Sunday, March 11, 2007

Against the 'new liberal realism'

Here's what I had to say about the "new liberal realism" in a few first draft paragraphs drawn from part of my NYU talk transformed into something headed for Fordham International Law Journal. It's all first draft stuff, but anyway:

When one looks inside US politics, across the spectrum of mainstream politics over time, that politics is characterized by a shared sense of treating the international system, the UN, and international norms in highly pragmatic ways – a sense of pragmatism far more broadly shared than the bitter arguments required by today’s theatre of partisanship might superficially suggest. The differences are not entirely rhetorical – an administration of Clinton or Obama would behave with respect to the international system, and particularly the UN and its norm system, differently in some respects from an administration of McCain or Giuliani. But it is easy – and tempting, for many, wanting to read preferences into description – on the basis of heated rhetoric, to overstate the substantive differences. The mainstream center of US politics does not fetishize the UN or international law or the international system.

Let me try to put this point about shared, rather than battling, views of the international system and international law within the US political mainstream in a quite different way. Neoconservatism is currently the intellectual whipping boy for all that has gone wrong, or apparently gone wrong, in American foreign policy. Everyone seems to be dreaming up new alternatives, at least in Washington, in universities and think tanks and policy centers. For the moment, at least, everyone seems to agree that (conservative) idealism is the problem and we are all, conservatives and liberals, but particularly liberals, seeking to distinguish themselves from neo-conservatism, going to be realists for a good while, just as we should have remained realists after 9-11, particularly about Iraq. We should have accommodated to Saddam and his sons; we should have sought containment instead of removal. Indeed, containment and accommodation and the return to an entirely instrumental balance of power politics that disregards the nature of the regime and its rulers appears to be the new order of the day with pretty much every bad regime; the only regime, apparently, that can’t be accommodated in what we might call the new liberal realism is the Bush administration. One can represent that attitude as merely a realist bow to the fact that in Iraq the US has had its nose rubbed in the fact of what military action alone can get you and what it can’t in the way of cultural change; still, the new liberal realism seems to me to represent a more profound disillusionment than that, more than just a disillusionment with military solutions to problems, but a disillusionment with muscular idealism as such.

By ‘muscular idealism’, I mean a very particular and unattractive feature of the new liberal realism. It is realism insisted upon with respect to actions by the United States as a democratic sovereign state. What, after all, was the idealism of the Bush doctrine? It was the Bush fils repudiation of the Bush pere balance of power realism among authoritarian, corrupt, and murderous dictators in the Middle East, on the grounds that this ‘realism’ was a core part of what set the terms for 9-11. That idealism is shoved aside in the new liberal realism. We are offered instead the canonization of James “No Dog in this Fight” Baker by – God help us all – American liberals. But although the United States is now supposed to be governed by the hard requirements of realism, the new liberal realists nonetheless want to have their cake and eat it, too – they want to claim not to have lost their idealism. But their idealism is now located in the place least likely to bear any idealist fruit – the proven ineffectuality of the international system. Assert one’s idealism through the UN and our allies – well, that’s easy, it is unlikely to be tested in action, because it so rarely gets that far. Impeccably credentialed idealism, the idealism of the international system – and a practical guarantee of ineffectiveness. Meanwhile, the idealism of democratic sovereigns – which, in muscle, means the United States – is henceforth governed by the propositions of realism. This gets it exactly backwards – but in a way that allows the new liberal realists to claim, fantastically, both labels at the same time. Among realists, Rieff, however, stands alone because he does not demand to have it both ways. He is one of the very few – if not the only one – who has honestly acknowledged that he has, in fact, changed his mind. Should not the new liberal realists, if they are as honest as Rieff, do the same? Not want to have it both ways?

The new liberal realism, let’s be clear, is profoundly unattractive – as though liberal idealists, long constrained by their moral Calvinism to worship at the altar of severe Wilsonan idealism, were suddenly freed, through the failure of conservative idealism, the failure of neoconservatism, to celebrate a Carnival of realism, petit moralistes, catechists of the Categorical Imperative, until now sternly watched over and instructively smacked on the head to prevent dozing off in the Church of Human Rights by – who? – oh, say, Michael Ignatieff, Kenneth Roth, Samantha Power, Geoffrey Robinson, Jimmy Carter, Louise Arbour – suddenly freed to dance drunk in the avenues of dubious virtue, to party in the sinful precincts of hard realism usually reserved to the morally benighted Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, freed to expound on the virtues of accommodation, containment, stability, and interests, freed to expatiate realist necessity, game theory, instrumentalism, rational choice, freed not to have to sing hosannas at every goddam moment to the glory of Moral Ends and Human Rights Universalism, and freed to maintain the necessity of ‘our sonofabitch’.

I also do not think the Carnival will last. Liberals and Democrats in the United States will sober up and rediscover – the sooner the better, to my mind – that they are committed long term to certain values that will require means actually, and not merely rhetorically, adequate to pursue them. The means of that idealism will have to be something more effective than the “international system,” and the objects of that idealism – its targets – will have to be more than simply going after the Bush administration which, in any case, will not be around that much longer. But essential to understanding the long term center of American foreign policy is understanding how much of neoconservatism is, in other language and other forms, part of that long term center, part of the ideals even liberals espouse, or will again one of these days. Walk through Francis Fukuyama’s After the Neocons; it offers a useful critical guide to the underlying propositions of neo-conservatism, and what you will find is that most – not all, but most – of them will show up again in idealisms of both right and left in America, even if under other names, because there is an irreducible idealist strain in American foreign policy that will not go away.[1]

The point is this. America’s superpower status is irretrievably bound up in its own mind, in its political center, in its mainstream politics both Democratic and Republican, with the moral legitimacy of that power. One may scoff at that, shudder even, think it supremely hypocritical, accept it as the fact of power without legitimacy, regard it as an exercise in gross wickedness, etc. – but it would be a profound mistake to imagine that a change of administration in the United States will deeply alter that internal perception. Superpower emphasizes “power”; American politics, by contrast, even with the bitter debates over the morality of American actions in the world from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, emphasizes its legitimacy. A new Democratic administration is unlikely to draw from the experience post 9-11 that America is a superpower by reason of power alone, but instead the quite different lesson that it has to clean up the moral mess of the Bush administration in order to continue what it, along with the American ‘vital center’, has long seen as the legitimate international moral order – a flexible, pragmatic international system that consists of a sometimes messy, sometimes inconsistent, conjoined US-international system. In the collective mind of that American vital center, the international community, the UN, international law are not – as they are for some on the American right – irrelevant, just as they are not – as they are for some on the American left – overriding. It is a messily conjoined system.


[1] Frances Fukuyama, After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads (Yale 2006). I highly recommend the book – I’ve written two reviews of it, and as time goes by, I’ve decided that those reviews are actually too harsh. It is a very insightful book, not just for its dissection of neoconservatism, but for its attempt to sketch a future foreign policy. For the short review, see “Doomed Internationalist,” Times Literary Supplement (London), September 20, 2006, available at SSRN, here, The long version, with a lengthy discussion of multiculturalism and terrorism, and also a much more developed discussion of the ‘new liberal realism’, appears as “Goodbye to All That? A Requiem for Neo-conservatism,” American University International Law Review, Vol. 22, February 2007, available at SSRN, here,


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