International realism and dictatorship

by John Quiggin on March 31, 2011

As a result of the events in the Arab world[1], I’ve been thinking some more about “international realism”, which I take to have the following central premises[2]

1. States have durable, long-term interests and their actions in international affairs are driven by the rational pursuit of those interests

2. The use or threat of military power is the pre-eminent way (or at least one of the primary ways) in which states pursue their interests

It struck me in thinking about recent events that this is essentially a theory for a world of autocracies. (Apologies to those for whom this is old news, but this is a blog, after all). In such a world, international realism reduces to the claim that individuals are driven by rational self-interest. While there are problems with this claim (it’s empirically problematic if self-interest is defined tightly, and tautological if it’s defined by “revealed preference”), it seems like a sensible starting point, at least for the kind of individuals who become successful autocrats.

Moreover, the idea that war is a central part of rational policy makes sense for autocrats. Although war is a negative sum game, it seems reasonable, under a wide range of circumstances to assume that the losses are borne primarily by the autocrat’s subjects, while the gains flow to the autocrats. Even a war that ends with the status quo ante can be beneficial to the rulers on both sides by providing a Malthusian check on a population that might otherwise prove restive, providing an excuse for increased taxation and so on. That implies the failure of the standard negative-sum game argument against war, namely, that both sides would be better off calculating the outcome of war, and agreeing to accept it without a fight.

None of this would be problematic to Hobbes, often presented as the founding theorist of international relations. But it presents problems for a world in which, at least in formal terms, most governments are democracies rather than autocracies. The central problems are

1. A central element of the case for democracy is that it allows for the resolution of competing views of the national interest. But that resolution, involving the alternation of political power, undermines the assumption that there is a stable concept of self-interest to be pursued. One party or faction may favor an alliance with country A, another with its hostile neighbour B. Moreoever, groups within different countries (for example, left or right political parties) may see each other as natural political allies against their domestic opponents

2. Both theory and experience suggest that war (even war in which the state is victorious) is nearly always against the interests of the citizens of a country, taken as a whole. Whereas ruling more territory seems obviously good for an autocrat, there is no corresponding gain from being a citizen of a large state rather than a small one. (This doesn’t rule out a need for self-defense against autocracies or irrationally aggressive democracies, but it does suggest a strong interest in promoting peace).

There are a couple of ways in which international realists might respond to this. The first, more or less standard among leftist advocates of realism, and common on the right, is to say that democracy is a sham and that international relations must be understood in terms of conflicts between national ruling classes. The main disagreement between the left and right on this is that the left views this as an undesirable (if unchangeable) state of affairs where is the right is concerned to preclude any disruption of orderly policymaking by the uninformed masses.

The centrist position as I read it is a kind of exceptionalism. While we (the US [3]) can combine domestic democracy with a realist foreign policy (based on some maxim such as “politics stops at the waters edge”) the poorer countries with which foreign policy primarily deals cannot. So, from the US viewpoint, the best option is a friendly, stable dictatorship.

With notably rare exceptions, support for friendly, stable dictatorships has worked well for the US. Among the rare exceptions: Pahlavi in Iran, Saddam in Iraq, Thieu in Vietnam, the Saudi regime (that gave us Al Qaeda). But, as if by the unredeemably opaque operation of some invisible hand, these very exceptions have created new foreign policy problems that have ensured the continued prosperity of the Foreign Policy Community.

fn1, The events in Libya have also started a new round of claims about the persistence or otherwise of US hegemony, clearly a related topic. As Phil Arena says here, it’s essentially a Rorschach test, with everyone seeing what they want to see.

fn2. I’m not too interested in definitional questions about whether this is the right characterization of the views of some particular group of scholars who may claim the label of “realism”. Clearly, the ideas are widely held, and the label “realism” is commonly attached to them.

fn3. In its modern form, international realism seems to be pre-eminently a US idea. For Europe, Japan etc, the foolishness of pursuing national self-interest through military force is a lesson that has been learned the hard way, and mostly (not entirely) absorbed into policy thinking.

{ 92 comments }

1

Don 03.31.11 at 9:20 pm

The use of the word “realism” to describe one’s own position implies that those who disagree are unrealistic. It’s an arrogant stance, and a cheap substitute for proving the merit of the position. May as well call my foreign policy The Foreign Policy Of All Right-Thinking People.

Those who favor dictatorship, and war as a means of promoting the interests of the state, ought to be described in those terms.

2

Patrick (not the same one as above) 03.31.11 at 9:20 pm

I see what you did there, and I approve.

3

Patrick S. O'Donnell 03.31.11 at 10:28 pm

John,
While I appreciate the reasons why Hobbes is often associated with Realism in international law and politics, Larry May has proffered contrary reasons why this might be a caricature of Hobbes’s thought (or extensions or implications thereof), much in the same way that S.A. (Sharon) Lloyd has given us a fresh picture of Hobbes’s moral and political philosophy in Ideals as Interests in Hobbes’s Leviathan: The Power of Mind over Matter (1992), and Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature (2009) (I discussed the former volume in several blog posts at Ratio Juris beginning in January of last year that received Lloyd’s imprimatur) (see too the late Perez Zagorin’s Hobbes and the Law of Nature, 2009). May notes that a common reading from Chapter 30 of Leviathan has Hobbes

“as the great defender of the use of violence, especially in situations where there is no sovereign, and most especially in the relations between States. It is often forgotten, though, that in the very paragraph where Hobbes speaks of the war that exists in any state of nature, he also declares that the first branch of the ‘first, and fundamental law of nature’ is ‘to SEEK PEACE AND FOLLOW IT.’ The more Hobbesian-sounding law of nature, ‘by all means we can, defend ourselves,’ is said to be the second branch of the first law of nature. Hobbes has been often unfairly characterized as the defender of the right of States to use any means, including violence, in their relations with one another and with their own subjects. This is because in the state of nature, while individual persons have the right to do everything, this is not a reasonable position in which to remain.”

May proceeds to elaborate the reasons why Hobbes is often portrayed as articulating a strong critique of any robust conception of international law, again, having to do with the absence of an international ‘sovereign.’ In short, there seems to be no compelling reason for States to be pacific:

“But Hobbes’s argument is more subtle than this. In the state of nature, all people are roughly equal. Even the strongest must sleep, and then even the weakest can drive a knife into the back of the strongest. All people fear this loss of life, and any sign of weakness in the state of nature will risk such a loss of life. If two people make an agreement to trust each other, and not to use violence against the other, then each person renders himself or herself vulnerable to the other. Yet, by rendering oneself vulnerable, one risks that loss of life that is most feared. Hobbes’s position takes on a subtlety, though, when he admits that it is just this sense of trust that is absolutely crucial for cooperation and commerce, and that trust is also crucial for overcoming the miserable conditions of the state of nature. For this reason, while it always unreasonable to be a first performer of the social covenant, it is also unreasonable not to want to join cooperative associations that could protect us. [….] [I]n Chapter 14 of Leviathan, Hobbes indicates that the first performance of contracts is only conditionally irrational in the state of nature–that is, only when cooperation jeopardizes self-defense. But Hobbes also counsels that we should pursue peace over war and that it is reasonable to go to great lengths to create a situation in which people feel bound to keep their promises and conracts. Indeed, Hobbes defines the law of nature as a dictate of right reason that counsels against the use of force and violence. [….]
A Hobbesian position on international relations sets the stage for seeing what would make it rational for the United States, or other States, to join the treaty creating the ICC [International Criminal Court]. After all, in the original state of nature scenario, people do find their way out of the state of nature by establishing organizations and enforcement mechanisms that will diminish the likelihood that displays of cooperativeness will result in harm to the cooperators. Hobbes is often interpreted as holding that only a single monarch can supply the needed enforcement mechanism. But this is an oversimplification of his view that misses his main point. In the frontispiece of Leviathan, Hobbes portrays the sovereign as a king but only in outline, filled in by individual people who have given their consent to the social contract. Indeed, at the beginning of Chapter 18 of Leviathan, Hobbes says that the ‘sovereign power is conferred by the consent of the people assembled.’ These people are the ones who will stand behind any individual king or other leader [e.g., a sovereign assembly], and it is their might, not that of the king, that is crucial for peace to be secured, since the king is the stand-in for the collective will of the people.

In contemporary international law, enforcement mechanisms do not necessarily depend on there being a world ‘king’ or president. We do not need a world monarch or other world sovereign, but only sufficient agreement among the States to provide enforcement for the rulings of such international organizations as the ICC [May is using this example because is book is a normative argument about ‘crimes against humanity’ in international criminal law]. Joining the ICC is only problematical for the United States if there is no good enforcement mechanism in place. If the ICC has teeth, then joining it is reasonable strategy even for, and especially for, States such as the United States that fear other States will try to take advantage of them. For the best strategy to gain peace oneself is to try to bind others not to be aggressors; but such bindng almost always means also binding oneself. This is just what the multilateral Rome treaty that set up the ICC has attempted to do.

A Hobbesian position on international law would support a systematic set of laws of nature that can be derived from the two-pronged principle: Seek peace where you can, and otherwise be ready to resort to war.”

May goes on to point out the deficiencies of Hobbes’s argument from our contemporary vantage point (regarding, in particular, human rights). He contends, rightly I think, that his sketch of a non-standard Hobbesian position on such matters “blurs the distinction between POSITIVIST and NATURAL LAW theories in significant ways and sets the stage for a moral minimalism that lets in a minimal conception of natural law. For while the laws of nature only bind in the conscience, they do still bind, and can form the basis for restraint of violence, even in the international arena. A secularized and mininalist natural law theory is one that derives constraints on the use of violence from principles of human psychology and morality.”

For the rest of May’s argument, please see his book, Crimes Against Humanity: A Normative Account (2005).

4

JWP 03.31.11 at 10:39 pm

Indeed, the originary statement of the “realist” position is often held to be by Henri de Rohan: “Les Princes commandent aux peuples, & l’interest commande aux Princes. La connoissance de cet interest est d’autant plus relevé par dessus celle des actions des Princes, qu’eux-mesmes le sont par dessus les peuples. Le Prince se peut tromper, son Conseil peut estre corrompu; mais l’interest seul ne peut jamais manquer, selon qu’il est bien ou mal entendu, il fait vivre ou mourir les Estats.” Roughly translated, “Princes command the people and interest commands the princes. The knowledge of this interest is as far above the actions of the princes as they themselves are above the people. The prince may fool himself, his councilors may be corrupt, but interest is never wrong, and insofar as it is well or poorly understood it is the life and death of states.”

5

TamBram 03.31.11 at 10:44 pm

I think the Saudi example is misplaced. In short, what is the alternative? The Saudis are the only ones who can restrain (a bit) Al Qaeda. If the West withdrew its support from the Saudis, they would realign with China, and restrain Qaeda less. If the Saudi regime falls, you will not get a democratic or liberal state. You will get chaos followed by a theocracy. That’s the realist view. (P.S. Don’t confuse a very thin slice of quasi-Westernized Saudis like Bandar with the Saudi male youth–the latter are scary indeed–at mode, median and mean).

6

geo 03.31.11 at 11:03 pm

John: isn’t it long past time to retire the idea of a unitary “national” or “state’s” interest? States, economies, and corporations are legal fictions; only persons have interests or purposes. It’s plain enough in the economic case. An economy is not healthy when a majority of the citizens are underemployed and/or insecure, even if the growth rate is high. Of course it’s good for some people that the growth rate is high; but their interest is their interest, not the national interest.

Likewise, what does it mean to say that “support for friendly, stable dictatorships has worked well for the US,” with or without notable exceptions? Worked well for whom, precisely? For investors, obviously. For manufacturing workers, not so obviously. And not even for investors with a conscience — self-interest is every bit as much moral as material. (Moral vs. material is another of those metaphysical distinctions that we Rortyan pragmatists find useless.)

There is no “US.” There are only people, with differing, very often sharply conflicting, interests. “National interest” is precisely parallel to “reason of state,” about which, you’ll remember, Bakunin imperishably wrote:

“There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated … under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: for reasons of state.

7

StevenAttewell 03.31.11 at 11:06 pm

Regarding this point: “there is no corresponding gain from being a citizen of a large state rather than a small one”

I don’t see how that’s necessarily the case.

1. Nationalism in the case of ethnic diasporae(?). If one’s goal is the unification of a national community, in-gathering via force would seem to be a potential benefit.
2. Resources in nearby areas. Getting one’s hands on other people’s stuff can be good for the masses as well as the ruler. Classical European imperialism is a bit harder of a case, given the difficulty of ordinary people accessing the new resources abroad, but plenty of Europeans got gainful employment in imperial administration, etc. The American experience is even more straightforward since it was easier for the citizenry to get their hands on conquered land; expansionist wars were often politically popular in many areas of the country (Indian Wars, Mexican-American War, etc.) and elections were won advocating for them.

8

Peter T 03.31.11 at 11:53 pm

Realism is very much an abstract model (except maybe in the minds of neo-conservatives like Donald Kagan). But whether war benefits some or most – and how people view it – is an empirical question. War seems to have been a major form of recreation among hunter-gatherers, a norm among early democratic farmer communities, a way of life for nomads and a variously mixed curse for industrial societies. The soldier-farmers of Rome met democratically in the forum each year to consider whose land they should try to take next, and most reasonable estimates of the outcomes of the Napoleonic wars suggest that ordinary Britons did quite well out of them.

One caveat is that war is difficult to explain at the level of the individual. It’s a group thing.

For one good survey well-grounded in history, see Geoffrey Blainey’s The Causes of War. It also lines up well with work by people like Black-Micheaud on feud.

9

John Quiggin 03.31.11 at 11:59 pm

@Geo, on your main point, I agree entirely as I hope is clear from the post.

On “with notably rare exceptions … worked well for the US”, I left out the irony alerts agaion. It’s a riff on Henry’s post mocking Greenspan, which I’ve now linked.

10

Scott 04.01.11 at 12:32 am

I can only say I like what geo @ 4 said, a lot.

11

Jonny R 04.01.11 at 12:33 am

Don (1),

In a similar vein, Steve Smith around 2000/2001, made some useful arguments suggesting that International Relations ‘realism’, as the central approach of IR, had become a way of marginalising alternatives (anyone not adopting realism was some kind of wacky postmodernist fruitcake). Moreover, Smith suggested there was an awkward linkage between the US dominance of IR, realism as a dominant theory, and the nature of US foreign policy. Yes, it’s a bit ‘no shit Sherlock’ but it was nice to see.

By the way, I do mean the Steve Smith who is Exeter VC and chair of Universities UK, who decided to not take these thoughts any further and instead keep climbing the greasy pole and chasing govts coattails. Shame.

P.s. any chance of a new discussion about the other self-perpetuating bollocks of IR, soft-power?

12

Scott 04.01.11 at 12:33 am

Well, it was at 4, now it’s at 6.

13

Tony Lynch 04.01.11 at 1:20 am

TamBran needs to do some – genuine – research.

14

TamBram 04.01.11 at 1:33 am

Tony Lynch,
In spite of your unhelpful tone, what “research” do you think I am overlooking? I have spent four years at my nation’s embassy in Riyadh and now seconded to an American university for a year as a research fellow. I doubt that there is much serious anthropological/poli sci. literature on Saudi, in English or Arabic, that I am ignoring in reaching my conclusions.

15

Bloix 04.01.11 at 1:38 am

“States, economies, and corporations are legal fictions; only persons have interests or purposes.”

This is an extraordinarily naive view of human nature.

Human beings do not exist outside a social framework, and never have – we evolved as social animals from earlier primates who were also social animals, so the premise that you’re asserting here – the individual as the only non-fictive human entity – is simply false as a matter of evolutionary fact. Society is as old and as real as humanity.

The family, the tribe, the village, the city, the religion, the ethnic group, the state, the nation, and more recently the corporation – these structures are every bit as real as the individual, and infinitely more durable. Individuals have never existed without them.

16

TamBram 04.01.11 at 2:01 am

Agreed, Bloix, plus, the “interests” of, say, Microsoft shareholders hardly needs to be broken down to the individual level. A Microsoft agent can be said to be doing a good job for Microsoft if he is making money for Microsoft, simpliciter.

17

geo 04.01.11 at 2:05 am

John @9: I’m pleased and relieved that you agree, but no, that’s not clear from the post. For one thing, there’s language like this: “nearly always against the interests of the citizens of a country, taken as a whole.” The citizens of all existing societies have, with respect to nearly every policy one can name — trade, security, energy, environmental, educational, fiscal, monetary — conflicting interests. There is no whole.

Likewise, I did cotton to the irony of “notable exceptions,” but my objection was not to the idea that support for repressive regimes was good for the US, but rather to the idea that it makes any sense at all to say that any policy at all is “good for the US.” In the cases you mention, for example, support for Pahlavi, Saddam, and Thieu was very much in the interest of some highly influential citizens: viz, in the first two cases, the investors, financiers, and executives of the energy industry; in the third case, the investors etc. of the defense industry; and in all three cases, those who consider that the most important overall objective in the world for US foreign policy is a favorable investment climate, with all that implies: free movement of capital, low tax rates, suppression of independent labor and citizen organizing, generous social-welfare policies, lax (or no) enforcement of environmental and occupational-safety laws and regulations, etc. In a word, the corporate and financial community, seconded by the military, which jealously guards its colossal budgets and justifies them by an ideology of “national interests” that defines encroachment on the economic prerogatives of US business as a threat to national security. For these groups, support for Pahlavi, Saddam, and even Thieu (since US intervention encouraged the Indonesian generals’ coup, which greatly rejoiced the hearts of US elites) was a smashing success. The rest of us may think differently, but we don’t count.

18

geo 04.01.11 at 2:09 am

PS – Sorry: “generous social-welfare policies” should have been “ungenerous social-welfare policies.”

19

john c. halasz 04.01.11 at 2:14 am

O.K. The obvious problem with this post is that the “world” referenced is not one of autocracies, but rather one of sovereign powers. And sovereign power qua the organized monopoly of legitimate violence, (the more-or-less standard Weberian definition),- is not something that can readily be eliminated from that world. There is an at least implicit, potential core of violence involved in the inevitably collective nature of social existence and political rule, as well as its mysterious alchemy with ethical considerations involved in the notion of “legitimacy”, though I tend to think the key term in the definition is almost always “organized”. But whatever the difference between claiming that the source of sovereignty derives from the crowned head of an inbred idiot and claiming that it derives from “the people” as a whole, it’s not an absolute difference as far as the existence and persistence of sovereign power is concerned. (“Democray” BTW is not the name of a political regime, but rather an indeterminate, variable qualifier of political regimes.) But sovereign power, whatever its political regime, is willy-nilly always required to integrate various socio-political factions, whether dominant or subordinate, into the “identity” of its rule and act as a fact of balance between competing interests and purposes to maintain its “unity”, whereby it acquires a “disinterested” and “universal” status, (however fictive), as a key component of its legitimacy.

It’s always that issue of the “identity” of sovereign rule that’s at stake, domestically and internationally, in the *political* constitution of sovereign power, which infuses an existential element into otherwise “material” factors and interests, such as territory, resources, economic perquisites, group affiliations, such as class, ethnicity, religious sect, etc. Which is why it doesn’t follow or reduce to a utilitarian or instrumentalist account of of “rational” calculation and optimization, but tends toward the possibility of negative-sum outcomes. (And which is also why sovereign powers tend to maintain military and “security” establishments, no matter how useless, wasteful, or unaffordable, as the marker for the existence of sovereign power qua potential, even if ultimately ineffective, violence). Insofar as IR “realists” attempt to reduce the issue to a calculation of “material” interests on the part of a unitary rational actor, then they are, indeed, engaged i a reductive fallacy. But insofar as they are simply recognizing the persistence of issues of sovereignty in the world, they are no crazier than the world itself is.

And the notion of sovereign power, though highly problematic, is also well-nigh inevitable, and thus, in that sense, necessary, (however apparently outmoded or archaic in a nuclear and globalized age). Not only is sovereign power the source of the coercive power needed for the promulgation and enforcement of any system of law, (which can’t really be accounted for in contractarian terms, as a petitio principii), but it is a necessary condition for the emergence of a public sphere that can purport to regulate,- and even oppose, – it.

20

TamBram 04.01.11 at 2:18 am

Why are commenters taking as a given that Western support for the Shah was misguided? Look at what followed him–an illiberal theocracy that liquidated (literally) the left that had joined in the Revolution against the Shah. From my (non-Western) perspective, I don’t see why Western commenters are anti-Shah, given real-world constraints. Iranians would be healthier and wealthier and less tortured and raped if they still had the Shah rather than the theocracy.

21

Substance McGravitas 04.01.11 at 2:31 am

Why are commenters taking as a given that Western support for the Shah was misguided?

Because there was a successful revolution that overthrew him?

22

TamBram 04.01.11 at 2:37 am

Sorry, but I don’t understand the logic–it can’t be that one should never support a regime that might be overthrown? Democratic regimes can be overthrown too. Can you clarify?

23

john c. halasz 04.01.11 at 2:47 am

geo @ 6:

One word: teleonomy. Individual agents might behave purposefully, in accordance with their “interests”, but the interaction of such purposive agents will generate emergently a social system with aggregate system goals of its own, which operate partly beyond the ken of participant individual agents, and feed-back upon and condition their purposes and “interests”, (even as the activities of purposive agents can aggregately bring about changes to system goals). Your nominalistic/liberalistic reduction of societies to constituent individuals is not just unrealistic and a non-starter, (since individual purposes and “interests”, let alone their conflicts, can’t be defined independently of social context and thus the “system” of which they form a part), but is rather indulgent: believing what you want to believe, doxastic voluntarism.

24

William Timberman 04.01.11 at 2:54 am

States have durable, long-term interests and their actions in international affairs are driven by the rational pursuit of those interests.

‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, I would say. Fine in theory, problematic in practice. Historically, the interests of states have tended to be reducible over time to the interests of their rulers, and once so reduced, to remain that way until the wheels come off the cart.

25

Substance McGravitas 04.01.11 at 2:58 am

This is the logic:

Why are commenters taking as a given that Western support for the Shah was misguided? Look at what followed him—an illiberal theocracy that liquidated (literally) the left that had joined in the Revolution against the Shah.

26

geo 04.01.11 at 3:05 am

Tam and Substance: the question is, successful for whom? Western support for the Shah was hugely successful for the American and British oil companies, who regained access to Iranian oil on extremely favorable terms after the overthrow of Mossadegh. It also gravely discouraged national-independence movements throughout the region. Whether the overthrow of Mossadegh was good, on balance, for most ordinary Iranians or ordinary Americans is quite irrelevant. What’s good for ordinary Americans (and a fortiori non-Americans) simply doesn’t figure in either the formulation or the evaluation of American foreign policy by the people who count.

Moreover, they don’t estimate costs and benefits on a cosmic time scale. The Shah remained in power for twenty-five years, during which enormous profits were made and dividends paid by the energy industry. Twenty-five years is a lifetime, as far as policymakers are concerned. I’m sure if you could speak with the shade of J0hn Foster Dulles, he’d consider US support of the Shah a rousing success. As for the eventual overthrow of the Shah by a radical nationalist movement — well, Dulles would shrug, good things don’t last forever.

27

Kindred Winecoff 04.01.11 at 3:13 am

John, I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to when you talk about “realism”. If you mean academic realism, e.g. Waltz, then it is definitionally not a theory about autocracies. Waltz, after all, is (in)famous for saying that states are “functionally undifferentiated”. In other words, regime type doesn’t matter. You hone in some of his logic later in your post. Basically, it goes like this: at the most basic level societies are primarily concerned with survival, and they organize their foreign policies to maximize security. This is states-as-unitary-actor run amok. It is also reductionist.

It’s also fairly well discredited by positive theory and empirical evidence, which is why very few people admit to being capital- R “Realists” these days. (And those that do, like Mearsheimer and Walt, betray their own ideology whenever they write almost anything. After all, if states are “functionally undifferentiated” then why worry about the Israel Lobby?) That said, a basic realist logic — that political actors are self-interested, and that policies reflect powerful interests — holds. Think of it as a version of public choice, if you will. If you relax some assumptions — (a) states-as-unitary-actors that (b) seek to maximize security — then realism can be useful.

That also allows your other points. Wars may not benefit polities at large, but they benefit subsets of society that have political influence. Not just politicians, but financiers (that lend to fund the wars), industry (that build the machines used in wars), etc. Some of these constituencies may be quite large. However, there is a very large bargaining literature that demonstrates that even if this were not true, war can be rational for unitary actors, despite being inefficient, under certain conditions. (If you’re interested, start with Fearon (1995) and move forward from there.)

Your conclusion, however, is false. There is no reason for realists to prefer dictatorships. At worst they should be indifferent because they don’t think regime type matters. But given what we know about liberal democracies — they don’t fight each other, they trade a lot, they development economically together, etc. — it would be easy for a soft realist to promote liberalism as a strong international norm, with realpolitik reserved as a distasteful exception when there aren’t better options. E.g., when democracies will be illiberal.

28

William Timberman 04.01.11 at 3:19 am

The open italics tag was me @24. It should have been closed at the end of the blockquote. Mea culpa.

29

TamBram 04.01.11 at 3:34 am

Yes, these points about oil profits and short-term interests are all fine, but what if the only realistic options are (1) support the dictator or (2) get something worse? You can’t just fiat from some a priori ideological commitment that there’s a third option. One shouldn’t reach such a dilemma easily, but if that’s where the anthropology and poli sci points, one has to deal with it, rather than invoke some sort of reductionist view of humanity where “there’s always another option.” You can’t say that you never face the dilemma.

My considered conclusion is we face such a situation in Saudi today. I am not a fan of the House of Saud, but it is foolish to seek its overthrow or replacement in the near term.

30

David Kaib 04.01.11 at 3:57 am

TamBram @ 29 Your question could be used to oppose an position – e.g. we cannot say we’re anti-Nazi because there could be something worse in theory. It’s not clear how this bit of logic gives us any help figuring out what to do in the real world.

More to the point, your argument begins with the assumption that the US and its allies should be deciding who rules in other countries. (The choices, for example, are not support a dictator or seek its replacement – there is also non-support).

31

Darragh 04.01.11 at 3:59 am

As I pointed out in John’s other blog, political realism as a theory on international relations also includes:

1. One fundamental principle of realism is missed (though arguably inferred) – that the the international system exists within a state of anarchy.

2. That states are the base structure of IR. Talk of class struggle doesn’t make sense within realism. Leftist realists? Never heard of those things.

I disagree with the central premise if John is referring to realism in the sense of IR theory. Perhaps he means something else?

32

TamBram 04.01.11 at 4:16 am

David Kaib,
No, no–I’m not assuming the West should decide. But keep in mind that moving from “support” to “non-support” can dramatically increase the likelihood of a bad/worse outcome. And so sometimes that would be the wrong decision to make, even if the regime in question is a dictatorship.

33

Charles Peterson 04.01.11 at 4:43 am

Quiggin writes: “But, as if by the unredeemably opaque operation of some invisible hand, these very exceptions have created new foreign policy problems that have ensured the continued prosperity of the Foreign Policy Community.”

I find this funny in comparison to his previous words:

“Although war is a negative sum game, it seems reasonable, under a wide range of circumstances to assume that the losses are borne primarily by the autocrat’s subjects, while the gains flow to the autocrats. Even a war that ends with the status quo ante can be beneficial to the rulers on both sides by providing a Malthusian check on a population that might otherwise prove restive, providing an excuse for increased taxation and so on.”

OK, I imagine there are some nice and useful idiots in the “Foreign Policy Community”, a euphanism that includes a lot of players including the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But I submit that what we have is simply the old autocrats with different titles, as Quiggin’s own words suggest. There is a lack of proof that “democracy” at the center is different from the old game, excepting enhancement in the monetization and denationalization of “interests”. The most money is made by the FPC through endless and universalized war.

34

Chris Bertram 04.01.11 at 5:20 am

I don’t think the connection between individual motivation and the interest of states need be as tight as you’re suggestion John. Suppose the government of the state takes itself to have a fiduciary relationship with its citizens. Those citizens may take all kinds of different views about the good, maybe relatively altruistic, etc. The government can still take the view that it ought to maximize the resources that those citizens have to pursue their good and therefore ought to maximize its own power relative to other states. Even a liberal and democratic state can be ideal-regarding in its internal politics whilst being want-regarding externally (only promoting democracy, say, in the world, at large insofar as it takes this to be conducive to the well-being and security of its own citizens, otherwise not). State officials might then think of ethical ideals as a kind of expensive taste, that they have a duty not to indulge at the expense of their own people.

(I’m not endorsing such a view: just making the case that the view that states do (or ought to) pursue the maximization of their own relative and absolute power need not rest on a rational-actor model at the individual level.)

35

Bill Wringe 04.01.11 at 7:08 am

36

Smudge 04.01.11 at 7:17 am

I’m reminded of the Star Trek episode “A Taste of Armageddon” (Stardate 3192.1). Here two warring planets did indeed caulculate the outcome of the war and pay the price without fighting. Star Fleet an American (well, Canadian) led coalition with superior military force intervened, although it was itself unsure whether it was a humanitarian or liberal intervention and the mandate was decidedly shaky. Peace and joy resulted and the coalition was self satisfied. Make what you will of this allegory.

37

Bill Wringe 04.01.11 at 7:24 am

OK, has that fixed the italics?

38

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.01.11 at 7:33 am

The problem with Shah (IMO) is that he was a western puppet, and thus his regime obstructed and rolled back evolution of the Iranian society. When the regime was rejected, the society started evolving again, but from a lower point, which is usually the case in these situations (with notably rare exceptions, I’m sure, but I can’t think of any of them now).

39

Random lurker 04.01.11 at 8:02 am

@TamBram
As an uninformed leftish westerner, I think many westerner attribute the rise of the current Iranian regime at least in part to a reaction against western colonialism, of wich the Shah was an example.
As a consequence, support for the Shah is seen as a cause for current Iranian regime.

40

Hidari 04.01.11 at 9:04 am

The issue with TamBram is not his unreconstructed American Exceptionalism/Manifest Destiny type ideology. The issue is that, sadly, I actually believe that he has ‘spent four years at (his) nation’s embassy in Riyadh and (is) now seconded to an American university for a year as a research fellow.’

And even more sadly, I don’t believe he is alone in his beliefs.

Why is why cynics such as myself have so many problems with putting the Americans in charge of operations such as ‘our’ attack on Libya.

41

Zamfir 04.01.11 at 11:20 am

@Hidari, “My nation’s embassy” =/= “US embassy”. TamBram mentioned above explicitly that he or she isn’t Western, but was wondering as, an outsider, about western attitudes.

42

Andrew 04.01.11 at 11:38 am

But it presents problems for a world in which, at least in formal terms, with notably rare exceptions, most governments are democracies rather than autocracies.

Fixed! And that’s the problem. US international relations with countries that have a high degree of democracy tend not to be so affected by a security dilemma or the probability of mutual war generally. However a large and important part of the world does not fall into this category, see e.g. PRC, Iran, (arguably) Russia, North Korea, Syria, etc. And where does one tend to see, for the most part, hostile US military action? Precisely.

A preference for a world of democracies, in the long-term, has been a fixture in US foreign policy thinking for over a century, albeit with varying degrees of strength (cue notably rare exceptions), for precisely the reasons you gave. It is true of course that in some instances the US supported dictatorships. I don’t understand your explanation for it though, which is:

While we (the US [3]) can combine domestic democracy with a realist foreign policy (based on some maxim such as “politics stops at the waters edge”) the poorer countries with which foreign policy primarily deals cannot. So, from the US viewpoint, the best option is a friendly, stable dictatorship.

Can you elaborate on this? I’d say hesitantly at the outset that this type of explanation, by casting out so many variables that have an enormous impact on a foreign policy to support/oppose/not-oppose a government, doesn’t really capture the logic of decision.

43

a.y. mous 04.01.11 at 1:04 pm

It would be useful if we realise why the T and B are capitalised, cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Brahmin

Rehashing a whole lot of CT posts over half-a-decade, it is a settled fact in human affairs, with notably rare exceptions, that a utility function supersedes a utility value.

Hold, I have Margin calling on line 2.

44

chris 04.01.11 at 1:24 pm

Suppose the government of the state takes itself to have a fiduciary relationship with its citizens.

With notably rare exceptions, governments don’t actually behave that way. And I’m not so sure about the exceptions.

But even setting that aside, _which citizens_? They have different and conflicting interests and desires. You can’t promote the interests of some without thereby damaging the interests of others (even if they’re only emotional interests, like opponents of gay marriage). Reifying the state and ascribing interests to it leads to confusion more than anything.

45

Barry 04.01.11 at 1:58 pm

TamBram 04.01.11 at 3:34 am

“Yes, these points about oil profits and short-term interests are all fine, but what if the only realistic options are (1) support the dictator or (2) get something worse? You can’t just fiat from some a priori ideological commitment that there’s a third option.”

Given the history of pro-dictatorship factions and arguments in the USA, the burden of proof is on those supporting the dictatorship.

46

LFC 04.01.11 at 2:50 pm

from the orig. post: fn3. In its modern form, international realism seems to be pre-eminently a US idea

Why does the U.S. spend more on defense than all other countries combined, maintain more than a thousand military bases all over the world, have eleven aircraft carrier groups, engage in ‘capabilities-based’ military planning that assumes the possibility of a war with a highly technologically sophisticated adversary, and generally have a more militarized approach to foreign policy than most if not all other ‘developed’ countries?

Part of the answer may be, as Quiggin contends, a continuing attachment by elites to the view that the threat or use of military force is a primary way to pursue ‘national interests’. But I think a more influential view in elite circles is a version of hegemonic-stability thinking which holds that without U.S. global military presence and security guarantees, the world would become a more dangerous, chaotic place. However, with great-power war probably obsolete and in any case not on anyone’s near-term agenda, and with ‘consolidated’ democracies not fighting each other, and with the overall amount of global violence having declined fairly steadily since the early 1990s, the empirical basis of this hegemonic-stability view is rather weak. A situation like the civil war in Libya actually cuts in the other direction, because it allows advocates of hegemonic-stability thinking to say: if the U.S. did not have unique military capabilities, it would not have been able to intervene in the way it did in the first few days (in concert with the UK, France, etc.). But if present trends continue and the number of civil wars — and the number of autocratic, aggressive regimes — continues on a downward trajectory, this kind of argument will become steadily weaker.

On trends in civil war onsets and terminations, see S. Kalyvas and L. Balcells, “International System and Technologies of Rebellion,” American Political Science Review 104:3 (August 2010), Figure 1 at p.417 and accompanying text.

47

marcel 04.01.11 at 3:50 pm

The centrist position as I read it is a kind of exceptionalism.

Yes, but is it a notably rare kind of exceptionalism?

48

roger 04.01.11 at 4:03 pm

John, I don’t understand this paragraph:
“Both theory and experience suggest that war (even war in which the state is victorious) is nearly always against the interests of the citizens of a country, taken as a whole. Whereas ruling more territory seems obviously good for an autocrat, there is no corresponding gain from being a citizen of a large state rather than a small one. (This doesn’t rule out a need for self-defense against autocracies or irrationally aggressive democracies, but it does suggest a strong interest in promoting peace).”

I don’t understand any of the sentences. The first sentence seems to rule out many of the bounties of war, from creating a space in which one can become a dominant economic power (as the U.S. was after WWII) to the many technological goods that have come to us from the resources put into warring (computers, penicillin, radar and cortisone, f’rinstance, from WWII). The second sentence limits the wars under discussion to one’s about territorial gain. These are a little rarer now than they were in the 19th century among developed nations – but except for Canada, it is hard to think of a developed nation that has not become so through wars of territorial gain.

Furthermore, war in itself leads, even in a democracy, to many democratic goods, since the military is an excellent place for the state to not only forge its image, but to forge solidarity. Thus, it was in the U.S. military that segregation was first attacked in the U.S. – a very important model for the later civil rights movement. And the literature about the effect of volunteer armies in France at the time of the revolution is very well known.

Finally, the opposition between keeping the peace and war seems, well, incompletely dialectical. These are not simply and forever opposites. In militaristic societies, such as the U.S., the two have been so blended together that it is difficult to separate the U.S. at peace from the U.S. at war. This, after all, is what the Cold War was structured like.

Usually I find your arguments pretty well reasoned, but this paragraph seems to me to need a lot of defense.

49

mclaren 04.01.11 at 4:10 pm

All part of the realpolitik doctrine beloved of Metternich and Castlreigh have now fallen apart.

We recognize today that human actions are fundamentally irrational (as witness the recent global financial meltdown, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, et al.), and war has collapsed as a viable means for compelling national action. Indeed, since the 1970s the great story of international relations remains the failure of warfare as an effective mechanism for changing national behavior.

Today, nations find themselves so closely linked economically and by webs of data and trade and communication, that any gains to be had from invading or bombing another country dwindle into insignificance compared to the losses incurred by the destruction of infrastructure and human capital.

Once upon a time, back in the 1930s and 1940s, economies operated by capturing raw materials and generating finished goods out of them. Today economies generate most of their wealth by rearranging information (this includes recycling, which is rapidly becoming the dominant sector of modern manufacturing and will soon have to become the sole support for all modern economies as Peak Oil and resource exhaustion force all nations to embrace 100% sustainability and a complete “green” energy sector. In the 1940s, economic dominance belonged to those nations best able to capture raw resources: today, economic dominance belongs to those nations best able to organize their brainpower and infrastructure.

Traditional land warfare is rapidly becoming obsolete. 4GW warfare may continue, but that’s an entirely different bowl of tapioca, and does not require a large organized military to counter. The human race is slowly beginning to realize the big challenges in the 21st century involve not fighting one another, but dealing with the epiphenomonal side effects of increasingly complex technology (global banking crises, Fukushima-style meltdowns, power grid outages, network crashes, traffic grid lockups), human population growth (scientists estimate that all life will be fished out of the world’s oceans within 50 years; global warming, etc.) and the ever-increasing efficiency of our economies which leads to exponential resources depletion (Peak Oil, and soon Peak Indium, the coming crunch in rare earths, the coming fresh water crisis in the Third World, etc.).

50

mpowell 04.01.11 at 4:17 pm

JQ, I like your post. It seems that defining what a ‘realist’ is is quite tricky and whenever your propose a definition you get disagreement from all sorts of sectors. So making claims about what this or that group of IR theorist believe is very difficult. Now I don’t work in IR, but I have read IR papers from time to time. What I have observed is that there seems to be a broad recognition that the models that treat states as single, stable, rational actors are flawed. But much like the field of macroeconomics, when people start forming general views on proper state behavior, these non-idealities get pushed aside. Maybe this not actually that much of a problem in the field, but it appears as a problem in the public view of the field. So I think it is refreshing to approach this discussion again while understanding some of the pathological issues that arise from these kinds of problems.

51

Hektor Bim 04.01.11 at 4:36 pm

TamBram could mean Tamil Brahmin, which would imply a non-Western background.

It is by no means clear that the current Iranian regime is worse for its citizens than the Shah’s regime would have been.

52

TamBram 04.01.11 at 5:03 pm

What I am objecting to is the casual deployment of Saudi as an example of where the West is mistaken to support a dictator. If you talk to young Saudi males they are not the basis for replacing the House of Saud with a non-extremist, non-violent, non-aggressive state (and good luck talking to the women, let alone supposing they will somehow take power). This situation needs to be remedied over time (in part, using Western support/influence) rather than made worse in the short-term by invoking some meta-principal that one should never support dictators. The latter principal, opaque as it is to the on-the-grounds anthropological facts, will cause grave harms at times.
(P.S. If I am using some words that trigger the inference that I am an American Manifest Destiny type it would seem to be by happenstance–I have spent less than a year in the US in my life. And I use the term “Western” support carefully–France and the UK, at least, are also heavily involved with the Saudi and other Gulf dictatorships).

53

TamBram 04.01.11 at 5:34 pm

An analogy, if I may–everyone at my university in America seems familiar with the problems of utilitarianism/refutations of the utility principle. But, there would seem to be equally problems with a “never support dictators” view. It is too easy to come up with refutations. Why? Because democracy is not the only important value, and trade-offs have to sometimes be made. The butchery that would follow the fall of the House of Saud is such an example. It would commence, for example, with the oil-field protection paramilitary forces in Eastern Saudi exterminating the Shia inhabitants of that region.

54

Substance McGravitas 04.01.11 at 6:15 pm

As long as we’re sure what the outcome would be, everything we do is correct. It’s easy!

55

Chris Bertram 04.01.11 at 7:29 pm

other Chris @44 Fair point. But I was really trying to get across was the fact that a rational actor model for states needn’t depend on the idea that rational actor models are appropriate at other levels.

56

chris 04.01.11 at 8:21 pm

But I was agreeing with george’s point that states can’t be rational actors because they *aren’t actors at all*, they’re collections of actors, or structures tugged this way and that by competing actors, or something like that. Adopting the intentional stance toward a state is a categorical error, unless you think Louis XIV was right after all.

(In theory, I suppose, the internal structure of a state could become complex enough to have an emergent mind of its own, like the ant colonies in _Godel, Escher, Bach_, or the way the Chinese Room understands Chinese, but that seems wildly unlikely, and isn’t really what the realists are talking about anyway.)

Containing things with minds doesn’t make a state a thing with a mind any more than containing water makes me a puddle.

57

LFC 04.01.11 at 8:47 pm

Re 56:
States can be thought of as ‘corporate actors’ on a (rough) analogy with other sorts of organizations, or so some have argued. See e.g. Wendt’s Social Theory of International Politics, chap. 5, and subsequent to-and-fro in the IR literature. (Not to mention sociology.)

58

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.01.11 at 8:59 pm

In theory, I suppose, the internal structure of a state could become complex enough to have an emergent mind of its own … but that seems wildly unlikely

Hmm, on the contrary, that seems perfectly obvious.

59

John Quiggin 04.01.11 at 10:35 pm

I’m happy to concede that, for particular purposes, non-autocratic states can be treated as actors with preferences that they pursue in international contexts. My point in the post was that democratic states are unlikely to exhibit the kind of internally consistent, stable and self-interested (ie focused on material benefits to the state in question) preferences presumed in international realist theory.

To put it another way (and back off slightly from my agreement with geo), I don’t think it’s problematic to say something like “During the Cold War, and largely thereafter, the US pursued a policy of supporting stable friendly dictatorships” as long as we remember that the term “US” refers here to a shifting set of people in the US power elite, backed by some proportion of the US business class and the US population in general, and that within this group different people supported the policy for different reasons.

But that doesn’t mean it’s helpful to analyze the resulting policies as the pursuit of national interest in the way in which we might normally interpret the term.

60

Chris E 04.01.11 at 10:54 pm

“But, there would seem to be equally problems with a “never support dictators” view. It is too easy to come up with refutations. Why? Because democracy is not the only important value, and trade-offs have to sometimes be made. The butchery that would follow the fall of the House of Saud is such an example.”

In which case the principle is – “never start to support dictators” – the attitude of the average Saudi male is heavily influenced by the regime that has been in charge of that country since Ibn Saud.

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TamBram 04.02.11 at 12:34 am

In which case the principle is – “never start to support dictators”
__________________

No. That can’t be right either. Imagine S. Korea undergoes a military coup. It could have devastating consequences if the US followed that principle (e.g., if US withdraws, could trigger N. Korean invasion). If that were the case in the particular facts and circumstances, it would cause grave harm to follow the principle you advance.

I remain mystified how people trained to reject the utility principle (even though utility is good) can so blithely jump to a “never consort with dictators principle” (even though democracy is good).

62

john c. halasz 04.02.11 at 2:32 am

“Imagine S. Korea undergoes a military coup.”

But that’s, er, unprecedented.

63

geo 04.02.11 at 2:45 am

John: To … back off slightly from my agreement with geo

Not very far, really. I agree that the power elite sometimes acts with the support of the population in general. (Though I would demur at your distinction between the “power elite” and the “business class.” The business class is the power elite; the politicians and even the military are their agents.)

Perhaps I was really criticizing your previous posts, in which you argued (if I remember correctly) something like: leftists should try to convince policymakers that US military interventions have rarely been successful, because the costs to most ordinary Americans outweigh the benefits. This formulation seemed to me wrongheaded, because US military interventions are not intended to benefit ordinary Americans. It’s no good pointing out to policymakers what they already know: ie, that their choices are effectively constrained by the consensus of business elites, and that their job is to sell that consensus to the population as the “national interest.”

64

Kindred Winecoff 04.02.11 at 3:08 am

@62 Wow, you know nothing about the history of S. Korea, do you? South Korea has teetered back and forth from authoritarianism and democracy ever since its beginning (although since the establishment of the 6th Republic — yes, *6th*… they’ve been worse than France — in 1987 it’s been pretty stable). There have been several military coups during that time, the most notable of which happened in 1961. In other words, a S. Korean military coup would be pretty precedented. And the U.S., quite rightly, did not refuse to deal with whatever government was in place at the time.

We also need to disentangle what we mean by “support dictators”. We dealt with Mubarak not for his sake but for Israel’s. The same is true to at least some extent of our relations with the House of Saud. In other cases the choice was between “supporting” an anti-capitalist autocrat and a pro-capitalist autocrat. In the cases where the US supported autocrats over democrats (e.g. Chile, Iran) it was usually because the democrats were illiberal. (And, as was revealed over time in some cases, not really democrats.)

While it be would nice to reduce international politics to a simple morality play, in practice that quite often just isn’t possible. And before you even go there, “neutrality” is as much of a choice as any other.

65

john c. halasz 04.02.11 at 3:24 am

@65:

Sorry. Forgot the irony tags. Unlike yourself.

66

Kindred Winecoff 04.02.11 at 3:45 am

I considered that possibility. Should’ve given you the benefit of the doubt. My bad.

67

LFC 04.02.11 at 3:58 am

In the cases where the US supported autocrats over democrats (e.g. Chile, Iran) it was usually because the democrats were illiberal.

The U.S., imo, had no business helping to overthrow Allende, no matter the degree of his ‘liberalism’.

68

John Quiggin 04.02.11 at 4:41 am

@geo “Perhaps I was really criticizing your previous posts, in which you argued (if I remember correctly) something like: leftists should try to convince policymakers that US military interventions have rarely been successful, because the costs to most ordinary Americans outweigh the benefits.”

What I said was that leftists should try to convince policymakers that US military interventions have rarely been successful, in the sense that the costs to the business elite as a whole outweigh the benefits (of course, the reason leftists should want to convey this message is that the costs to ordinary Americans, and ordinary Vietnamese, Iraqis etc nearly always outweigh the benefits).

69

Andrew 04.02.11 at 4:48 am

On a second reading… I enjoy your posts JQ, but this one led me astray with your use of “realism” (and you fairly warned from the outset that it was your own use).

So the two assumptions = {

1. State is a rational unitary actor with enduring interests;
2. War is a primary and rational means of pursuing such interests.

Democracy you say causes two problems for these. For the rational unitary part because the conception of national interest changes every time a new party is elected. But this isn’t quite true. You provide the hint as to why yourself in the second problem.

The second problem democracy causes is that the costs of war are borne by the citizens, who tend to die in wars, lose money, and generally have every reason to be opposed. So democracies will tend not to prefer war.

As you can see, you’ve set up the two problems democracy causes for “realism” at odds with themselves. You’ve posited an enduring interest of citizens that does NOT change with elections and that DOES tend to cause rational policies to serve that interest.

Finally, I think this model of “realism” is interesting a thought-exercise, but it’s way too limited and cramped to come close to explaining actual foreign policy.

I DO think it’s a useful opener to what I suspect is really on your mind: the extent to which realism – not in the defined sense for the post – has dominated foreign policy thinking, and the effects and implications for the future.

70

Kindred Winecoff 04.02.11 at 5:14 am

@LFC, I happen to agree, but the point I was trying to make is that normative theory just doesn’t get us all the way to where we want to go.

@Andrew, I agree with your conclusion, but that really needs to be a broader discussion about policymaking. I don’t happen to think US foreign policy is or has been dominated by any rigorous adherence to “realism” as positive theory, just as I don’t think US economic policy is or has been dominated by rigorous adherence to neoliberalism as positive theory. The political leadership of the US is willing to cast aside both when it suits powerful interests.

71

sg 04.02.11 at 5:21 am

Maybe I’m misunderstanding the definition of a “leftist realist” and maybe I’m misunderstanding TamBram’s points, but the argument being put forward by TamBram seems very much consistent with a lot of left-wing opposition to Bush’s disastrous 2003 adventure (certainly mine) and has been confirmed by the following 8 years of hell in Iraq. That is, sometimes dictators are better than the alternative, especially when they’re keeping a lid on internal tensions that need time to resolve by themselves.

I suppose the difference between this leftist realism and the standard realism of the IR community is that most leftists don’t support the creation of these autocratic governments (as happened in, say, Chile); rather, we judge the wisdom of interfering with them in terms of the kinds of consequences TamBram describes.

I don’t think that sort of “realist” judgment is inconsistent with having an idealistic view of how the world should work. But it seems to point to a huge difference between “leftist realism” and currently extant foreign policy realism in the halls of power, where people (still) seem quite happy at least in principle with supplanting democracies.

72

geo 04.02.11 at 5:29 am

John @68: Oh yes, now I remember. Thanks for the correction.

I think, though, that I pointed out in the comments back then that the model of elite influence on policymaking requires further qualification. Just as business as a whole is better equipped, organized, and motivated to win contests over policy in the large than are labor, consumers, the poor, etc., so likewise individual segments of the business community are better equipped, organized, and motivated to win contests over particular policies than are other segments with far less at stake in those particular policies. Health care reform might have benefitted most employers, but most employers were not about to take on the Big Insurance/Big Pharma juggernaut, for whom it was (or was perceived as) a matter of life and death. Financial reform may have been in the interest of most non-financial businesses, but the latter were not about to fight in the last ditch with the Wall Street lobby. The oil depletion allowance did no good to anyone outside the energy industry, but why would other segments of the business community go toe-to-toe with the energy lobby? Most businessmen are probably not enthusiastic about the colossal levels of waste in weapons procurement and production, but does that mean they’ll gear up for a fight with the defense lobby? Most executives probably would prefer less pollution and urban congestion, but they know better than to tangle with the auto and chemical industries. It’s live and let live: every industry has its own turf, its own racket, for which it will fight ruthlessly. Unless the whole system is in crisis, it makes no sense to them to try to cut one another’s throats. As Barzini says to Michael Corleone: “Hey, I don’t like fighting. Fighting is expensive.”

Military interventions, like the Indochina War, that have severely adverse economic consequences but have no special corporate or industry godfather/patron, may generate collective business opposition and will then be stopped (or, as in the Indochina case, wound down, ie “Vietnamized”). Ditto if they stir up intense popular opposition — the Beast must not be lightly aroused.

Policy formation is really just a question of constraints or vectors or cost-benefit calculations: who can/is willing to muster how much pressure, pro or con? Of course there’s a thin scrim of moral rhetoric, but it’s almost entirely vacuous and deceptive, intended merely to instruct docile editors, TV producers, and academics how to frame the issues for public consumption.

73

geo 04.02.11 at 5:48 am

PS – What follows if I’m right? That leftists should not be talking to policymakers/politicians at all. Whether or not they want to do the right thing, they can’t afford to, unless they’re resigned to losing office. If they vote/decide the wrong way often enough, on important enough matters, they’ll be replaced. Opponents will be financed, press criticism and other adverse publicity will be generated, party leaders will be warned. The only way to get politicians to do the right thing is to force them to: ie, by convincing their constituents to mobilize: to spend the time, energy, and resources necessary to counter the pressures from the plutocratic side. And this has to be done in hundreds of constituencies, and sustained indefinitely. There are no short cuts.

74

TamBram 04.02.11 at 6:14 am

@sg 71–yes, great point!
(I don’t have things so well “framed” here always in terms of Western debates (though I am learning–haha, it is funny to me that Hidari @40 thought I was an American cowboy imperialist!! Probably my fault for not understanding the ‘frame.’ And yes, Hector @51 I am an Indian–in modern, urban India (as opposed to traditional village (‘pind’) life) people joke around/tease each other about their background, so that’s why I use TamBram).

75

Andrew 04.02.11 at 12:36 pm

KW @70: I don’t happen to think US foreign policy is or has been dominated by any rigorous adherence to “realism” as positive theory, just as I don’t think US economic policy is or has been dominated by rigorous adherence to neoliberalism as positive theory. The political leadership of the US is willing to cast aside both when it suits powerful interests.

geo @72: Policy formation is really just a question of constraints or vectors or cost-benefit calculations: who can/is willing to muster how much pressure, pro or con? Of course there’s a thin scrim of moral rhetoric, but it’s almost entirely vacuous and deceptive, intended merely to instruct docile editors, TV producers, and academics how to frame the issues for public consumption.

The approaches KW and geo suggest are not incompatible with a view that realism dominated foreign policy thinking for many years. Instead it would suggest that realism might be one conceptual framework through which interested parties understood certain aspects of the world, and which those parties used to calibrate their actions.

I should note that I mean “realism” more along the themes of a classical Morganthau than the rarefied Waltz.

In other words, I don’t think one needs to claim that realism constitutes a fully explanatory framework for the behavior of states in the international system, in order to say that the tenets of realism were the dominant framework by which foreign policy elites understood the world.

I also, personally, have a different view of US foreign policy with respect to democracy, but I don’t think that’s where JQ’s line of thought was heading.

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Andrew 04.02.11 at 12:38 pm

^ what immediately follows “KW@70” and “geo@72” are quotes from those comments, respectively, not my words. Sorry; still getting the hang of using html tags.

77

bianca steele 04.02.11 at 2:03 pm

George @ 63:
Even if what you say is correct in some theoretical sense, why are “business elites” in the US spending so much money and time trying to convince people that there is something seriously wrong with the US and that thing is that they lack natural influence nowadays? One might dismiss all that as mere rhetoric, if they weren’t actually accomplishing anything.

78

geo 04.02.11 at 3:34 pm

me @72: As Barzini says to Michael Corleone: “Hey, I don’t like fighting. Fighting is expensive.”

Or was it Salozzo? I can’t keep all those wops straight.

79

Chris E 04.02.11 at 9:59 pm

“No. That can’t be right either. Imagine S. Korea undergoes a military coup. It could have devastating consequences if the US followed that principle (e.g., if US withdraws, could trigger N. Korean invasion).”

Taken in isolation that would ignore the US role in the recent history of the Korean peninsula.

Your original assertion was that contra-JQ the Saudi regime had worked out quite well for the US – part of what makes the present situation a powderkeg – including the animosity between the Shites and Sunnis – is the past actions of that same regime.

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Jack Strocchi 04.03.11 at 10:45 am

Pr Q @ #61 said

My point in the post was that democratic states are unlikely to exhibit the kind of internally consistent, stable and self-interested (ie focused on material benefits to the state in question) preferences presumed in international realist theory.

I take it that this is an application of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem to democratic foreign policy. Arrow Impossibility precludes Pareto optimum welfare solutions to democratic public policy problems.

In some ways Pr Q’s pluralist critique of realist IR theory turns the tables on realists, applying the same acerbic principles that realism uses on the inter-national arena to the intra-national arena. Pluralists (correctly) assume that the nation state itself is subject to the same diverse interest group conflicts that constantly roil the global arena. So vague talk about “national interest” is only a cloak for special interests.

But pluralists should be wary that their corrosive skepticism does not prove too much. They should not let the logically perfect unanimity be the enemy of the empirically good majority.

If there is no such thing as a national interest in foreign policy then there is no fundamental reason for believing that there is any such thing as a national interest in domestic policy. The notion that progressive policies – such as carbon tax or national health scheme or industrial awards – are in the (public) national interest is liable to be exposed as a sham, just a front for the endless struggle between the robbed Peter and the paid Paul.

In fact its perfectly obvious that if there is such a thing as a democratic national interest in domestic policy, as most utilitarian pluralists would be most anxious to affirm. So the case for a democratic national interest in foreign policy is much stronger. This obviously flows from the common sense case for national defence as the foundational public good.

Nations have no permanent friends, just permanent interests, fundamentally dictated by their geography. Since the facts of geography apply to all citizens more or less equally it follows that some sort of national interest is construable from a democratic consensus.

Of course if geography becomes less important as a conditioner of foreign policy, as seems to be the case for the borderless world of digitally connected cosmopolitan elites, then it follows that other less prosaic factors than populist nationalism, such as pure Kantian morality, may become decisive in the construction of foreign policy.

This seems to be the tacit assumption of global pluralists. But it would be nice if they would come clean on it, at least when trying to sell it to their fellow citizens.

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Robert Waldmann 04.03.11 at 6:42 pm

I know much less about scholarly work on international relations that you do, so it isn’t interesting that I am sure you are right.

I’d say that the argument that democracy is a sham and countries are run by ruling classes can’t save realism from reality, since oligarchies are not autarkies. One needs to add the assumption that those in the ruling class act as a class not merely in a class. The ruling class must agree about their interests. This seems no more plausible that the claim that the people must agree about their interests. I don’t see how the problem is resolved by reducing the unit from a whole people to a class (needless to say I am influenced by the proof of Arrow’s impossibility theorem).

One other thing. You list Saddam Hussein as a friendly dictator supported by the USA. I don’t think he was either. US support consisted of shared intelligence during the Iran-Iraq war and a loan from the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro’s Atlanta office (full disclosure the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro also paid me a stipend to not work for a year). I’d say the fact that the US government never allowed the sale of arms to Iraq (which means that actual arms sales consisted of IIRC 6 Huey helicopters (if I recalled incorrectly my second guess would be 8) which Iraq claimed were to be used for civilian search and rescue) implies that Saddam Hussein doesn’t belong on the list.

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geo 04.03.11 at 7:19 pm

Robert:

I’m not sure exactly what you’re arguing in your second paragraph. When you say “the ruling class must agree about their interests,” see my comment 72 above.

About US support for Saddam, here’s one of many passages from Chomsky on the subject. (I know it doesn’t settle the question; just want to give you some idea about where to look for more information, if you’re interested.)

Washington’s support for Saddam reached such an extreme that it was even willing to overlook an Iraqi air force attack on the USS Stark, killing 37 of the crew, a privilege otherwise enjoyed only by Israel (in the case of the USS Liberty). It was Washington’s decisive support for Saddam, well after the crimes that now so shock the Administration and Congress, that led to Iranian capitulation to “Baghdad and Washington,” Dilip Hiro concludes in his history of the Iran-Iraq war. The two allies had “co-ordinate[d] their military operations against Teheran.” The shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner by the guided-missile cruiser Vincennes was the culmination of Washington’s “diplomatic, military and economic campaign” in support of Saddam, he writes.

Saddam was also called upon to perform the usual services of a client state: for example, to train several hundred Libyans sent to Iraq by the U.S. so they could overthrow the Qaddafi government, former Reagan White House aide Howard Teicher revealed.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.03.11 at 7:42 pm

The thing is that Arrow actually invokes some kind of possible impossibility, promoted to full-blown impossibility by the requirement of unrestricted domain. It may be that aggregating preferences is quite possible when we restrict our domain to the actual. Or that exceptions are notably rare – and that only a mathematician regards this as a Greenspannish concession.

Also for Arrow impossibility, isn’t something stronger than ‘non-dictatorship’ required? All kinds of tiebreaking (circle-breaking) methods could do the job that is supposedly only achievable by ‘dictatorship’? They would perhaps need to mention particular individuals, yes – but something akin to a casting vote assigned by lot, for example, could break Arrow-style deadlocks.

In any case, when dealing with a relatively small numbers of actors who can negotiate, whose interests are to a considerable degree aligned, among whom there may be some kind of power-hierarchy, and by whom the need for a united front/solidarity is understood to constrain competition, the comparison with a mathematical method for pref-aggregation may seem inapt, and if anything iterated games/bargaining models reagrded as a more suitable schematisation.

It’s an amazingly tenuous basis for deriving empirical conclusions about effective class-formation.

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john c. halasz 04.04.11 at 6:57 am

This book, of a roughly Wittgensteinian orientation, ends with a confutation of the Arrow impossibility theorem. I remember being impressed with it at the time and finding it convincing, but it’s been so long ago, I can’t remember the specific force of it.

http://books.google.com/books?id=iofNb-7rgTUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=roy+%22philosophy+of+economics%22&source=bl&ots=ibUa8mOH4h&sig=mSLhu9fxADrCjpFPEJCNl5p_68o&hl=en&ei=VlqcTMTdHMKB8gaIyLF4&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&sqi=2&ved=0CBIQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

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novakant 04.04.11 at 2:02 pm

#81

The cognitive dissonance seems to be unbearable, but that’s no excuse not doing proper research.

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chris 04.04.11 at 4:11 pm

If there is no such thing as a national interest in foreign policy then there is no fundamental reason for believing that there is any such thing as a national interest in domestic policy. The notion that progressive policies – such as carbon tax or national health scheme or industrial awards – are in the (public) national interest is liable to be exposed as a sham, just a front for the endless struggle between the robbed Peter and the paid Paul.

In some sense this is true, but in another sense it sounds like saying there is no true national interest in preventing murder if there is a homicidal maniac in the nation, because he would prefer to not be prevented from committing murder (even if it means taking the risk of being murdered himself). Surely, the majority who want not to be murdered are justified in overruling him? It’s hard to imagine any way of thinking about political action that would not support them in doing so. Then doesn’t the same logic apply to people whose interest in breathing the air exceeds their interest in polluting it (even though that is less than literally all the people)?

National interest is a slippery concept that may not be susceptible to any rigorous definition. I think ultimately you need some thicker theory to evaluate the outcomes of political processes in a way that distinguishes between imprisoning murderers and imprisoning Jews, or enforcing property rights to real estate and enforcing property rights to slaves. Because, after all, not everyone is a slave, so their emancipation isn’t in *everyone’s* interest, just theirs. Slaveholders certainly protested that the government of the time was robbing them (although not to pay anyone in particular, unless you think the slaves were being “paid” in freedom); were they right?

But, in any case, I don’t see how acknowledging that all interests are special and the idea of the state as a unitary interest-haver or decision-maker is a myth is an argument for taking the myth seriously in international relations, just because it might make the analysis simpler or more convenient.

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geo 04.04.11 at 5:16 pm

chris: you’re too kind, really. Jack’s claim is just silly. Of course “public interest” needs to be disaggregated with respect to domestic as well as foreign policy. To say that holding down health-care costs through a public option is in the public interest simply means: “The money wasted by not having a public option will come from hundreds of millions or ordinary citizens and will benefit only the insurance industry and its investors.” To suppose that this specification is incompatible with saying “the public option is in the public interest,” as Jack does, is too absurd to bother with.

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chris 04.04.11 at 6:33 pm

To say that holding down health-care costs through a public option is in the public interest simply means: “The money wasted by not having a public option will come from hundreds of millions or ordinary citizens and will benefit only the insurance industry and its investors.” To suppose that this specification is incompatible with saying “the public option is in the public interest,” as Jack does, is too absurd to bother with.

This seems a little too cavalier — the majority interest can’t simply be accepted as the public interest in the case of, say, persecution of religious minorities, or if it is, then the public interest has to sometimes give way to overarching principles of fairness or something like that.

Health insurers aren’t a religious minority, as far as I know, but what are the principles that decide when a particular small group whose interest is opposed to the “public” interest (by which, I guess, we mean the interests of most people outside the small group) is entitled to counter-majoritarian protection and when the public is justified in restricting the small group for the greater good? Why is a higher tax on the rich or on smokers (a tax on cigarettes is effectively a tax on smokers) justified but a higher tax on Jews is not? It seems like there ought to be an answer, but simple evaluations of what the public interest is are unlikely to get there.

However, I’m not sure that any of this applies particularly to foreign policy. Even though some identifiable subgroups do have coherent foreign policy preferences, surely, however you define the kind of oppression you oughtn’t do to minorities, merely not getting their way in foreign policy can’t possibly qualify as oppression.

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novakant 04.04.11 at 6:46 pm

Even if the “national interest” were objectively in the interest of all citizens and not just a fig-leaf to cover up the interest of the ruling class, one would still need to answer the ethical question why the interests of the citizens of any one nation should have priority over those of other nations.

Unless one believes that what is good for nation x is good for the world or that there is some invisible hand at work eventually leading to congruent interests of nations – which would be pretty ludicrous since the historical record more often than not proves the opposite – the “national interest” is an amoral concept at best. And considering the fact that it often involves, to put it mildly, putting the citizens of other nations at a disadvantage, I would say it is immoral in most cases.

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geo 04.04.11 at 6:50 pm

chris: “The public interest” is not an objective, intersubjectively verifiable entity. It’s a bit of rhetoric. It’s like “fair” or “decent.” It has meaning within a linguistic/political/moral community. In ours, it means something like “what’s best for most people, with no special reference to the status, power, or income of the people making the policy/decision.” That definition is entirely off the top of my head and would require a vast amount of collective refining, but the main point is: the logical/epistomological status of the answer to the question “Is this policy in the public interest?” is not like the status of the answer to the question “Who won the cricket World Cup last week?”

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Peter T 04.05.11 at 2:46 am

war is one of those occasions where an individualistic analysis does not get far. People are not thinking about I so much as we. As in “I might die, but we will be richer/more secure/…”. Even where the decision-makers’ lives are not on the line, those of their close friends and relatives usually are (officers have higher casualty rates than enlisted men, and upper-class officers higher than lower-class ones). The decision-makers’ “we” may take in some common conception of the state, or be much narrower. In the former case, realism makes some sense, as it is close to the perspective adopted by the decision-makers themselves. Nothing in this precludes democracies from being warlike, and some have been – but they have all been fairly small polities, where the a strong sense of common ownership of the state – hence a reasonably shared understanding of the “public interest” – was possible.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.06.11 at 12:27 pm

The way things axctually seem to work is that electoral considerations are one of many interrelated considerations facing governments in what we laughingly call democratic states. Particular electoral environments obviously involve many complications and peculiarities, but they bear very little relation to any attempt to derive an objective (or any other independent) conception of the public interest: instead they provide – even in theory – only a procedural substitute/proxy for such attempts, Arrow or no Arrow.

One especially glaringly open ‘secret’ which falls outside respectable psephological models is of course outright vote-rigging, as verifiably occurred in the US in 2000 and 2004 (no doubt a blip, nothing for UN observers to concern themselves with etc., since the fiddling was marginal: WNRE, all voters were able to make their choice count in the sense that it would do so at all under the advertised electoral system).

More directly relevant to this topic, the phenomena of (a) the khaki election; (b) ‘National Security’ as trumps. When the Blair govt recently decided to intervene in the legal process (another notably rare event) to endorse the corrupt foisting of weapons on the middle east by BAe, the arguments were: the National Interest (i.e. interests of a big mil-ind corporation with handily nationalistic name, and an intimate relation to members of the political class); and National Security (our Saudi friends were threatening to conceal information about trrr attacks if we didn’t endorse the corruption). The public interest was held to be impacted by each of these, by way of jobs for skilled weapons-technicians; and the danger of being blown to smithereens.

But that is actually a rationalised version of the position that was offered to the British public, which followed the usual method of running together ‘National Security’ with the National (i.e. elite) Interest, with no explicit appeal to the public interest. The last is rather a troublesome concept for electorally-punctuated dictatorships: it tends to allow considerations like justice etc, rather than GDP or Security to be taken into consideration. There was also no mention, of course, of national obligations such as arise from treaties.

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