize so long as the American system, both political and economic, remains the way it is. Kagan might say that we have invaded countries for purely "humanitarian" reasons, irrespective of "strategic or economic necessity," but here I think he is either willfully dissembling or somehow actually convinced of his own ideology. To say that there was no "strategic" element to the interventions he lists ("strategy" being ultimately reducible to, among other things, economic interests) is patently wrong. Moreover, many of the conflicts he conspicuously leaves out, such as our gross Latin American meddling and our overthrow of the Iranian government in the 50s, were definitely traceable to capital (United Fruit Company in the case of Guatemala, British Petroleum in Iran). Today, in the new Guilded Age of corporate influence, these disturbing problems are even more pressing. Even when centrist Democrats are elected, as in the case of Clinton, the power of big business and public impotence vis-a-vis the corporations continues to grow. Although I am in league with Yglesias' spirit, I don't see how it will happen unless a number of measures take place, such as publicly funded elections, free of influence, higher corporate taxation and regulation, the rise of a new Progressivism, et cetera. I don't want to deny that social democracies also go to war (hypothetically, at least), or offer a vulgar materialist account of the reasons for every American war. However, I think it's undeniable that bucking Big Trends (which Kagan correctly documents) will require Big Changes.


Blogger Robot said...

The fact that social democracies (ie. Europe) do sometimes go to war, as you mention in your last sentence, is exactly the opposite way the Kagans of the world see it -- and they're not entirely wrong. There is an immense need for humanitarian, military, "liberal" intervention in today's age, and these social democracies you mention have been really really bad at it in the past. The 1990s are a case in point: during the two Balkan wars, the Dutch stood idly by while the massacre in Srbenica occured, while the French did their best to keep the world from opposing Milosevic. Speaking of the French, after scores of accusations, a military tribunal is investigating whether French troops facilitated genocide. As for today, one need only look at Afghanistan and see just how reticent European countries are to put their troops in any kind of harms way, regardless of the consequences of their actions.

It is no surprise that given social democratic country's lack of humanitarian commitment that Kagan's "Paradise and Power" thesis would gain such persuasive power in the late '90s and, especially, during the build-up to the Iraq War. His latest book seems to be some kind of Bentham-esque statement that we should do what I say to do because *we do it and have been doing it forever, and it's in our nature, etc.*

Unfortunately, for Kagan, the game's up. The Iraq War has surely tilted any reasonable person's vision of foreign affairs towards the Yglesias camp, and quite contrary to what you write, Scantron, I think now's a better time than ever for the world to embrace such a view. In the next ten years, barring something quite unexpected, the United States will be led by Democrats who will have the responsibility of a) repairing our standing the world, and b)forging a new foreign policy out of the ashes of Iraq. At the same time, ironically, I think the case for a foreign policy along the lines of Bush's rhetoric -- not to be confused with his policies -- in his second inaugural is as strong as ever. It truly has become in everyone's best interest to work together to solve the world's conflicts exactly because everything that happens "out there" will as clear as daylight eventualy come to bite us in the ass (or worse, considering being bit in the ass isn't that bad) "right here."

As for the question you posed, Scantron, I'm not exactly sure what you're asking. Because I want to be certain before answering, would you mind clarifying what it means to "suppos[e] that sectarian strife in Iraq was a given from the beginning." What is the scenario you're trying to lay out here?

10:30 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

I also want to add that if a liberal foreign policy emerges, it will obviously have to look to Europe for some precedent of how to do it. While I was quite purposefully harsh on European militarism, it should go without saying that there's no country -- least of all the U.S. -- that avoids hypocrisy; and that despite Europe's hesitancy at times, there's no question that they are in theory quite far more committed to an international order than politicians in the States are.

But the charge of European weakness will persist. For a perfect example of this European-esque 'naive but well-intentioned' approach that hawkish Americans would tear apart, check out "Zapatero's "Alliance of Civilizations" idea.

One final thing about European commitment to international, multilateral approaches to justice. Reading in the left-leaning Spanish daily El Pais today about Pinochet's death (they devote eight pages to it), what struck me most is how little attention was given to his actual reign, and how much to his arrest. When a Spanish judge ordered his detention in England, it was considered to be the dawning of a new age of international justice. This newspaper had quite successfully and perhaps rightly turned a story of a Latin American dictator into a story of (failed) international cooperation in his demise.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Hmm, I think I'm confused.

First, you say that European social democracies have been lacking in their support for the right kinds of military conflict. If by this you mean the Balkans, I don't think you're right. Specifically, how do you mean that the Dutch "stood idly by"? This is patently incorrect; see this NATO fact sheet on "Operation Deliberate Force":

The Dutch had 18 planes assigned to them (more than Germany or Spain) and flew 198 sorties, 5.6% of the total, and more than Germany, Italy, Spain and Turkey *combined*. Also, take a look at this document on the '99 NATO operation against Kosovo, Operation Allied Force:

Whoops, there's the Netherlands again. And Denmark and Norway, just to bring in a few more Scandinavian countries which are about as social democratic as they come. It may have taken some poking and prodding, but they eventually signed on.

Also, when you say "quite contrary to what you write, Scantron, I think now's a better time than ever for the world to embrace such a view," quite contrary to what exactly? I'm talking about the United States, not the world. Also, when you say "such a view," and I assume you're speaking of Yglesias' view, he doesn't say anything about military intervention. He merely says the US should become part of a liberal global alliance, which can "enforce the rules" (this is the closest he comes to identifying any sort of proactive involvement). Furthermore, how has the world not already embraced such a view? Do you think Yglesias' view is stronger than what is already mainstream foreign policy for most European social democracies (here I include France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, not just the Scandinavians)? I think you need to extricate and clarify from your argument a) what Yglesias means, b) what policy Europe has pursued (if we can speak in such broad terms), c) what policy they should now pursue in the wake of Iraq, and d) what you think I mean. For me, a, b, c, and d are all the same.

Don't try to make Bush's rhetoric (apart from his policies) out to be something novel. The "democratic peace" thesis is one that has driven American policy this entire century. What's more interesting is that Bush used a rather banal American talking point about spreading freedom to push a drastically rash and illegal war. Even more interesting is the question of whether, contrary to common knowledge, the Iraq War is even an abberation (and Kagan says it isn't, and as I've said, I somewhat agree).

My post was about the United States. The US has been involved in far too many aggressive military measures for comfort. Even if Bosnia and Kosovo were "right" (and was Haiti? Somalia?), Korea, Vietnam (+ Laos and Cambodia), Guatemala, Iran, Chile (debatable direct US involvement: still, Kissinger and Nixon were definitely in contact with men who attempted to assassinate General Rene Schneider, and possibly with those who eventually did, they made the "economy scream," etc), involvment in Operation Condor in Latin America, Nicaragua, Grenada, and Iraq WERE NOT. And that's just post-war: we can add the original conquering of North America, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the Filipino-American War. America is hardly unique as a world power in this respect: powerful states tend to covet what is to their advantage. In fact, abstracting from the situation a bit, we might ask if it's even possible to "stop" the US government from carrying out these sorts of acts so long as it remains as powerful as it is. In this line of socio-political analysis, the internal logic of states simply drives them until they are too weak to pursue further aims. I don't think anyone here would acquiesce to such a view, and I certainly don't. Europe, I think we both agree, has to a large extent tempered its aspirations to war. My original point was that we might be able to accomplish this, but only by a rather extreme ideological, political, and economic makeover, accomplished by the democratic process. Perhaps a run-of-the-mill Democrat could partially get there: after all, looking at the list above, all of the conflicts listed after Vietnam were perpetrated by Republican governments. But still, the "democratic peace" thesis, which often becomes a sleight-of-hand for aggressive militarism, is as old as Truman, FDR, and finally Wilson.

4:21 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Much of my thinking on these matters has come from some interesting recent reading of one Christopher Layne, a paleoconservative realist. Layne's name first came up in this Lenin' Tomb post, which shows the interesting connection between marxist analyses and conservative realist ones:

Layne has a lauded new book out, "The Peace of Illusions," which is basically a summation of what he has been saying about US hegemony for at least the last decade. I recommend typing in his name at "" and reading basically everything that comes up. You could say that Layne is part of a conservative coalition which also includes for example Chalmers Johnson, a conservative who has unabashedly written Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of American Empire, and Sorrows of Empire.

What's really rewarding about such reading is the chance to step back from our "post-9/11" lens and examine debates which have been raging for years about US world dominance. You won't find too much colorful prose or many moral considerations, but you will find factually based theories about the direction of US hegemony. It makes for great reading after focusing on blogs and neoconservative commentary, both of which tend to be rather narrow-minded in their scope (i.e. everything is about Bush, terror, Islamism, Iraq, etc).

Indeed, the world continues to turn, no matter what stupid thing Charles Krauthammer said this week. I was surprised to find the Coalition for Realistic Foreign Policy, which has basically collected a bunch of conservatives not from the Kristol/Frum/Podhoretz/Kagan camp with the purpose of opposing current US foreign policy. Members include Layne, the infamous Mearsheimer and Walt, and Anatol Lieven.

Even more surprising are their statements "the Perils of Empire" (that's remarkably close to radical language) and "the Perils of Occupation." Not only do conservatives sign on to the latter, but also a few odd ducks, such as the Sheriff's prof Joel Beinin, a marxist, and my prof Joshua Cohen, a left-liberal (hm, that works out rather well doesn't it?) Just some recommended reading for you, although in all honesty, I think I'm headed towards a crash. All this political reading has made me feel humorless and overly intense, not to mention discouraged. (Here I suppose Gramsci's "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will" is supposed to kick in.) It may be time for a sabbatical, which those of you who have to wade through my prolix blog posts will probably not oppose.

5:52 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

A response:

1. In reference to the Dutch, I was referring only to Srebrenica, which (plagiarizing from Judt's "Postwar") was offically 'protected' by a 400-strong peacekeeping contigent of armed Dutch soldier. When the Bonian Serbs arrived the Dutch laid down their arms and offered not a single instance of resistance. A day later 7400 Muslim were killed, and the Dutch returned safely to Holland. In general, I was trying to place the rise of Kagan's thought within context.

2. I should have said "America" instead of the "world." You're right. I do think the European Union looks quite like Yglesias' vision. It's just that the EU, like "the world" is not quite "the world" unless America above all else agree to play along. My only point is that now is the time.

3. I think you're rather needlessly hostile when it comes to what you percieve to be some sort of praise for Bush. I merely meant that new alliances could very well be formed for the reasons that an egregiously unilateralist president said they would in his second inaugural. And that, quite simply, this would be ironic. I made no claims about his rhetoric's novelty. I can't agree more -- and I said it in the original comment -- that this was mere rhetoric. Dangerous rhetoric. But in my opinion (we may differ here) it's only dangerous because it so elegantly placed a veil over what was actually happening and what had happened--democracy was not being spread precisely because of the hegemonic idea he had of America. Nonetheless, simply because this theme has been brought out again and again in the 20th century (and often for ignoble ends) doesn't make it less true. If we're genuinely commited to an international order of law and justice, for realist and idealist reasons alike, then America must -- as it always has in the past -- must try to make reality conform more to its ideals. Only if the U.S. can now finally see that the reality it seeks cannot be accomplished in any other way other than through engagement, multilateralism, and soft(er)-power, will things like the Millenium Goals have a real chance.

4. The general analytical claims about the need for Big Changes due to the internal logic of states (which you clearly state you're not fully persuaded by) is actually one that Kagan would agree with, I think. The reason, according to Kagan, that Europe "to a large extent tempered its aspirations to war" was exactly becaue of structural reasons: after the devastation of their armies in WWII, and the acceleration of the power of the superpowers on both sides of them, they had no choice but to adopt such an attitude. So Kagan would certainly agree, it seems, with the kind of "socio-political analysis" that is so common on the left (a peculiarity you point out and that has been mentioned in several review of Kagan's works).

5. I haven't read these conservative realists you've mentioned (I didn't know Chalmers was a self-described conservative. He comes off as pretty fucking awesome in "Why do We Fight?") so I'm curious if you've gathered any idea as to what their proposals for American foreign policy are? What kind of Big Changes do they have in mind? What does their ideal foreign policy look like? Yglesias'? Pat Buchanan's? Hu Jintao's? Noam Chomsky's?

6. I agree with the concluding sentiments of your last comment wholeheartedly, having experienced them myself recently. I maintain the answer to these problems is to have been injured or emotionally scarred in WWI, giving you the perfect opportunity to eventually focus exclusively on Eastern Philosophy.

5:57 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home