Tag Archives: idealism

All Diplomacy is Local

Pascal Lamy, Director General of the World Trade Organization

Pascal Lamy, Director General of the World Trade Organization

In an interesting piece published in The Globalist yesterday, Pascal Lamy, the director-general of the World Trade Organization argued that all negotiating is domestic. Lamy asserts that, particularly in the context of the global financial crisis, there is little reason for optimism regarding global diplomacy. According to him,

The “Westphalian shield” allows all nations to dismiss any requirements coming from the global system to safeguard humanity’s longer-term survival as acts of interference in its internal, national affairs. The shield of sovereignty was not to be pierced.

This is an interesting concession from the man who oversees the World Trade Organization and, at least until recently, had been desperately trying to bring the United States, the European Union, and other major economies to agreement on a new round of trade liberalization. Indeed, Lamy’s argument raises a couple of interesting questions for students of global politics.

First, how do domestic politics and international diplomacy interact? There’s a rich literature on two-level games in international relations dealing with this topic, suggesting the relationship is not as simple as we might like to think.

Second, what is the basis for cooperation in international negotiations, particularly international economic negotiations? For liberal IR scholars, the gains from trade outweigh the costs, so we should prefer liberalization to non-liberalization. But the failure of the WTO to conclude the Doha Round (and the Seattle Round before that) suggests that states do not always behave in ways that the theory suggests they should.

Finally, how does the sovereignty of states, the “Westphalian shield” as Lamy terms it, undermine the prospects of international diplomacy? Realist IR scholars have long asserted that the presence of sovereignty creates an anarchic international system in which cooperation is difficult to maintain. In this context, collective goods problems frequently emerge. What’s interesting about Lamy’s position is the degree to which he appears to have embraced the realist framework.

What do you think? Does the anarchic system of the international system undermine the possibility of cooperation in economic relations between states? If so, how can we explain the general trend of greater cooperation and coordination between states since the end of World War II? Does the global financial crisis affect the calculation of states in new ways? Let us know what you think.

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Can Realism Solve America’s (and the World’s) Foreign Policy Problems?

Former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic is on trial for war crimes, including genocide, for his role in the 1992-95 Bosnian War. Stephen Walt argues that Bosnia is one of the few things realists might have gotten wrong over the past two decades.

Noted realist and Harvard professor Stephen Walt recently made a blog post entitled “What if realists were in charge of U.S. foreign policy?”  It offers a top ten list of ways the world would be better off with realists in charge, rather than the coalition of “neoconservatives and liberal internationalists” that Walt suggests have made a mess of U.S. foreign policy.  Recall that the realist approach to international relations is pessimistic about the prospects for lasting peace and cooperation and emphasizes national interests, stability, and a balance of power, while idealists (sometimes called liberals) believe morality should play a role in foreign policy and are optimistic that trade, international organizations, and democracy can help to promote peace and cooperation among states.  This previous blog post provides an overview of realism and idealism in the context of democracy promotion in the Middle East.

Some of the items on Walt’s top ten list include:

#1: No War in Iraq

#3: Staying out of the nation-building business

#6: No Balkan adventures

#7: A normal relationship with Israel

#8: A more sensible approach to nuclear weapons

#10: A growing focus on China

Walt is certainly a master at articulating the realist critiques of recent American foreign policy and suggesting how realists would have “done better” if at the helm.  For a similar (and more entertaining) argument for the superiority of realism that uses characters from the Godfather as representatives of realism (Michael Corleone), liberal institutionalism (Tom Hagen), and neoconservatism (Sonny Corleone), see the short book entitled The Godfather Doctrine.

But is Walt’s depiction unduly rosy and aided by the benefit of hindsight?  To hear Walt tell it, most of America’s (and many of the world’s) problems could be solved by enlightened realist policies.  His top ten list doesn’t grapple with the uncertainty or the complexity of the tradeoffs that confront policymakers on a host of issues, and he only briefly acknowledges that staying out of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya  may have had some humanitarian downsides (e.g., genocide in the case of Bosnia).

What do you think?  Does Walt’s list make a compelling case for the superiority of the realist approach to world politics? (He explains each point on his top ten list).  Or does his commitment to the realist perspective create “blinders” to the weaknesses or ambiguities of implementing a realist foreign policy?

Realism, Idealism, and the fate of Chen Guangcheng

Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng with his wife and son in 2005.

Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident and human rights lawyer, made a daring escape from house arrest this week and somehow made it to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where he now sits.  This will make for an uncomfortable visit to China later this week by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as they meet Chinese officials in a “Strategic and Economic Dialogue.”  As explained in this New York Times analysis, the politics of this case are complex and militate against an easy solution for several reasons: (1) President Obama is under domestic political pressure in his reelection campaign to show toughness on China, (2) the Obama administration has praised Mr. Chen as a human rights leader, making it difficult to simply hand him over to the Chinese authorities, (3) moderate Chinese officials are under pressure from hardliners who will likely claim this incident is part of a U.S.-driven conspiracy to embarrass China, and (4) China’s economic and military rise has given its leaders greater self-confidence in dealing with America than at any time in recent memory.

Beyond these broad political constraints, Mr. Chen’s fate will depend on whether the Obama administration is more willing to act according to realism or idealism.  These opposing approaches to world politics emphasize very different priorities and methods.  For realists, the national interest (defined largely in terms of economic and military power) reigns supreme, and issues like human rights, the environment, and economic development are frequently viewed as an unnecessary distraction unless they directly affect the national interest in some way.  For idealists, these “values” issues should not be crowded out by national interests, narrowly defined, since we live in a global village and cannot divorce ourselves from the fate of other human beings.

Realist presidents like Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush have been willing to downplay Chinese human rights violations because a stable security and trade relationship with the rising Asian power is seen as vital to America’s national interests.  Presidents with stronger idealist inclinations, such as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, have decried the subordination of human rights to crass material self-interest but when in power have frequently pursued policies not much different from their realist counterparts.  If the Obama administration (which has shown some evidence of both realist and idealist tendencies at different times) chooses to focus on America’s economic and security interests, Mr. Chen may very well find himself back in the hands of Chinese authorities before long.  If, on the other hand, their concern for human rights (or fear of the domestic political costs of “caving” to China) is sufficiently strong, a prolonged standoff with China could result–with serious implications for the U.S.-China relationship.

What do you think?  Should the U.S. return Mr. Chen to Chinese custody?  What are the consequences of doing so?  Of refusing to do so?  Do you expect the Obama administration to act according to the dictates of realism or idealism in this case, and why?

Is War Becoming Obsolete?

Are current conflicts, such as the internal war in Somalia, simply the "remnants of war"?

A new book by Scientific American writer John Horgan has sparked debate with its central thesis that war is not an inevitable feature of human nature but is a cultural invention that can be overcome.  In an interview Corgan compares war to a virus: “Imagine your neighbor is a violent psychopath who is out for blood and land. You, on the other hand, are person who wants peace. You would have few options but to embrace the ways of war for defense. So essentially your neighbor has infected you with war.”  This scenario has much in common with the security dilemma, in which even defensively motivated arms buildups and alliance formation (assume the violent neighbor only wants to protect himself) will provoke “counterbalancing,” raise tensions, and ultimately leave both sides less secure than they were before this spiral began.  This logic of “one bad apple ruining the whole bunch” has also been used by democratic peace theorists to explain how democracies can behave so peacefully toward each other but, when facing an autocratic (and presumably more aggressive) state, their fear of being exploited or “suckered” leads them to act violently and perhaps even preemptively.

As noted realist scholar Stephen Walt points out, Horgan’s argument follows in the tradition of idealist thinkers such as John Mueller, who famously penned a book in 1989 called Retreat from Doomsday: the Obsolescence of Major War.  Mueller’s argument in that book and its sequel, The Remnants of War, is that “major war” (war among the great powers) has very likely come to an end.  This has occurred because the populations of the great powers have rejected war as a means of settling disputes, just as they earlier rejected institutions such as dueling and slavery when these practices came to be seen as uncivilized and reprehensible.  What we are today witnessing, Mueller argues, is the remnants, or the “dregs” of warfare–war not among professional armies controlled by legitimate governments but among thugs frequently running loose in failed states and seeking self-enrichment.

What do you think?  Is war an inevitable feature of human society or is it just an invention that can be overcome?  If it can be overcome, what can policymakers and ordinary citizens do to make this dream a reality?

Is the Best Hope for Democracy Its Short-Term Suppression?

Is America's willingness to "sell out" longtime allies such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak to push for immediate democracy in the Middle East a foolish strategy?

An article in the latest issue of the realist journal The National Interest argues that a significant shift is under way in America’s approach to the Middle East.  Nikolas Gvosdev and Ray Takeyh lament America’s alleged abandonment of realism and its embrace of idealism, a development they call the “Triumph of the New Wilsonism” (a reference to idealist U.S. President Woodrow Wilson).

As discussed previously in this blog, realism and idealism are perhaps the two dominant approaches to understanding world politics.  Realism emphasizes the pursuit of national interests (e.g., security and economic prosperity for one’s country) and is willing to subordinate moral principles to those interests.  Idealism, in contrast, allows foreign policy to be guided, at least in part, by moral considerations and believes that concerns such as democracy promotion and human rights should motivate states’ actions.

One key issue that separates realists from idealists today is democracy promotion in the Middle East.  Idealists believe we must support democracy enthusiastically (even if we don’t like the results, like the 2006 election of Hamas in the Palestinian elections) and stand with the masses against authoritarian regimes.  Realists contend that such an approach is foolhardy and undermines the national interests of America and other Western countries.  Gvosdev and Takeyh articulate the realist argument as follows:

“But when [Saudi Arabia’s] King Fahd visited Washington in 1985, he received no lectures about the urgent necessity to democratize his realm. Instead, Reagan took the view that the best way to promote democracy in the long run was to prevent countries from going communist or Islamist in the short run…America’s experience in East Asia and Latin America during the Reagan years buttressed this approach. Over time, in places such as Chile, South Korea and Taiwan, authoritarian presidents created the frameworks for gradual transitions to democracy without undermining their security relationships with the United States. Instead of siding with protestors calling for immediate democratic reform, Washington supported existing regimes in cracking down on the opposition, provided a long-term, gradualist program for change was being implemented.”

Realists today fear that the “Arab Spring”–which has swept away or threatened to topple regimes in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere–could be a disastrous development if Islamists take power and pursue anti-Western policies.

What do you think?  Are Gvosdev and Takeyh correct that supporting democracy in the short term is likely to destroy it in the long run?  Would it be better for America and other democratic countries to support the regimes that are suppressing radical democratic change, and simply press them for gradual reform?

Realism, Idealism, and Chaos in Libya

A Libyan rebel celebrates victory over Qaddafi in Tripoli.

The apparent victory of Libya’s rebels over the Moammar Qaddafi regime has sparked much celebration but has also raised troubling questions about what comes next.  Specifically, can Libya’s rebels avoid infighting, resist the temptation to seek bloody reprisals against former regime loyalists, and form an effective government that represents Libya’s people?  As foreign policy analyst and former National Security Council official James Lindsay notes in his blog: “These celebrations are as understandable as they are premature. The tyrant is leaving, but who or what replaces him remains to be decided.”

It is likely that there will be at least some period of post-Qaddafi chaos in Libya, and this chaos and uncertainty is viewed differently by the two dominant perspectives on world politics: realism and idealism.  Realists focus on the national interest and emphasize pragmatism, stability, and the maintenance of a balance of power.  They do not favor humanitarian intervention (unless it also promotes their country’s economic, security, or other interests) and they generally view the chaos and uncertainty associated with regime change as more problematic than the continued human rights violations produced by an entrenched, tyrannical, but generally predictable autocracy.  So for American realists, pursuing regime change in Libya, Iraq, Egypt, or elsewhere is a dangerous game that could result in worse outcomes (e.g., more anti-American regimes or chaotic safe havens for terrorists) than the status quo. 

Idealists, on the other hand, focus more on global concerns (including human rights and poverty) and view systematic human rights abuses and repression as a more serious problem than the chaos and uncertainty that regime change normally produces.  For idealists, stability is not valued if it is perceived as unjust, and transformation (albeit risky) is embraced as a viable policy goal.  Idealists are optimistic that democracy and peace can emerge from the chaos, while realists (as is the case on most issues) are more pessimistic about claims that the future will inevitably be brighter.  Noted realist Stephen Walt writes in his blog:

“Whether our intervention was necessary or wise, however, depends on how the post-Qaddafi Libya evolves.  We can all hope that the worst doesn’t happen and that Libya’s new leaders exhibit Mandela-like wisdom and restraint…But it will be no small task to construct a workable government in Libya, given the dearth of effective institutions and the potential divisions among different social groups.  And then there’s all that oil revenue to divide up, which tends to bring out peoples’ worse instincts.  As in Iraq, therefore, ousting a discredited dictator is likely to be the easy part, and the hard part is just beginning.”

What do you think?  Is stability or transformation a wiser foreign policy goal?  Or does it depend on the situation?  Are the “stay out” realists or the “get involved” idealists vindicated by the post-Qaddafi chaos in Libya?

Recognizing Libya’s Rebels

Are Libya's rebels ready to take the reins of power?

Yesterday the United States took the important step of formally recognizing Libya’s rebels as the legitimate government of Libya. This recognition will theoretically allow the U.S. to free up $30 billion in Libyan assets that had been frozen in order to provide badly needed aid to the rebels. (For an analysis of the rebels’ shockingly amateurish, if determined, approach to warfighting, see here).  However, as Foreign Policy blogger Josh Rogin points out, a number of thorny legal questions must be answered before the aid can be delivered:

“First of all, it’s unclear how the various U.N. and U.S. sanctions that have been levied on Libya since March will now be applied, considering that the [rebel Transitional National Council] is now seen as the ‘Libyan government.’…U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970 prohibits sending arms to Libya. Does that now apply to the rebels? Does the White House now have to rescind executive orders on Libya, some of which call for restrictions aimed against the ‘Government of Libya’?”

As discussed in a recent blog post, there is a  big difference between juridical sovereignty, a legal right implied by external recognition, and empirical sovereignty, the actual ability of a government to control its territory.  In this case, the Libyan rebels are only in charge of the eastern part of the country–Qaddafi’s forces hold most of the west, including the capital city of Tripoli.

Historically, the U.S. and other countries have granted official recognition to those regimes that possessed empirical sovereignty, even if those regimes were deemed distasteful.  Joshua Keating rightly describes this unusual recognition of Libya’s rebels as a “Wilsonian” move (invoking former U.S. president and quintessential idealist Woodrow Wilson).  Idealists emphasize human rights, democracy, and other values in ways that lead them to depart from “power politics” considerationsRealists, who embrace power politics and claim to view the world as it is rather than as they might wish it to be, would decry the recognition of an ineffectual government as wishful thinking.   But as Keating points out, “Wilson’s creative interpretation of the law of recognition helped establish the international illegitimacy of Huerta’s regime [in Mexico] and certainly contributed to his downfall.”  Could America’s action yesterday similarly hasten the demise of Qaddafi’s regime?