Kissinger and Realism

by Henry on December 21, 2010

Stephen Walt “argues”:http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/12/21/michael_gerson_s_moral_myopia _contra_ Michael Gerson that Henry Kissinger’s remarks on the Soviet Union, Jews and gas chambers have nothing to do with foreign policy ‘realism.’ While I’m all for kicking Michael Gerson at every possible opportunity, I think that he’s closer to the truth on this specific question than Walt is.

First – Kissinger’s actual remarks – that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern” _are_ very much in line with realism, which has sought since E.H. Carr, to distinguish itself from ‘idealism,’ by thinking (as it sees itself) clearly about what the ‘national interest’ is, and what it is not. Walt argues that:

bq. For starters, to use Henry Kissinger as a stand-in for all realists is bogus and intellectually lazy. Most academic realists thought the Vietnam War a foolish waste of U.S. resources, for example, yet Kissinger prosecuted that war with enthusiasm during his tenure as national security advisor and secretary of state. Similarly, most contemporary realists opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but Kissinger supported it (as did Gerson). Before indicting an entire school of thought on foreign policy, therefore, you’d think Gerson would have spent some time familiarizing himself with what realists actually wrote.

Perhaps I am being obtuse here – but I completely fail to see the relevance of Kissinger’s stance on the invasion of Vietnam and Iraq to the question of whether or not his emphasis on ‘American concern[s]’ rather than humanitarianism as a guide to policy, is typical of realism. One of the most basic premises of realism, surely, is that humanitarian ideals and the national interest should not be confused. Indeed, I find it impossible to distinguish between the kind of claim that Kissinger is making and Walt’s suggestion in the same post that it was a good thing that the US moved closer to China in the 1970s

bq. even though this policy involved tacit cooperation with a government led by Mao Zedong, one of history’s greatest mass murderers. A simple-minded focus on “good versus evil” is useless when the choice is between two equally despicable tyrants.

Both Kissinger and Walt emphatically suggest that when power politics and humanitarianism clash, it is power politics that determines the national interest. It may possibly be, as Walt says, that most realists are “deeply moral people” who wish that the world were a nicer place. Certainly, there is a fair amount of ideological variation among realists, who range from the politics of Carr (an unrepentant Stalinist) through domestic liberals to various flavors of conservativism.

Still, it is hard not to suspect that realists’ attention to the tragic necessities of international politics is a little like “Sir Isaiah Berlin’s concern with social injustice”:http://www.georgescialabba.net/mtgs/2001/10/the-crooked-timber-of-humanity.html. As George Scialabba tells us, Berlin was “of course, in favor of whatever can be done; but what in particular that might be, and why not more, never seems to be his immediate concern.” For realists, if there is simply nothing that can be done about injustices that happen beyond our shores, then we may not only easily dismiss them from our minds, but congratulate ourselves for our clear-eyed and unflinching understanding of the hard realities of international politics. On this basis, I simply don’t see any strong distinction between what Kissinger said to Nixon in private and what academic realists argue in public.

Moreover, when Walt suggests that:

bq. Nor are realists opposed to using ideals as an instrument of foreign policy, particularly when doing so gives one an advantage over an adversary. After all, because realists see international politics as inherently competitive, they readily support using any weapon that is likely to be effective.

this seems to me to skirt around the fact that realists are usually skeptical as to whether ideals can _ever_ be ‘effective’ in international politics. If (as modern realists argue) states (a) dominate international politics, and (b) are nearly entirely motivated by structurally-induced security concerns, then ideals are likely to have little to no role in shaping international outcomes, since they are nearly entirely irrelevant to the underlying forces determining state behavior. Realists may not be ‘opposed’ to using ideals as a tool of foreign policy in some absolute sense – they just think that ideals are likely to be useless.

None of this is to suggest that Walt is wrong to go after Gerson for his manifest hypocrisy about human rights. And even if many of Kissinger’s flaws were those of a realist, they were arguably grossly exaggerated. Kissinger’s policy career might plausibly be analysed as exemplifying an academic realist’s version of foreign policy realism. He was less Metternich (who had identifiable, if sometimes odious, normative goals) than a scholar’s fantasy of Metternich, in which cynicism, duplicity, and clandestine brutality were not foreign policy tools so much as a demonstration of one’s ‘seriousness’ as a statesman (gender specificity intended). Still, if Kissinger’s foreign policy was a particularly grotesque form of realism, it was identifiably realism. Even if it would be convenient to brush this under the carpet, it doesn’t change the facts.

{ 81 comments }

1

Moby Hick 12.21.10 at 7:43 pm

I spent many hours reading realists and I mostly lost the ability to give a rat’s ass. They confuse tautology with good theory. If a policy doesn’t work, isn’t realist so realism is good policy. If national interest doesn’t explain state behavior, you’ve got a bad assessment of national interest. If we had bacon, we could have bacon and beans, if we had beans.

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John Quiggin 12.21.10 at 7:45 pm

Part of the problem seems to be that Walt includes in his implicit definition of “realism” a realistic assessment of the costs and benefits of using military force (almost always negative on a pure national interest account)

That seems to be a minority position – the “realist” view as it percolates through to outsiders like me incorporates a naive belief in the effectiveness of physical force and a corresponding impatience with any checks on its use. Given that states are characterized above all by a monopoly of physical force, this naive belief appears to fit pretty well with the central realist dogma that states are the only actors that matter in world affairs.

3

otto 12.21.10 at 7:56 pm

Well, as is sometimes the case we have a bit of a mixture here between academics who believe international outcomes are explained best by realist approaches (incentives induced by varying balances of power), a group of policy-makers/agitators who sometimes use the public label ‘realists’, and those like Kissinger and maybe even Walt who fit into both categories.

I will say this, however: the outcome we are discussing here – the politician’s statement “if they [commit a genocide or even just massive acts of oppression] in country X, we [will do nothing about it]” – is in fact the outcome expected not only by academic realists, but also by those mainstream rationalist approaches to international relations which are often seen as prominent alternatives to realism, such as Keohane’s institutionalism or Moravcsik’s liberalism (barring interest group capture of an unlikely sort). Indeed, this outcome has been so ordinary in international history, that perhaps any overarching approach to international politics must be prepared to expect it.

4

Tim Wilkinson 12.21.10 at 8:40 pm

Walt’s remarks sound – obviously not by coincidence – very much like something from Good As Gold.

‘Using’ ideals* as instruments of foreign policy– i.e. to subserve independently set foreign policy goals, rather than to inform foreign policy – is not treating them as ideals at all, but as something else – excuses, happy coincidences, or (if the ideals are those of some other actor) weaknesses to be exploited, etc.

*or what the rest of us, less committed to the project of depicting such things as fundamentally unrealistic, might call basic human decency, etc.

5

Patrick S. O'Donnell 12.21.10 at 11:08 pm

And now we might proceed to examine a topic a bit more provocative, namely, to what extent China Mieville’s “Marxist theory of international law” (the subtitle of his book on same, Between Equal Rights, 2005) is, in the end, akin if not identical to the (or ‘a’) Realist theory of international law and relations (including its contemporary incarnations in the likes of Eric Posner and Jack Goldsmith).

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John Quiggin 12.21.10 at 11:40 pm

“if they [commit a genocide or even just massive acts of oppression] in country X, we [will do nothing about it]”

Does “do nothing” here mean “do nothing military?”. The usual outcome these days is a range of sanctions designed to make life uncomfortable for the government in question, ideally without increasing the suffering of the oppressed population. Once you abandon belief in the magical powers of military intervention, it’s not clear that much more than this can be done.

It’s true that there are a great many cases when supposedly democratic governments make backdoor deals with oppressive regimes, and any descriptive theory should cover this. But I take “realism” to refer either to a normative claim that states should act this way, or to a descriptive claim that such behavior is nearly universal, that apparent exceptions are either mistakes or hypocritical posturing

The realist case is backed up by the claim that in any case, sanctions short of military force are invariably ineffectual. In fact, however, even in such intractable cases as apartheid South Africa and Zimbabwe, sanctions seem to have had some positive effect. Not much perhaps, but a far better benefit-cost ratio than you see for military intervention.

7

Chris 12.21.10 at 11:45 pm

That seems to be a minority position – the “realist” view as it percolates through to outsiders like me incorporates a naive belief in the effectiveness of physical force and a corresponding impatience with any checks on its use.

Doesn’t that depend on whether you’re trying to be realist in a descriptive or a prescriptive sense?

If you’re trying to *guide* national policy, then you should be keenly aware of the limitations of force, otherwise you will likely plunge into a quagmire. (Just get used to being Cassandra whenever you try to point out the limitations of force to your countrymen.) But if you’re only trying to *describe* how nations actually act, the fact that they often plunge into quagmires because of lack of awareness of the limitations of their own potential uses of force is just one more aspect of their behavior to be described and analyzed.

The two fields overlap somewhat — you can’t intelligently choose your own policy without having *some* idea what other nations will be doing — but if you want your own nation to avoid making common stupid mistakes, then they shouldn’t be collapsed into the same field. (On the other hand, you might discover that your nation will make common stupid mistakes whether you want it to or not. Certain Americans with an awareness of the limitations of force have had that experience rather recently, in fact.)

In short, a descriptive realist should aim to accurately predict how nations actually blunder about, rather than telling them how to intelligently achieve their ends. (I’m not sure it makes much sense to consider a nation as having ends, anyway. It seems like the fallacy of composition, at best. On the other hand, if a king or a dictator can reasonably claim that he is the state, then the *state* can have goals, but don’t necessarily expect the nation to share them.) Both an awareness of the limitations of force *and* an awareness of the general lack of awareness of the limitations of force are useful in such a predictive endeavor — if you expected nations to behave rationally you’d arrive at results nearly as poor a match for reality as EMH or other dogmas founded on neat toy universes of perfectly informed rationality.

8

John Quiggin 12.22.10 at 12:10 am

@Chris. That all makes sense, but then there is little value in the idea of nation/states as unitary actors, which is the core idea of “realism” (unless you use this term in the ordinary language sense of “attempting to describe reality”, which is presumably an aspiration of all descriptive theorists).

The Iraq war was a mistake (as well as being a crime) but it was a mistake made by Bush and his supporters not by “the United States”. Most of the time, a war happens (or not) because of the victory (or defeat) of a pro-war faction rather than as a consequence of a generally agreed pursuit of well-defined national interest.

The central question for a descriptive theory of war is not “how do states use war in pursuit of actual or perceived national interest?” but “how do pro-war factions in a state gain the political power to pursue policies that make the nation as a whole worse off?”.

9

politicalfootball 12.22.10 at 12:21 am

Walt says this:

For starters, to use Henry Kissinger as a stand-in for all realists is bogus and intellectually lazy.

But in fact, Gerson isn’t using Kissinger himself as a stand-in, he’s using Kissinger’s specific remark as an example of realism. Walt could save a lot of time in his rebuttal by recognizing this.

All Walt needs to do to rebut Gerson is to explain why Kissinger’s remark isn’t exemplary of realism. And since Walt identifies himself with realism, to accomplish that he need only explain why he thinks Kissinger was wrong. Odd that he doesn’t do that.

In fact, Walt seems to implicitly accept Gerson’s definition of realism, and agrees with Gerson that Gerson is not a realist.

10

Brett 12.22.10 at 12:25 am

That all makes sense, but then there is little value in the idea of nation/states as unitary actors, which is the core idea of “realism”

Most forms of Realism assume that, yes. But you can have Realism in the normative sense (as in, “work towards specific, defined, realistic goals in foreign policy, with humanitarian, moral, and justice concerns being secondary if not absent”) even if Realism as a descriptive theory (i.e. “states act according to their interests”) is simplistic.

Moreover, it really depends on the state. The US foreign policy-making system is a mix of Presidential and Congressional activities, but there is a particularly powerful singular actor in the form of the President and his associated staff.

11

John Quiggin 12.22.10 at 12:38 am

as in, “work towards specific, defined, realistic goals in foreign policy, with humanitarian, moral, and justice concerns being secondary if not absent”

The first and second sets of criteria seem to be orthogonal, unless you accept the positive assumptions characteristic of “realism”. Why not pursue specific, defined and realistic goals which are also humanitarian, moral and just?

Conversely, in practice, “realism” seems to involve pursuing vague and magical notions of state power, while (as Henry says in the OP) using cynicism, duplicity, and clandestine brutality as a demonstration of one’s ‘seriousness’ as a statesman.

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roac 12.22.10 at 2:11 am

The value of Kissinger’s remark as an illustration of any foreign policy theory is vitiated, IMO, by its evident motivation, which was to reassure Nixon that although he might be a Jew, he was not the troublemaking kind of Jew.

13

Moby Hick 12.22.10 at 2:27 am

As I recall, the whole issue of the Soviet Jews was fairly consistently used by the Cold War hawks to either argue against detente or against sanctions (of various sorts) on right wing dictators. It isn’t like Kissinger made a completely new hypothetical case.

14

Timothy Scriven 12.22.10 at 3:11 am

I feel a rant coming on. Here’s what I think ( and I could be as wrong as wrong can be). Realism is conceptually confused, and this is not merely accidental, the conceptual confusions of realism are essential.

The most annoying conceptual confusion of realism is the prescriptive/descriptive confusion. Usually the two are at first run together, later the speaker or text will acknowledge that yes, of course, the prescriptive and descriptive claims are different, but by then the damage is done- the gap has shrunk in the mind of the young student or impressionable junior aide. The realist osscilates backwards and forwards between the claims so quickly that the process reminds me of this quote from Hume:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

When the realist is called on this confusion they raise their hands and say “Who, me?”, carefully distingush the two for a little while and then slowly go back to blurring them. My theory is that the reason the realist plays this game is that it’s a form of cognitive dissonance supressing ideology that has been selected for. Foreign policy, especially American foreign policy, needs an ideology which allows its decision makers to spend their day making appalling decisions because of their institutional situation requires them to ( think Stanford Prison), and then go home, love their spouse and play with their kids. Realism became popular because foreign policy analysts needed it, and consequently academics needed it if they didn’t wanted to be marginalized as hippies who didn’t understand the Real Tough Choices (all rights reserved) that policy decision makers engage in. This doesn’t mean that we have to attribute any academic dishonesty to indvidual realists (though a few are certainly guilty of it), instead I suspect that a kind of selective pressure acted to promote realist ideas, until finally realism became dominant because it suited decision makers.

I also think a very similar game is played with models in foreign policy realism. If you press a foreign policy realist on the assumption of unitary states, or the assumption of rational states, they often say that these assumptions are simplfying assumptions, not all the predictions of the model can be trusted and yes, in this or that case it broke down. After this dialogue though they will simply go back to treating the model as if it were literally true and not a simplfying assumption. In a sense this isn’t an entirely clear criticism I guess, all sciences use models and all sometimes slip into talking as if they were literally true. But the reason it’s so annoying when foreign policy wonks do it is because in other areas models tend to have clear payoffs, the predictive power of the realist’s models is far from clear. The features abstracted away also don’t seem irrelevant in the same way that, say friction would be if it were added to many models in physics. Because models aren’t true or false, they’re more or less useful, the conditions under which we’re supposed to say “okay, enough is enough” are totally unclear in the boundary cases.

15

Omega Centauri 12.22.10 at 3:37 am

I could imagine myself being a diplomat, and using something that sounds similar to Kissinger’s statement. But, not intending it to be percieved as a green light, but rather as a caution, that because my government is not a unitary actor, that a humanitarian concern could via the mechanism of domestic politics rapidly become an issue of state concern. Also there is the implied threat that painting the enemy as a violator of humanity will be used as a weapon. Its a bit of a good cop bad cop routine “I don’t care what you do internally, but if you do it less sympathetic actors might get control of policy”.

16

geo 12.22.10 at 5:51 am

Tim @14: If you press a foreign policy realist on the assumption of unitary states, or the assumption of rational states, they often say that these assumptions are simplfying assumptions, not all the predictions of the model can be trusted and yes, in this or that case it broke down. After this dialogue though they will simply go back to treating the model as if it were literally true and not a simplfying assumption

This sounds familiar, for some reason. Do neoclassical economists sometimes do something similar?

17

Brett 12.22.10 at 6:06 am

The first and second sets of criteria seem to be orthogonal, unless you accept the positive assumptions characteristic of “realism”. Why not pursue specific, defined and realistic goals which are also humanitarian, moral and just?

Who said we shouldn’t? Ideally, we would pursue goals that are both defined, realistic, and in the national interest, as well as humanitarian, moral, and just. Realism in the normative sense just says that the latter categories (humanitarian, moral, and just) should be secondary to the former categories if a conflict arises.

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Timothy Scriven 12.22.10 at 7:02 am

Geo @ 16.

Yeah, in fact you could change a few words around and a lot of what I said would apply to economic models which treat humans as rationally selfish- even the prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy part to a point. The account I gave of realism becoming popular because diplomats need to sleep at night also has parrallels to the “institutional capture” of academic economics by the people who pay economists.

19

John Quiggin 12.22.10 at 7:06 am

@Brett – my point regarding orthogonality is that these aren’t the kinds of categories that are correlated as your reading seems to suggest.

That is, all kinds of objectives whether humanitarian, economic or nationally self-interested, may be stated in forms that are vague or specific and well-defined, and may be realistic or unattainable. To give some obvious examples, a US realist might say that the US should aim for secure access to all vital natural resources or to ensure that the US remains more powerful than all other countries combined throughout the 21st century. The first of these objectives sounds hard-nosed but is actually vague and ill-defined (which resources are vital? how much access is needed and at what price?). The second can be defined clearly enough, but is probably unattainable.

Conversely, on the humanitarian side, there are plenty of well-specified objectives that the US (or developed countries in general) could achieve if they chose to spend the required resources, eg the Millennium goals.

20

Timothy Scriven 12.22.10 at 8:21 am

John, it’s a rhetorical transition rather than a logical one, and it’s one that’s deeply dug into our culture. Alturistic goals are “soft”, “vague”,”emotional”, “utopian”, and “idealistic”. Selfish goals are “pragmatic”, “rational”, “Clear”, “realistic” and “hard nosed”. A cluster of unrelated ideas are collected together- rationality, worldly experience and selfishness and taken to be intimately connected because it comforts the would be amoralist to think they are simply doing what rationality requires.

21

Henry 12.22.10 at 11:41 am

On the flexibility of state interests in realist accounts, see this ” post from last year”:https://crookedtimber.org/2009/11/02/international-law-again-part-ii-what-makes-up-the-national-interest/.

22

maidhc 12.22.10 at 11:47 am

I’m not a fan of Kissinger, but I think he’s possibly being misconstrued here.

Imagine oneself as a WWII planner. Reports come in that the Nazis are massacring Jews and other undesirables.

But the real problem is how to get D-Day working successfully. What proportion of German troops are currently tied up massacring people?

The answer is a fairly small percentage, so for the purposes of planning D-Day, it is an irrelevant question.

Now from a humanitarian point of view, it is much different. Is there anything that could be done to prevent this tragedy without major effect on the overall war effort?

In hindsight, people have said that yes there was. For example, bombing the railroad lines that led into the concentration camps. There’s some justification for this opinion, but I don’t think that’s what Kissinger was on about.

I think he was saying that the Holocaust had very little influence on the ability of the Nazis to resist Allied invasion. Which is probably true.

You might be able to accept this, except it’s the thin end of the wedge that leads to war crimes. Why is he still around uttering pronouncements?

It’s like having Metternich around to do a blow by blow of WWI.

23

Timothy Scriven 12.22.10 at 1:39 pm

Henry, thanks for the link. To my mind, your argument about the slippage of interests raises the interesting possibility that academics, advisors and aides are likely to appear more realist than they actually are, and hence for the decisions of states to seem more in line with the realist narrative than is actually the case.

Suppose you are a decision maker and you have a variety of ideological, ethical, personal etc factors pulling you in one direction . You work for a foreign affairs department heavily influenced by realism. What you will naturally tend to do is couch your justifications in realist terms, rationalising your values and desires into the language of realism ( like Kissinger on Iraq.) Realism thus has the potential to make the world look more realistic than it actually is.

24

Castorp 12.22.10 at 3:10 pm

maidhc:

Your example is a qualitatively different question. Kissinger’s point about the Soviet Union was precisely that going to war with them over this humanitarian issue wouldn’t be worth it. (Though as others above have noted there were other levers of persuasion besides war.) However, the US was already at war with the Nazis in your example, so the calculus would have be much different there. It would seem that bombing a few rail lines etc. would have been a very small price to pay for a great deal of good. I’m not sure even a Kissinger in that situation would think differently if he had perfect information.

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LFC 12.22.10 at 3:59 pm

It’s a bit of shame that after scholars have spilled gallons of ink debunking the simplistic and inaccurate notion of a ‘realist-vs-idealist’ dichotomy, with ‘realists’ favoring an amoral national interest and ‘idealists’ a fuzzy-minded moralism, a post like this one comes along and tries to resurrect the whole thing.

The canonical modern Realists like Carr and Morgenthau are not apostles of an amoral national interest divorced from normative concerns, althougfh

26

LFC 12.22.10 at 4:02 pm

Sorry — posted by mistake.

Continuation:
The canonical modern Realists like Carr and Morgenthau are not apostles of an amoral national interest divorced from normative concerns, although Morgenthau could occasionally sound that way. Carr’s ’20 Years Crisis’ continually refers to the (dialectical) interplay of power and morality. On Morgenthau, see W. Scheuerman’s very good recent study Hans Morgenthau: Realism and Beyond (Polity, 2009).

27

LFC 12.22.10 at 4:18 pm

Also, with regard to realism and the model of the state as unitary rational actor: there’s a good deal of work, labeled ‘neoclassical realism’ in the literature, that discards the ‘unitary’ (and to some extent the ‘rational’) aspect, i.e., considers the interaction of domestic politics and foreign policy.

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Henry 12.22.10 at 4:24 pm

LFC – ragging on idealists was, I believe, the main theme of Carr’s most widely influential book. While I am happy to grant that he is a more complicated figure than he might seem at first (the intersection between his political druthers and his beliefs about international affairs is an interesting one), the ways in which Walt and others have constructed modern realism is precisely one in which this dichotomy comes to the fore. See e.g. “this reconstruction of Carr”:http://mearsheimer.uchicago.edu/pdfs/A0035.pdf by Walt’s co-author Mearsheimer. There are some interesting efforts to reconstruct realism as a self-consciously ethical project (e.g. Hulsman’s book). However, if (like Walt) you are trying to say that Henry Kissinger is not a good example of realism because he is too caught up in _Realpolitik_, you can only do so by ignoring the ways in which the dominant strand of realism has sought to justify itself for the last twenty years. I furthermore think that realism is a rotting paradigm which, (with the exception of a few brilliant thinkers such as Krasner) has become nearly entirely caught up with its own internal doctrinal disputes rather than the world around it. But that would be the topic of another post.

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Henry 12.22.10 at 4:29 pm

And on neo-classical realism – I think that there were once some interesting possibilities there. Zakaria’s first book was a genuinely good one (I don’t greatly admire his later output as a public intellectual and wish that he had stuck to this). But I also think that neo-classical realism is effectively defunct as an approach within the academy (I’ve chatted about this with Gideon Rose on and off). I am simply not seeing “a great deal of work” in neo-classical realism out there, and most of what I am seeing is not particularly good. Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places though.

30

Moby Hick 12.22.10 at 4:37 pm

Zakaria’s first book was a genuinely good one

Back in the day (1994 or so) a new (realist) professor handed me a copy of Zakaria’s dissertation and said that this guy would be Secretary of State some day. To be fair, his current path certainly pays better, especially relative to the amount of stress.

31

LFC 12.22.10 at 5:00 pm

I agree about Zakaria’s first book. Perhaps “a good deal of work” was an exaggeration; however, it’s not my impression that neo-classical realism is “effectively defunct as an approach within the academy.” I note for example a recent volume, which I have not read, edited by Steven Lobell, Norrin Ripsman, and Jeffery Taliaferro, Neoclassical Realism, the State, and Foreign Policy (Cambridge U.P., 2009). But there are other people better qualified to pronounce on this than I am.

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Moby Hick 12.22.10 at 5:22 pm

Whether or not neo-classical realism is defunct, when Walt says “For starters, to use Henry Kissinger as a stand-in for all realists is bogus and intellectually lazy,” it makes me think of Neo-realism because they spilled way more ink than the neo-classical realists.

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Henry 12.22.10 at 5:49 pm

The Lobell et al. book was what I was thinking about under the rubric of “most of what I am seeing is not particularly good.” I like some other work that the authors have done – but wasn’t impressed with what they do there. This _is_ a set of debates that interest me – I am currently co-writing a book which is not a million miles removed from neo-classical realism in that it focuses on power politics in EU-US relations over homeland security, but treats groups within states rather than states themselves as the key actors. This “introduction”:http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a927579514~frm=abslink (sub. required) to a recent special issue of _Review of International Political Economy_ by Abe Newman and I speaks (very briefly) to the connection between historical institutionalism and neo-classical realism – a topic I’d like to return to at greater length in the current work.

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LFC 12.22.10 at 6:30 pm

Thanks for the RIPE link.

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geo 12.22.10 at 7:35 pm

by Abe Newman and I

Should be “by Abe Newman and me.” Prepositions take the accusative (or is it dative?) case.

36

Henry 12.22.10 at 7:57 pm

In Latin it would be the ablative (which is not distinguished from the dative in English, if memory serves me correctly) but the point is taken.

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Moby Hick 12.22.10 at 8:51 pm

That’s because the Roman Empire started to worry about morality in its foreign policy.

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roac 12.22.10 at 8:55 pm

Within the scope of the surviving records, English never had an ablative case. Nor did any of the other Germanic languages, as far as I know.

(According to Wikipedia, Proto-Indo-European had either eight or nine cases, depending on whose reconstruction you accept. So whether the preceding paragraph is correct depends on your definition of “never.”)

I welcome the introduction of this topic because it gives an opening for one of my favorite useless facts: The phrase “Woe is me!” is a rare survival of the dative case into modern English — squarely cognate with German Weh ist mir!

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Moby Hick 12.22.10 at 9:23 pm

My thinking, which is contained in an article under review at The Journal of Convenient Publication Delays, will show that the Romans were prepared to introduce verb tenses at the point of a sword until the rise of Christianity.

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Henry 12.22.10 at 10:08 pm

And on cue …

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Jack Strocchi 12.22.10 at 10:29 pm

National realism is the use of realistic means to pursue the material national interest. National interest realism in international politics is pretty much the analog to bottom-line corporate realism in business.

Thus the subject of state policy must be one’s nation, rather than foreign people or a church or a sub-class of the nation. And the object of state policy are material interests, that is resource access pursued for the more or less exclusive use of the nation state.

The “realist” condition is simply that national interest must be pursued in practical and effective ways, evidence-based policy that achieves measurable outcomes. In short policy should be accountable with “opportunity cost” constraints on pet projects. Rather than open-ended commitments.

Kissinger’s off-the-cuff remarks are perfectly consistent with a realistic national interest politics. The administration of the internal affairs of other states does not form part of the decision making calculus of the national statesman, unless it materially harms the interests of one’s own state.

My own take is that Kissinger is trying to signal to Nixon that he is primarily focused on pursuing US national interests and is not indulging in special pleading on behalf of Jews or Israel. Which would not be the kind of thing Nixon would want his Secretary of State to do.

FTR Nixon did more good for Israel than any other world statesman, including Stalin. So the somewhat confected outrage over the White House tape “revelations” about his private “anti-semitism” is just moralistic posturing parading as moral concern.

42

Jaybird 12.22.10 at 10:52 pm

Part of the problem, I reckon, is that if you have six idealists in a room, you have twelve ideals.

If you have six “realists” in a room, you have two, maybe three, ideals.

The realists are already more or less in agreement. The idealists are having screaming matches about which commandment from which God we need to follow.

43

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.22.10 at 11:01 pm

That’s what, 1972? COINTELPRO’s still active, ongoing?

44

LFC 12.22.10 at 11:49 pm

So the somewhat confected outrage over the White House tape “revelations” about his [Nixon’s] private “anti-semitism” is just moralistic posturing parading as moral concern.
Well, I wouldn’t put it that way, but it is true that Nixon’s “private anti-semitism” has been known about for years, so if you’re referring to recent revelations, they would be merely further evidence for something already established.

Incidentally, on the somewhat tangled story of post-1945 realism in relation to disciplinary trends in U.S. political science, see (glossing an article by N. Guilhot): here.

45

geo 12.23.10 at 12:01 am

Jack @41: You do know, don’t you, that one can be an ardent philo-Semite and a fierce opponent of Israeli militarism and colonialism, and equally well a violent anti-Semite and highly appreciative of Israel’s assistance in opposing radical nationalism in the Middle East?

46

novakant 12.23.10 at 1:20 am

sanctions designed to make life uncomfortable for the government in question, ideally without increasing the suffering of the oppressed population.

The instrumental word being “ideally”, as in fairy tale, because sanctions always increase the suffering of the oppressed population.

47

Moby Hick 12.23.10 at 1:25 am

Like when the U.S. stopped selling aviation fuel to Japan, which could have resulted in unemployed aviators, ground crews, and Manchurian funeral directors if other people weren’t thinking outside the box.

48

John Quiggin 12.23.10 at 6:03 am

@novakant – true, but, as I said, the balance of benefits and costs seems to be rather better than with “humanitarian” military intervention, and also better than those of “non-interference in internal affairs”. Certainly, I’d say most South Africans and Zimbabweans are glad that their ruling regimes were ostracised in various ways, even if they also suffered as a result of the sanctions.

49

novakant 12.23.10 at 8:15 pm

Sanctions are better than war, fine, but that doesn’t make them moral or useful. Also, there is room for action between imposing sanctions and doing nothing. I’d hate to see liberals embracing sanctions, because they don’t want war but want to “do something”. Sanctions are often very arbitrary and overly comprehensive – what have 30 years of sanctions against Iran achieved other than make common people’s lives more miserable?

50

LFC 12.24.10 at 12:45 am

I never addressed the Kissinger point:
However, if (like Walt) you are trying to say that Henry Kissinger is not a good example of realism because he is too caught up in Realpolitik, you can only do so by ignoring the ways in which the dominant strand of realism has sought to justify itself for the last twenty years.

It’s not exactly that Kissinger is not “a good example of realism” b/c too caught up in Realpolitik — Kissinger is a realist, obviously — but Kissinger is also unusual b/c, as you partly suggest at the end of the OP, he thought his policy judgments were so right and his designs so important that they justified a lot of behavior (covert ops, duplicity, wiretapping his aides) that was rather grotesque by any standards, including realist ones. As M.J. Smith argues in Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger, Kissinger’s complete certainty in the rightness of his own decisions and the wrongness of all of his critics, plus his failure to take personal responsibility for policy failures, meant that he blurred the Weberian distinction (dear to all realists) between an ethic of consequences (or responsibility) and an ethic of intention: “In Kissinger’s account of Vietnam, and indeed all of his foreign policy, his confidence in his ability to judge consequences is so great that the ethic of consequences in effect merges with the ethic of intentions…. [T]he realist insistence on an ethic of responsibility ended in Kissinger as an ethic of personal vision essentially unknowable to anyone but the statesman himself.” (p. 216) From which followed, one might argue, the cynicism, duplicity etc., since if ultimately the ‘statesman’ need justify his actions only to himself and in terms of his “personal vision,” accountability and democratic restraints tend to go out the window. We don’t know precisely how other academic realists of Kissinger’s ilk/caliber would have acted as highest-level policymakers b/c they never got to be secretaries of state (and I’m deliberately not counting Condi Rice here), but it’s a good guess that if Kennan, e.g., had been a secretary of state he would not have acted the same way. Hence, arguably, the problematic aspect of generalizing from Kissinger to realism in general. All that said, unlike Walt I do not have any personal stake in defending realism against its detractors, many of whom I’m sure I agree with on many points.

51

Moby Hick 12.24.10 at 2:22 am

Sanctions are better than war, fine, but that doesn’t make them moral or useful.

Stupid Jimmy Carter made me stop selling pepper spray to South Africa because he hated Africa.

52

Harold 12.24.10 at 3:46 am

Kissinger was a “realist” insofar as he would say absolutely anything in order to manipulate other people, such as Nixon.

53

John Quiggin 12.24.10 at 4:03 am

“Also, there is room for action between imposing sanctions and doing nothing. ”

What do you have in mind? I interpret “sanctions” as covering pretty much the entire range of non-military actions that might be taken, so our disagreement may be purely semantic.

54

Timothy Scriven 12.24.10 at 8:24 am

Blockades perhaps?

55

Timothy Scriven 12.24.10 at 8:25 am

Scrap the last comment, wrong window.

56

novakant 12.24.10 at 3:26 pm

I interpret “sanctions” as covering pretty much the entire range of non-military actions that might be taken, so our disagreement may be purely semantic.

Well, sanctions are pretty much the last step short of war and there is a wide range of diplomatic and political measures that are usually employed before sanctions are considered. And as my concern about the harm done to the population shows, I am talking about comprehensive economic and diplomatic isolation when I talk about sanctions. Furthermore, especially but certainly not only due to the Iraq war, I deny the US/UK the right to take the moral high ground from which to impose sanctions. Apart from such double standards I also question their usefulness as the example of Iran shows. The ruling elite and the rich in countries like that will always be able to circumvent the effects of sanctions, while the middle class and the poor are made to suffer. An alternative would be to seriously take on large scale international corruption, embezzlement and arms trade – but that would affect the economies and the finance sector of the West negatively, so nobody wants to do it.

57

Moby Hick 12.24.10 at 4:12 pm

I am talking about comprehensive economic and diplomatic isolation when I talk about sanctions.

There are other words for that. Sanctions, as the word is commonly used, includes more targeted restrictions. Arguing as if there is no difference clouds the issue for no reason aside from you not having to say, “Geez, 46 illustrates that you shouldn’t use absolutes quite so often.”

58

novakant 12.24.10 at 4:36 pm

Sanctions, as the word is commonly used, includes more targeted restrictions.

Wrong

59

Moby Hick 12.26.10 at 4:05 pm

If Iran was the only place to get sanctioned, then I’d be wrong.

60

PHB 12.26.10 at 5:23 pm

I have always considered Kissinger et. al. to have been self-deceivers rather than realists. Their skill was directed at achieving power within the US political system, not applying that power for any useful purpose.

The only real constant in Kissenger’s policies is that he advocates positions that are attractive to people who already believe that force, (in particular US force) is the answer to every problem. He knows how to stroke the egos of those in power by telling them how important, courageous and statesmanlike they are. But that is all.

Kissenger is like one of those hack economists who gets a job for life at the AEI by endorsing nonsense theories that reducing taxes always increases revenue. He has no integrity, his statements are calculated to further the interests of Henry Kissenger, not the US.

The problem with realism as a doctrine is that it can justify any policy whatsoever if you ignore consequences. The vietnam war was a complete failure, the Iraq war was a disaster, the realist inspired subversion of democracy in Iraq, Greece, Latin America were all disasters. And not just according to a humanitarian yardstick, they were disasters by any yardstick a ‘realist’ might propose.

The fact is that idealism has proved to be an essential component in foreign policy. The anti-communist policies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ and Nixon were all designed around the assumption that the best the US could hope for was to maintain the status quo by propping up every friendly dictator they could find. The cold war was eventually won when Carter decided to make human rights the foundation of the US strategy. Reagan’s rhetoric would have fallen completely flat had he succeeded Nixon.

Idealism has always been a powerful strategy for a realist. Bush pissed away the goodwill that the world granted the US in the aftermath of 9/11 with a series of blunders that have damaged US interests more than Bin Laden could ever have hoped to.

Any foreign policy has to ultimately win friends and influence people. That is rather hard to do when the policy is too nakedly to pursue your own self interest regardless of morality or ideals.

61

geo 12.26.10 at 5:37 pm

Carter decided to make human rights the foundation of the US strategy

Not exactly. Carter merely decided to make “human rights” the foundation of US foreign policy rhetoric. The Carter administration did not pursue human rights in Iran, Indonesia, Palestine, Central America, or anywhere else where it might have made a difference. What it did was to inaugurate a clever new rhetorical strategy, aimed particularly at its imperial rival, the Soviet Union. As you note, the Reagan administration built on this innovation. But the substance of US foreign policy – global economic integration under US leadership – has not changed since the US became a global power during and after World War II.

62

John Quiggin 12.26.10 at 7:12 pm

@61 That’s unfair to Carter as regards Latin America. He cut aid to military dictatorships and was loud in his criticism of them, arguably precisely because this was an area where the US could make a difference without any effect on the geopolitical balance with the USSR. And, as you note, subsequent US administrations mostly took the same line. While you can argue about causality, the outcome looks pretty good – the term “Latin American military dictator” occurs these days primarily in contexts including “former” and “imprisoned”.

63

LFC 12.26.10 at 7:48 pm

PHB @60:

1) You can’t blame the Iraq war on realists — most realists opposed it.

2) I’m not a fan of Kissinger, but you overstate a bit his unvarying commitment to force. You may not be aware that, along with Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Schultz, Kissinger is a member of the so-called gang of four, who advocate steps toward an eventual nuclear-free world. Although it has a lot of elite support, this is not an empty position that everyone in the foreign policy establishment agrees with — for example, the current (Jan/Feb 2011) issue of Foreign Affairs carries a piece attacking the Global Zero movement as a product of “wishful thinking” (to quote the summary of the piece). Wishful thinking — could that be anything like (gasp) idealism?

3) The notion that the Cold War ended b/c Carter admin. took up human rights (mostly, though not entirely, rhetorically) is pretty much nonsense. The Helsinki accords did have something to do with energizing or encouraging internal opposition in the USSR and Warsaw Pact countries. But basically the Cold War ended when the Soviet Union ended, and the Soviet Union’s end was a product mainly of its internal weaknesses and was furthered, however unintentionally, by Gorbachev, with maybe a small assist from Reagan.

64

geo 12.26.10 at 8:42 pm

JQ @62: That’s unfair to Carter as regards Latin America

I don’t agree, John. There’s a withering critique of Carter-era US foreign policy toward Latin America in Chomsky and Herman’s Political Economy of Human Rights, vol. 1, pp. 271ff. They detail how, particularly as regards Nicaragua, where it would have made the most difference, both in terms of the situation on the ground and as a message to the rest of Latin America, the US played a two-faced game, continuing to bring the entire graduating class of the Nicaraguan military academy each year to the School of the Americas for counterinsurgency training, for example, and allowing Israel (which would certainly not have done so without American approval) to step in with arms and training for repressive regimes throughout Central and South America. Moreover, US withdrawal of support for dictators only became substantial when they were so cruel or corrupt that a smooth flow of foreign investment was hindered, or when they had simply lost control of their societies and could no longer be propped up cost-effectively.

Carter was a nice man. Not only did he say that “human rights should be the soul of American foreign policy,” he also said that the American tax system is “a disgrace to civilization.” But no President or Congress, however idealistic, could or can do anything about either. Real power over American foreign and domestic policy lies elsewhere.

65

geo 12.26.10 at 8:47 pm

PS – To avoid niggling: please amend the conclusion of the penultimate sentence of 64 to “anything fundamental about either.”

66

PHB 12.26.10 at 10:53 pm

LFC @63

Well I think that it is pretty ridiculous for people like Kissinger to call themselves ‘realists’ when they ignore reality. But that is precisely what the people behind the Bush administration did.

But more generally, someone who says that principles should play no part in any type of decision making is not to be trusted. They inevitably serve themselves and themselves alone. As with anyone who makes ostentatious display of devotion to God or country, their only allegiance is to themselves and their clan.

Idealism can certainly be a problem when you are dealing with people with warped ideals (Fascism, Communism, Zionism, Nationalism, pretty much any type of ism) .But the number of cases in which the West has actually realized any sort of advantage from ‘realist’ foreign policy are few and far between. Installing and propping up dictators in Latin America was a short term cost and caused long term damage.

You don’t have to be a wooly headed idealist to notice that the US would be far better off simply abandoning the trappings of empire. Spheres of influence and ‘strategic’ bases are only really good for maintaining and/or extending your spheres of influence and strategic bases.

The resources that realists claim that they guarantee access to amount to a rounding error on the resources that it costs to maintain the US military.

If we are to believe the ‘realists’ the US today requires a larger military and greater military intervention than it did during the cold war.

67

Henri Vieuxtemps 12.26.10 at 11:07 pm

But the number of cases in which the West has actually realized any sort of advantage from ‘realist’ foreign policy are few and far between. Installing and propping up dictators in Latin America was a short term cost and caused long term damage.

What “West”, what are you talking about? The United Fruit Company certainly had realized all sorts of advantage.

68

geo 12.27.10 at 3:33 am

PHB: But the number of cases in which the West has actually realized any sort of advantage from ‘realist’ foreign policy are few and far between

Don’t mean to sound magisterial, but to speak of “the West” or “the United States” is a recipe for confusion. There is no such thing as the “national interest” of the United States or any other state. There are only groups within the state (and across states), usually with interests sharply opposed to those of other groups. The interests of particular groups of investors and corporate managers were very well served by the maintenance of pro-business, anti-labor, anti-social-welfare regimes throughout the First and Third Worlds throughout the Cold War. The fact that American workers, taxpayers, and poor people did not benefit so much from this foreign policy was of no concern to those who carried out that policy (or, a fortiori, to the business class, who own the state).

69

bh 12.27.10 at 6:12 am

From #64 Carter was a nice man. Not only did he say that “human rights should be the soul of American foreign policy,” he also said that the American tax system is “a disgrace to civilization.” But no President or Congress, however idealistic, could or can do anything about either. Real power over American foreign and domestic policy lies elsewhere.

So from your perspective, what are the causes of the net-positive changes in Latin American governance over the last 30 years, as referenced by John Quiggin in #62? Are they primarily internal? Or do you feel that the situation there hasn’t actually improved?

70

John Quiggin 12.27.10 at 7:15 am

It’s clear that the United Fruit Company did well, but much less obvious that the US capitalist class as a whole benefited from imperialism in Latin America or anywhere else. And the European imperialists spent vast amounts of money (not to mention lives including those of the officer class) to end up with nothing.

On Carter, it’s easy to point out hypocrisies and inconsistencies – he was and is a politician. I could just as well say that GW Bush wasn’t a warmonger because he didn’t take on North Korea, Iran or Syria, after labelling them as Axis of Evil. Overall, Carter shifted US policy from a clear preference for reliable dictators to general, if not entirely consistent, support for democracy. Even Reagan followed suit to some extent, for example by dumping Marcos, and W’s attempt to return to the old line on the coup against Chavez was an embarrassing fiasco.

71

Myles SG 12.27.10 at 7:32 am

Overall, Carter shifted US policy from a clear preference for reliable dictators to general, if not entirely consistent, support for democracy.

The realistic problem wasn’t that reliable dictators were dictators, it’s that they couldn’t actually be relied upon to be reliable in the long run, and the deposition of a dictator propped up from without usually causes ill will toward the power from without doing the propping up.

Even Reagan followed suit to some extent, for example by dumping Marcos, and W’s attempt to return to the old line on the coup against Chavez was an embarrassing fiasco.

I don’t think there was any consistent pursuit of any “line” per se in early dealings with Chavez; it was more a result of sheer amateurism and utter fecklessness than any errors of ideology. Otto Reich is a bad caricature of the plotting, scheming reactionary, rather than the genuine article. He’s more theatrical than a Carlist, and less effective.

72

praisegod barebones 12.27.10 at 7:53 am

John @ 48

I’m sympathetic to your views about the Iraq war, but I think you’re palming a card here: isn’t the difficult case for defenders of sanctions, and the one where the effects were felt much more keenly by the populace than the regime, the case of Iraq before 2002?

73

John Quiggin 12.27.10 at 12:01 pm

pg @ 72 The really bad effects were those before the Oil for Food program was introduced in 1996. The Iraq case certainly shows how destructive sanctions can be, if they amount to a blockade, and are, in effect, an attempt to starve the country concerned into submission. Conversely, the 1996-2002 sanctions (despite the inevitable evasion and corruption) were effective in eliminating Saddam’s capacity to pose a genuine military threat.

74

geo 12.27.10 at 4:45 pm

JQ@70: It’s clear that the United Fruit Company did well, but much less obvious that the US capitalist class as a whole benefited from imperialism in Latin America or anywhere else

“The US capitalist class as a whole” does not lobby for or against specific coups, subsidies, tariffs, etc; individual industries or even corporations do. Just as with domestic policies: it would obviously be in the interests of business as a whole to bring down health-care costs, but the concentrated efforts of the insurance, hospital, and pharmaceutical industries produced a lobbying effort that “the capitalist class as a whole” did not have the incentive or coordination to match. It’s very much like the underworld: each criminal organization has its turf and its special interests, and others don’t interfere unless they want all-out war, which is generally not in their own interest. “Live and let live” works well for both gangsters and capitalists.

In the case of US support for the Chilean coup, the State Department listened to those industries with stakes in Chile. In the case of Nicaragua, it listened to those businesses invested in Nicaragua (and when the latter began to complain about out-of-control corruption and social unrest that reached a critical threshhold — ie, no longer easily repressible — the State Department also listened). In the case of Cuba, the domestic electoral cost of obliging the few industries that wanted access to the comparatively small Cuban market was apparently too large to warrant changing policy. In all cases, US policy follows the sum of vectors. Of course there has to be some maneuvering to avoid too flagrant inconsistency with professed US ideals and too blatant offense to world opinion. Those vectors too are factored in.

With Marcos as with Somoza, levels of corruption, incompetence, and repressive violence simply got out of hand. Local elites and US investors turned against Marcos, and so US support was gradually withdrawn after decades of unflagging support through the worst abuses.

Policymakers don’t calculate the global net benefit of one or another policy, either for the capitalist class as a whole or for the society as a whole. And they certainly don’t consult ideals. They respond to pressures, current and anticipated. If they don’t, the (by now) well-oiled machinery of influence — meetings at the highest levels, bribes, political contributions, media campaigns, think-tank reports, etc. — is activated, and unless there is equally potent machinery operating on the other side, the policy is eroded and eventually nullified.

75

geo 12.27.10 at 4:54 pm

bh @69: I’m not denying that there have been positive changes in Latin American governance. I’m denying that they’re the result of more enlightened US policy, since US policy has not been more enlightened. I think the improvement is the result of popular mobilization, in the teeth of elite and (often) US opposition. Never, in any case, with substantial US support. US support is reserved for liberalizing elites, who represent its best hope for maximizing US economic presence and influence in an age of dwindling US power.

By the way, I’m not suggesting that a more enlightened US policy is impossible. But it will be the result of popular mobilization in the US, not a gift of enlightened politicians or policymakers.

76

geo 12.27.10 at 4:55 pm

PS – JQ and others: I have a long comment in moderation, which should show up as #74. Look for it!

77

LFC 12.27.10 at 5:15 pm

PHB @66:

Your version of realism: “principles should play no part in any type of decision-making…”

One of the most famous realist writers of the second half of the twentieth century:
“Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe…. There is a world of difference between the belief that all nations stand under the judgment of God…and the blasphemous conviction that God is always on one’s side….
“Political realism is based upon a pluralistic conception of human nature. Real man is a composite of ‘economic man,’ ‘political man,’ ‘moral man,’ ‘religious man,’ etc. A man who was nothing but ‘political man’ would be a beast, for he would be completely lacking in moral restraints.”
— Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 4th ed., 1967, pp. 10, 13 (from the section “Six Principles of Political Realism”)

78

PHB 12.27.10 at 6:50 pm

@Myles 71

Pretty much every covert operation that fails looks amateurish. Israel’s recent assassination looked to be an amateur performance and they actually succeeded in their objective.

What has changed is not so much the methods or the competence of the CIA but the fact that so many people now know to look for that type of behavior. The officer corps in most countries have also noticed that previous CIA organized coups have hardly ended well for the countries targeted. So there are far more officiers who are willing to rat out a conspiracy as it is forming.

The idea that people were going to sit back and recognize Carmona as President despite the electoral result was always rather weird. The CIA could get away with that type of behavior in the 1950s and 60s when communications media were not as widespread. But in the Internet age it was really rather naive.

Which gets me back to my main point about so-called realists. The ones who get into government turn out to be utterly divorced from reality. And those are the ones that I think we need to judge the school of thought by. Much as they would like us to believe that their conclusion that their support for war, torture and dictatorship is a reluctant conclusion they come to from painful necessity, the truth is that they are bejackbooted thugs for whom war, torture and dictatorship are the desired end rather than the reluctant means.

79

geo 12.28.10 at 2:29 am

The following has been in moderation for many hours, so I’m trying again:

JQ@70: It’s clear that the United Fruit Company did well, but much less obvious that the US capitalist class as a whole benefited from imperialism in Latin America or anywhere else

“The US capitalist class as a whole” does not lobby for or against specific coups, subsidies, tariffs, etc; individual industries or even corporations do. Just as with domestic policies: it would obviously be in the interests of business as a whole to bring down health-care costs, but the concentrated efforts of the insurance, hospital, and pharmaceutical industries produced a lobbying effort that “the capitalist class as a whole” did not have the incentive or coordination to match. It’s very much like the underworld: each criminal organization has its turf and its special interests, and others don’t interfere unless they want all-out war, which is generally not in their own interest. “Live and let live” works well for both gangsters and capitalists.

In the case of US support for the Chilean coup, the State Department listened to those industries with stakes in Chile. In the case of Nicaragua, it listened to those businesses invested in Nicaragua (and when the latter began to complain about out-of-control corruption and social unrest that reached a critical threshhold—ie, no longer easily repressible—the State Department also listened). In the case of Cuba, the domestic electoral cost of obliging the few industries that wanted access to the comparatively small Cuban market was apparently too large to warrant changing policy. In all cases, US policy follows the sum of vectors. Of course there has to be some maneuvering to avoid too flagrant inconsistency with professed US ideals and too blatant offense to world opinion. Those vectors too are factored in.

With Marcos as with Somoza, levels of corruption, incompetence, and repressive violence simply got out of hand. Local elites and US investors turned against Marcos, and so US support was gradually withdrawn after decades of unflagging support through the worst abuses.

Policymakers don’t calculate the global net benefit of one or another policy, either for the capitalist class as a whole or for the society as a whole. And they certainly don’t consult ideals. They respond to pressures, current and anticipated. If they don’t, the (by now) well-oiled machinery of influence—meetings at the highest levels, bribes, political contributions, media campaigns, think-tank reports, etc.—is activated, and unless there is equally potent machinery operating on the other side, the policy is eroded and eventually nullified.

80

novakant 12.28.10 at 10:23 am

The really bad effects were those before the Oil for Food program was introduced in 1996. (…) Conversely, the 1996-2002 sanctions (despite the inevitable evasion and corruption) were effective in eliminating Saddam’s capacity to pose a genuine military threat.

You really need to look beyond the official version, Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday were in a position to know what was going on:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/nov/29/iraq.comment :

Despite the severe inadequacy of the permitted oil revenue to meet the minimum needs of the Iraqi people, 30 cents (now 25) of each dollar that Iraqi oil earned from 1996 to 2000 were diverted by the UN security council, at the behest of the UK and US governments, to compensate outsiders for losses allegedly incurred because of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. If this money had been made available to Iraqis, it could have saved many lives.

The uncomfortable truth is that the west is holding the Iraqi people hostage, in order to secure Saddam Hussein’s compliance to ever-shifting demands. The UN secretary-general, who would like to be a mediator, has repeatedly been prevented from taking this role by the US and the UK governments.

81

chris 12.28.10 at 4:45 pm

The realistic problem wasn’t that reliable dictators were dictators, it’s that they couldn’t actually be relied upon to be reliable in the long run, and the deposition of a dictator propped up from without usually causes ill will toward the power from without doing the propping up.

But both of those problems directly follow from the fact that the dictator is a dictator. Dictators have no institutional continuity or perception of legitimacy, so they have to make up the lack with brutality in order to hang on to power, which makes them almost as hated as they are feared (or more so, which is when they are deposed). Their constant attention to internal politics (at least the ones who survive) make them unreliable from an external perspective, since they recognize no national interest more important than the dictator remaining dictator.

“Reliable dictator” has always been an oxymoron, and the failure of “realists” to realize this proves they were never all that realistic.

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