Ethical Realism
November 5, 2006 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Ethical Realism. Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman (formerly of the Heritage Foundation) make a bipartisan attempt at a more realistic foreign policy, based on prudence and an understanding of others' interests, instead of a utopian belief in democratization. "It seemed to us that in [foreign policy] at least, the United States was almost coming to resemble some Latin American countries of the past, where rival hereditary political clans of 'Conservatives' and 'Liberals' clashed bitterly and even launched savage civil wars with each other - but in terms of real policy were virtually indistinguishable and equally wrong." [more inside]
posted by russilwvong (13 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Preview by Robert Wright in the New York Times. Favorable reviews at and in The American Conservative; critical review in The American Prospect, response.

Previous posts on Anatol Lieven: October 2002, November 2004, February 2005.

Related: Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.
posted by russilwvong at 9:24 AM on November 5, 2006

Good stuff, thanks russilwvong. I particularly liked this passage:
It is precisely because America is good--is in many ways the last, best hope for mankind--that a frittering away of its military, economic and diplomatic power is so immoral. It is not neoconservative intentions, but their wrong-headedness, that is corroding America's ability to do good in the world. Being a good steward of what one has been given, in order to leave the world as good or better for one's children than one found it, is at the bedrock of the ethical realist creed, separating what is morally convenient from what is essential.

We had such an amazing opportunity after the fall of the USSR and communism in Eastern Europe to use the incredible power possessed by the United States for good, and instead we have squandered it.
posted by caddis at 12:57 PM on November 5, 2006

This seems a bit silly. America's "utopian belief in democratization" is a very thin veneer hastily thrown over imperialism in order to quell criticism. Where was the passion for democracy when Palestinians voted for Hamas? Where was it when Pinochet asked the US to back his military coup against Allende? Where was it in Grenada? or Panama? or Venezuela?

It's not a Republican or a Democratic tendency either. All US administrations assert and expand the right of American government to intervent where and when it wants and for reasons which have absolutely nothing to do with self-preservation, but in fact include "maintaining American prestige" and "insure unimpeded American access to important resources." This sort of thing went on under Clinton just as it did under Bush père, Bush fils, Reagan, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, etc.

American governments are passionate about one thing -- exercising control over whatever they please. Trotting out the "evangelization of democracy" argument just flies in the face of history.
posted by clevershark at 1:20 PM on November 5, 2006

Did you read the article? You're bringing up a number of things the article discusses or addresses. Your criticisms are also extremely simplistic. From the article:

" On the one hand, a majority of Americans have demonstrated repeatedly throughout history their aversion to strategies based purely on criteria of international morality or humanitarianism. There has long been an insistence that U.S. policy instead serve the interests and above all the safety of the United States--witness the widespread suspicion of the interventions in Somalia and Kosovo.

At the same time, many Americans have always shown a strong aversion to policies devoid of moral constraints and aims. Repeatedly during the Cold War, American public opinion was deeply uneasy with the United States supporting ruthless dictatorships, even when there were compelling reasons of national interest to do so. Morality in U.S. foreign policy has long been associated by Americans not only with the means employed by the United States, but also with the goal of spreading democracy."

Your criticisms of the article seem to essentially encapsulate its contentions, as illustrated here. There has long been a tension in US policy between advancement of American interests on the one hand and the spread of liberal ideas on the other. The world isn't as simple as you seem to painting it, with America, or any country, either all "bad" or all "good". This "flies in the face of history". In fact history has shown that America has long struggled with these issues. It's wrong to say that American actions are always about imperialism with a cynical veneer of care for democracy, because even a cursory examination of our past events and leaders will show that it's always been about balancing the reality of the world and advancing our own place in it, which any country has a right to do, and with helping the spread of liberal democracy, which this nation was founded on. The problem, they are saying, is that now those in power have taken hold of the ideals but abandoned the reality, and I think they're right. I think, despite what many may say, that Bush, Cheney et al really do think that they're fighting to make the world a better place. The problem is that they don't seem to realize or care about the reality of the world situation, or the consequences of their actions. Invasion, wire-tapping, etc is all justified in pursuit of this goal, and it's tearing us and our global image apart. Something needs to be done to return an element of reality to our policies.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:35 PM on November 5, 2006

It is precisely those times when America fails to support democritization that events happen with long-term negative consequences. It goes back much further than those events cited, too.

Often it is a case of embracing a strongman in charge of a hierarchy, under the mistaken belief that he is the only person who can create democracy. In other words, the assumption that a government is a government because it is the most powerful organization in a country.

This was often seen in central and South America, where the "el presidente" was often just the most powerful bandito. Invariably, even if a democratic election was ever held, the nation would still be democratically weak, easily returned to dictatorship.

The critical difference is when the US both supports democracy, and "democratic institutions". This is when spreading the democratic revolution has had its best and most lasting effects. It creates "democratic inertia" in a nation, so that even if a strong leader ascends, there are far too many barriers for him to re-create a dictatorship. Once he has passed, the impulse will be a return to democracy.

The bottom line for the democratic revolution is that it offers "a better way" than other available systems. For this reason, the US cannot spread democracy, it can only spread the idea of democracy. If it makes sense, if it seems to be "the better way", then it promulgates on its own, needing only support, not impulse.

For their part, democrats, once created, are frightfully invasive. They do not look or act differently, nor is it in any way obvious that they are democrats, and they can be anyone. Waiting for the moment when they can assert their beliefs and make change. They fight not with radicalism, but with reasonableness.

Never before or since has a revolutionary movement arisen with so much universal appeal.
posted by kablam at 3:27 PM on November 5, 2006

Repeatedly during the Cold War, American public opinion was deeply uneasy with the United States supporting ruthless dictatorships, even when there were compelling reasons of national interest to do so.

We were deeply in denial and our "national interests" typically meant confusing democracy for communism.
posted by Brian B. at 4:38 PM on November 5, 2006

it is not neoconservative intentions, but their wrong-headedness,

Jesus. How can people even think this way? They started two wars and cheerled another (and tried to start a fourth in Venezuela). They killed hundreds of thousands of people. They've tortured people, taken away civil liberties, lied constantly, and made people all over the globe start thinking seriously about the apocalypse. If this is what their good intentions look like, we have no hope of surviving their bad intentions.

Look, honestly. Once and for all. Do serious, intelligent people actually believe that the actions of the US in the middle east are the result of good intentions? Such a notion isn't even good propaganda; it doesn't survive the laugh test.

You know, if you take history courses, they're all about wars. Rome wanted more territory and slaves, so they expanded into Europe and overreached themselves and then the Visigoths and the Vandals (who mainly just wanted treasure) came in and sacked them and then there was the Holy Roman Empire and they wanted more land and power and eventually France and Spain and England fought over Mediterranean trade routes and then there were the wars over opium in China, over ivory in Africa... etc. History is just one big catalog of selfish motives, wars, and the occasional self-interest induced compromise. It's mind numbingly repetitive.

Until we get to the last two hundred odd years. Then, miraculously, there's this new nation that isn't selfish. They just want everyone in the world to be free and live in harmony. It's kind of odd... they keep doing all the same stuff that all those selfish violent empires did: attacking and colonizing defenseless civilizations, raking in vast amounts of wealth from these weaker countries, sending their troops to all the corners of the globe, spending staggering amounts of money on armaments, and so on. The body counts are similar or worse - a million or so in the Philippines, three to four million in southeast Asia, a few hundred thousand in Iraq. Oh, and the response from the colonized world (which we often just call "the third world") is similar; anger, fascism, violent surprise attacks. (Slate, several years back, brought up an historical event; a surprise attack on the Roman Empire. On a given day, thousands of non-Romans in occupied cities of the Empire each pulled out their sword and whacked the nearest Roman citizen. Guerilla Terrorism isn't new, it's just improved with technology.)

But none of that matters, because we have "good intentions." And how do we know that we have good intentions? Because we say we do. I mean, you can't prove it by our actions. You can't prove it by looking at declassified government documents. You can't prove it with logic or facts. All of those things prove the opposite. But that's okay. We say our intentions are good, therefore they are.
posted by Clay201 at 5:58 PM on November 5, 2006 [2 favorites]

Here's the neoconservative vision, proudly touting American supremacy as though military might is the way to get richer and more powerful (and spread Christianity too!) And then reality. Our military costs sink us, people hate Americans, and oil costs more. It sounds so misguided now, but it's still the White House policy.
posted by Brian B. at 8:08 PM on November 5, 2006

Clay201: But none of that matters, because we have "good intentions."

Did you read the article? Lieven and Hulsman are arguing that good intentions don't excuse immoral actions. (As far as whether or not American policymakers do or do not have good intentions: diplomatic historians often observe that moralistic self-righteousness is a characteristic weakness of American foreign policy. But I don't want to derail the discussion with an argument about the Bush administration's motives, because frankly, who cares? Would good intentions excuse the war in Iraq?)

caddis: actually, I think Lieven and Hulsman's reference to US moral superiority is one of the weaker parts of the article. One of George Kennan's colleagues, Charles Burton Marshall, reflecting on the Vietnam War, described it succinctly: "Moral superiority is a wasting asset."

Hans Morgenthau describes the effect of the Vietnam War at greater length (in a 1965 essay):
I have spoken of the prestige of the nation and of the prestige of those who govern it, that is, of the mental image which others have of us. Yet there is another kind of prestige: the image we have of ourselves. That image will suffer grievous blemishes as we get ever more deeply involved in the war in Vietnam. This war is a guerrilla war, and such a war, supported or at least not opposed by the indigenous population, can only be won by the indiscriminate killing of everybody in sight, that is, by genocide. The Germans proved that during the Second World War in occupied Europe, and they were prevented from accomplishing their task only because they were defeated in the field. The logic of the issue we are facing in Vietnam has already driven us onto the same path. We have tortured and killed prisoners; we have embarked upon a scorched-earth policy by destroying villages and forests; we have killed combatants and non-combatants without discrimination because discrimination is impossible. And this is only the beginning. For the logic of guerrilla war leaves us no choice. We must go on torturing, killing, and burning, and the more deeply we get involved in this war, the more there will be of it.

This brutalization of the Armed Forces would be a serious matter for any nation, as the example of France has shown. It is intolerable for the United States. For this nation, alone among the nations of the world, was created for a particular purpose: to achieve equality in freedom at home, and thereby set an example for the world to emulate. This was the intention of the Founding Fathers, and to this very day the world has taken them at their word. It is exactly for this reason that our prestige has suffered so disastrously among friend and foe alike; for the world did not expect of us what it had come to expect of others. This is indeed, as Keyes Beech put it, 'the dirtiest war Americans ever had to fight,' with the sole exception of the wars against the Indians, which, however, were not foreign wars. Cam Ne and Chau Son are not in the line of succession to Lexington and Concord and the other great battles of American history; they give the lie to that tradition. War, the wanton killing of human beings, can only be justified by a transcendent end; this makes a war just. There is no such end and there is no justice here. Those who are so concerned about our collective and their personal prestige might take a moment to reflect on the kind of country America will be when it emerges from so senseless, hopeless, brutal, and brutalizing a war.
I don't think Americans realize just how much of an effect Vietnam and now Abu Ghraib have had on the US image abroad. I think it's particularly bad among the neoconservatives--I recall reading an argument by Richard Perle a few years ago in which he said that the US shouldn't give up its nuclear weapons (as required by the NPT), any more than police should sign disarmament agreements with criminals.

Morgenthau put it concisely: "What is required of the statesman is, first, to see clearly: himself, the enemy, and then himself again as the enemy sees him." Obviously Perle hasn't gotten that far, or he'd realize that his analogy doesn't make any sense. To antagonists of the US, the US isn't the police--it's a threat.
posted by russilwvong at 9:10 PM on November 5, 2006

Sangermaine, good comments. To continue with the idealism/realist analogy -- we are seeing an idealistic generation in power. They grew up in the boom years after WWII when the future was bright and everything was possible - the spoiled "me generation". The Baby Boomers were idealistic in their youth and wanted to change the world (and did for better or worse), and they are idealistic now and want to change the world. Pragmatic hard-nosed realism will have to wait for the next generation - by which time I predict we will need all the realism we can get.
posted by stbalbach at 9:24 PM on November 5, 2006

Lieven and Hulsman are arguing that good intentions don't excuse immoral actions.

Well, they're correct about this; if our intentions were good, it most certainly wouldn't excuse our actions. My problem with the article is this ridiculous assumption that the good intentions exist at all.
posted by Clay201 at 10:17 PM on November 5, 2006

Hulsman blogged his book tour a couple of weeks ago as the "Magical Mystery Tour" for openDemocracy: entries here and here.
posted by Sijeka at 6:07 AM on November 6, 2006

Thanks, Sijeka. I thought Lawrence Kaplan's reaction was especially interesting.

Clay201: My problem with the article is this ridiculous assumption that the good intentions exist at all.

I repeat: who cares?

Everyone who commits horrible actions thinks that they're justified. Here's a footnote from Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations.
To what extent the profession of universalistic principles of morality can go hand in hand with utter depravity in action is clearly demonstrated in the case of Timur, the Mongol would-be conqueror of the world, who in the fourteenth century conquered and destroyed southern Asia and Asia Minor. After having killed hundreds of thousands of people--on December 12, 1398, he massacred one hundred thousand Hindu prisoners before Delhi--for the glory of God and of Mohammadanism, he said to a representative of conquered Aleppo: "I am not a man of blood; and God is my witness that in all my wars I have never been the aggressor, and that my enemies have always been the authors of their own calamity."

Gibbon, who reports this statement, adds: "During this peaceful conversation the streets of Aleppo streamed with blood, and re-echoed with the cries of mothers and children, with the shrieks of violated virgins. The rich plunder that was abandoned to his soldiers might stimulate their avarice; but their cruelty was enforced by the peremptory command of producing an adequate number of heads, which, according to his custom, were curiously piled in columns and pyramids...."
But what the hell: here's a pre-war NYT profile of Paul Wolfowitz, one of the chief architects of the war. He comes across as both idealistic and optimistic. Morgenthau again, reviewing a book by W. W. Rostow:
... the suggestion that this is mere propaganda must be dismissed as too simple. We are not in the presence of propaganda as the conscious manipulation of public opinion on behalf of official policy. If this book were merely that, it could be dismissed without a critical word. What is so disturbing and also fascinating in this book is exactly the contrast between the firm convictions and intellectual honesty of its author and the caricature it presents of its subject matter, the foreign policy of the United States. Mr. Rostow has a powerful, brilliant, and creative mind. How could such a mind produce such trash? The answer lies in the corruption of power and the defenselessness of the intellectual in the face of it. The intellectual as a social type is singularly deprived of the enjoyment of power and eminently qualified to understand its importance and what it means not to have it. Thus campuses and literary circles abound with empire builders, petty politicians, and sordid intriguers—all seekers after power, the substance of which eludes them. When an intellectual finds himself in the seat of power he is tempted to equate the power of his intellect with the power of his office. As he could mould the printed word to suit his ideas so he now expects the real world to respond to his actions. Hence his confidence in himself, his pride, his optimism; hence, also, the absence of the tragic sense of life, of humility, of that fear and trembling with which great statesmen have approached their task, knowing that in trying to mould the political world they must act like gods, without the knowledge, the wisdom, the power, and the goodness which their task demands. As John Adams put it: "Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party."
That's the neoconservatives in a nutshell. Lieven and Hulsman suggest that there's similar tendencies on the Democratic side; they refer to the recent collection of essays With All Our Might, published by the Democratic Leadership Council.
posted by russilwvong at 7:44 AM on November 6, 2006

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