The backlash and where it will take us

On both sides of the Atlantic, we are witnessing a backlash against the deeply flawed idealism in foreign policy which dominated the final years of the Clinton administration, the post-9/11 Bush II years and the Blair era. The backlash is palpable in the Blairhate-fest surrounding the Chilcott Inquiry, with the tabloid right and the liberal left joining up to pour scorn over Blair’s military-humanitarian hubris, the families of the (British) dead of Iraq and Afghanistan as their mascots.

In America, this backlash fuelled an electoral swing to the left, first felt during the 2006 mid-terms and then in Obama’s 2008 victory over John McCain (although it also animates some of the isolationist currents within the conservative “Tea Party” movement). In Britain, it is likely to fuel an electoral swing to the right, and a Conservative victory in this year’s elections. Some signs and portents of the “realist” backlash at various scales include: the attempts at self-rehabilitation by John Major, whose foreign policy was a blend of appeasement and inactivity; the re-emergence onto the geopolitical scene of Zbigniew Brzezinski; the enormous undeserved prestige of right-wing Kissinger acolytes Walt and Mearsheimer among the literati; the assault on Bernard Kouchner and the value of responsibility to protect in the pages of London Review of Books.

“Realism” has played quite a role in Obama’s foreign policy so far, and is likely to play a major role in any post-Gordon Brown administration Britain might be run by.

So, to remind us of what is it stake in the backlash, here is how George Bush I and his sidekick James Baker, the archetypes of “realist” geopolitics, responded to the mass movements against Soviet dictatorship in 1989, from Neal Ascherson in the LRB.
Early in 1989, the new American president, George H.W. Bush, still assumed that Gorbachev was ‘too good to be true’. General Scowcroft, his national security adviser, suggested he was ‘potentially more dangerous than his predecessors’.[...]

Bush the Elder took over in 1989, suspicious of Gorbachev and determined to halt Reagan’s rush into arms reduction agreements, which Bush thought were destabilising the global balance. But he was far from being a passionate freedom fighter. As the year drew on, and widening cracks spread across the Cold War’s architecture, he was not so much happy about the new birth of liberty as worried about Europe’s growing unpredictability. All these books give examples of his exaggerated caution. He came to prefer reforming Communists, who at least had experience of managing things, to dissidents and opposition heroes. In Poland he urged General Jaruzelski to run for president, judging him a much safer pair of hands than Lech Walesa, and declined to pour aid money ‘down a Polish rat-hole’. In Hungary, he shocked opposition members by appealing to them to back the new Party leadership. He was dismayed by the enthusiasm of rebels like the bearded János Kis, who reminded him of a Woody Allen character: ‘They’re just not ready.’

His team shared his fear that the Cold War might end in chaos and local conflicts. At the start of the year, Bush had sent Henry Kissinger (codenamed ‘Kitty’) to Moscow on a secret mission to make contact with Gorbachev. Kissinger, going far beyond his brief, suggested that the United States and the Soviet Union set up a joint superpower condominium over Europe: ‘Let us make an agreement so that the Europeans do not misbehave.’ Bush later backed away from this appalling proposal, but Kissinger wasn’t wrong about his president’s instincts. At the end of 1989, as Ceausescu’s tyranny fell apart in wild bloodshed, Secretary of State James Baker sent a message to Gorbachev that the United States might not object if the Soviet Union intervened with armed force in Romania.

Bring back the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ of military intervention – and at America’s suggestion? Eduard Shevardnadze, Baker’s Soviet opposite number and friend, laughed and said the idea was not sinister ‘but merely stupid’. The story, well told in his book by Constantine Pleshakov, shows yet again how reluctant American policy-makers were to see the end of the Soviet imperium as an undiluted triumph, rather than as a threat of trouble ahead. As Sebestyen puts it, ‘there were times in the middle of the year during which [Bush] tried desperately to keep Communist governments in power when he felt that Eastern Europe might be careering out of control.’ When the Wall finally fell, all President Bush could say to the expectant media was: ‘I’m not an emotional kind of guy … I’m very pleased.’

Further reading: Proposed witnesses for a US Chilcot-style Inquiry, by Andrew Murphy; Obama is the most reactionary president since Nixon, by Nick Cohen.

Previous: Conservatism, realism and the anti-war movement; The conservatism of the anti-war "radicals";  Chas Freeman; Realism Watch; Walt and Mearsheimer and Brzezinski.


BenSix said…
From a recent-ish post by Stephen Walt...

Makes me wonder if we will one day regard Obama's award the same way one might look upon previous winners such as Theodore Roosevelt...or Frank B. Kellogg...not to mention Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger.

Doesn't sound much like an "acolyte", unless, to quote the immortal words of Arthur Dent, this is some new definition of "acolyte" that I wasn't previously aware of.
ModernityBlog said…
Good point bob, never thought of it, but you're right Obama's foreign policy does have a certain "realist" twinge to it.

I wonder how much is really him or that of his advisers?

As after all he somewhat preoccupied with the health debate in America and can't fully apply himself to foreign policy, as he might.

There was a piece in this/last week's Economist which suggested he might be able to give it a full attention after the midterm elections, sometime in November.

Not sure, other commentators are arguing that he's a one term President, so that tends to govern how people react to him (or suck up to him.

PS: Got any info on Bolton? I am trying to piece together what really happened.
kellie said…
In his Nobel acceptance speech, Obama repeated a phrase from his Afghanistan surge speech, arguing for a moral/idealistic foreign policy aims with a realist justification:" ...We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest - because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity." The argument is expanded later in the Nobel speech in a passage which explicitly rejects a choice between realism and idealism.

I linked in a comment to an earlier post to another attempt at a realist argument for an 'idealist' policy on genocide, made by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies.

These are variations on the very old argument that any apparent conflict between self interest and the greater good is merely the result of a lack of understanding. It's usual to see it deployed to encourage selfless action, though using the idea the other way round to justify selfish action seems to work fine too, unfortunate as that may be.

One thing I do find annoying in realist-type attacks on interventionist foreign policy is when they attack it for not being idealistic enough, as in 'if you intervene in situation X you must intervene by the same means in Y and Z or you're not living up to your ideals, and by the way living up to your ideals in Y and Z would bring chaos, so therefore you should drop your ideals.'

What the convoluted contradiction of this argument actually points to is that the decision to intervene by these means in X but not Y and Z is of course not a purely idealistic decision, it is at least in part a decision informed by realism. That goes for the military actions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq.

One can sense a disappointment in such arguments from so-called realists that idealists can be realists too. The question is then whether idealists are the greater realists.
bob said…
Thanks for all these good points. U
I'll reply this afternoon
bob said…
On W&M as Kissinger's "acolytes": you're right; I used the word wrongly. They are not devoted followers of Kissinger. But I believe they were his disciples, and shaped by him in fundamental ways. That is why I find it weird that leftists, who hate Kissinger, have no problem setting W&M up as authorities.

On Obama himself: as far as I'm concerned, the jury is still out. He has swayed in different directions, and failed to provide focus. His advisers are quite diverse politically, and that is potentially positive or negative. I think Nick Cohen is hasty in his harsh judgement.

Kellie: well put. This is interesting to apply to Bush II and Iraq. Their motivations included a blend of un-enlightened self-interest and laudable idealist goals. Opponents tend to focus only on the former, seeing the latter as an alibi, while supporters deny the former, altho the latter alone seem hollow.

On Bolton: actually, I have not being paying attention to the coverage. If I come up with anything, I'll let you know!
BenSix said…
Thanks for replying.

Kissinger is loathsome, first and foremost, because of the human rights abuses he condoned or helped enact. While Stephen Walt has written that states will have to grin and bear tyrannies - something he shares with the "idealists" - I'm not sure that he's ever supported aiding their abuses, let alone enacting similar ones. I respect him for the simple reason that, on a host of topics, he speaks good sense, and this hard-nosed discernment's valuable as an, er - well, bullshit detector. We don't share a blissful, untarnished agreement, naturally, and his realism evinces little concern for humanitarianism. Still, on that question...

Finally, Muravchik claims neoconservatives “treat purely moral concerns . . . as a higher priority than would realists,” yet his response evinces little concern for ordinary human beings. He expresses no remorse at the suffering that neoconservative policies have wrought and seems mostly concerned that the neocons are now “taking their lumps” over Iraq. What matters to him is political standing in Washington, not the hundreds of thousands of needless Iraqi deaths, the millions of refugees who fled their homes, or the tens of thousands of patriotic Americans killed or wounded. So let us hear no more about the neoconservatives’ “moral” convictions. Amid such company, the realists who opposed the war can stand tall.

Still not sure how he and Mearsheimer - who I haven't read - are "disciples" of Kissinger. Or is it just that they all occupy the vague space of "realism"?

Thanks for the link,

bob said…
Thanks Ben. An attempt at an answer here. Actually-existing-"idealism" is flawed, for the reasons Walt says in your quote, and Walt's case against the Iraq war was a strong one, so I don't want to make the case against Walt and Mearsheimer in defence of neoconservatism.

Yes, the main point is that they occupy the space (not that vague in my view) of "realism". This space, as it exists today, was partly shaped by Hans Morgenthau, but also, I think primarily, especially in the policy context, by Kissinger.

Above all, they share his fundamental assumptions which prioritise national interest over all else. This assumption is deeply at odds with the assumptions made by the anti-war/anti-Zionist left, which makes it curious why that left is so free to cite Walt and Mearsheimer as authorities.
BenSix said…
Eep - sorry: hadn't seen it before. Will reply over there (if I have anything worthy of adding).
Roland Dodds said…
As for the Walt and Mearsheimer links to Kissinger, I would argue that it is indisputable that they are travelers in the same foreign policy ideological sphere, which is broadly described as realism. However, Kissinger was a policy technocrat and Walt and Mearsheimer are academics. I don’t find it surprising that they would have a large number of criticisms of Kissinger and his form of statecraft, as they see themselves as keepers of the faith. But I would argue that it is indisputable that they share basic ideological bonds, even if they don’t agree on all manners of application.

Always love a little realism/liberalism/idealism debate, and I would have to agree with Bob that realists define national interests in such a restrictive and myopic way, that it is of little use to anyone who believes human rights and the rights of the individual are more important than a national power assessment.

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