Vote Otto in ’08

Dimitri K. Simes and Paul J. Saunders on what the next administration’s foreign policy should look like (from The National Interest):

it behooves us not to preach too loudly about our own sense of morality. It also means that, in crafting an effective foreign policy, we shouldn’t be blinded by our own rhetorical claims to ethical perfection—or to fail to recognize that many states see us as a “normal country”—one that pursues its own interests by any means necessary and often makes moral judgments about others that appear influenced by those interests.

So those people who expressed disgust and outrage over the use of Russian airpower against civilian targets in the Caucasus were prepared to overlook Israel’s use of cluster bombs and other indiscriminate bombardment in southern Lebanon. They loudly condemn Tehran’s disregard of the United Nations Security Council one day, but feel it is perfectly appropriate to ignore this body to secure independence for Kosovo.

Supporting one’s friends while condemning one’s opponents is nothing new; but when that is combined with a messianic predisposition to view the world as divided into the children of light and the children of darkness—with no need to compromise with, understand the motives of or address the concerns of those deemed opponents—this becomes truly dangerous. The refusal of most politicians to acknowledge the clear connection between U.S. conduct in the Middle East and the hatred of the United States among Islamist extremists that motivated the September 11 attacks is a case in point. The United States has had serious reasons for pursuing the types of policies it has—but it is foolhardy to ignore the evidence that there are costs. The Arab-Israeli dispute is clearly a key litmus test of American policy for many Muslims—but this fact has not been a subject of discussion, even after being raised in the Republican presidential debates. And while plenty of experts on the region have made this argument, it is not reflected where it counts: among political leaders or even most of the mainstream media.

“Bismarck for President” re-enforces ideas Simes put out in last May/June’s The National Interest. In particular, he stresses the importance of either abandoning or considerably de-emphasizing the idea of American hegemony, lamenting that “there is no discussion outside academic circles of the consequences of Washington’s unwillingness to settle for anything short of unquestioned global military dominance” and arguing forcefully that “the radical utopianism advanced by far too many advisors to leading Republican and Democratic candidates is not only misguided and costly, but doomed to fail.” American democracy is “structurally incapable of building or sustaining global imperium” because the vox populi is too strong, recoiling and lashing out when foreign policy goes awry.

Another point Simes and Saunders stress is the tectonic shifts taking place in the global balance of power. That the locus of global power is moving away from North America and Western Europe has been noted, and Simes has been persistent in arguing for a new understanding in the West of what constitutes the “international community” a means to ameliorating the effects of this shift. Understanding that space needs to be made in the upper echelons of international leadership so that the world’s emerging powers — Russia, China, India, Brazil, and so on — do not feel the need to compete with the established powers by setting up their own international institutions, creating an unnecessarily chaotic and fragmented international order.

The promotion of the unipolar moment has caused many middle powers (notably Venezuela) together with Russia and China (and even Nicolas Sarkozy, not to mention) to talk of producing a multi-polar order in which their ability to challenge American preeminence is more clearly defined and acceptable. Simes does not believe that it is too late to avert this; he notes that maintaining a balance of power that is favorable to the United States depends largely on the balance of power between the various emerging powers. It is imperative that the Chinese and Russians remain “more interested in good relations with Washington than in courting one another or rogue states.” Managing this situation should be a priority of the next administration.

Another common thread between Simes’s comments last year and in “Bismarck for President” is the defense of “skeptics of utopian globalism” (read: realists) from the attacks of idealists and neoconservatives. Last year, Simes described realism as “understanding that no matter how noble your cause, you can’t walk on water without getting your feet wet.” His article this year is more forceful, arguing that Americans should reject utopianism and overly moralistic preaching (see above) and realize that, while many American thinkers seem to believe that international politics are beyond nationalism and realpolitik,

what seems more likely is that even as most other governments continue to view the world in terms of power and interests, America’s elites, overwhelmed by the sense of our righteousness, have difficulty defining rational and achievable priorities. While much in Bismarck’s policies is ill suited to modern-day America, we could do far worse in foreign policy than to discard arrogant triumphalism in favor of his romantic yet steely and selective pragmatism.

What is especially disappointing, though, is that many of the suggestions here were a part of George Bush’s original foreign policy platform in 2000. In fact, C. Rice‘s Foreign Affairs campaign essay (Jan./Feb. 2000) explicitly endorsed many of them. Titled “Promoting the National Interest,” in light of the President’s two terms it seems uncharacteristically rational and irreprehensible. It is also decidedly realist.* Sadly, the realist outlook was abandoned after 9/11 in favor of a more hysterical posture backed up by a sophistic ideology based on dubious primary assumptions that have yet to be fully rejected by those seeking the presidency.

* [ I do not endorse the thesis of the article (“Political Realism: A Culprit of the 9/11 Attacks”) linked here, and I regard it to be emblematic of many of the problems surrounding the response to 9/11. ]

2 thoughts on “Vote Otto in ’08

  1. Pingback: Vote Otto in ‘08
  2. I have only just found your blog today. I have read several of your posts. I am amazed that I find in your writing so many of the same elements I have read in other places.

    Primarily I am focused on the idea of “American hegemony” in the Middle East. It reminds me of a physical circumstance associated with headlights and pedestrians.

    The beam of headlights seem bright when viewed from the perspective of a pedestrian strolling a dimly lit street. But oddly, the driver of the car cannot see the pedestrian even when the pedestrian feels as if he is illuminated as if in the noon day sun.

    Perhaps it is so with foreign policy. The Middle East feels as if the American foreign policy is focused there to the exclusion of all else. Worse, the reader in Lebanon or Syria or Iran seems to think that all we are thinking about is how to exploit the Middle East. That is not true at all. In fact, Americans don’t feel like we have paid all that much attention to it at all. Rather like a worry, it is sometimes apparent but is not the prime focus of the day.

    Instead, the effects of our so called foreign policy is more the concern of the constituents of other countries who feel the policy is not in their control. They talk about it far more than Americans do. The extent of that policy is apparently magnified and considered far more than it should be in those foreign countries.

    The long term reality is simply that America can project influence to distant places and when that light is shown on those situations it may not be entirely complimentary. We would rather that presence would show some progress so that the rest of the world can get things together. We have absolutely no interest in being in any country but our own. When pushed though we seem to be able to do things in other countries that we want done faster than the locals seem to be able to accomplish it. Especially if we feel threatened by that instability.

    The headlights of American hegemony are not near as bright as perceived. The pedestrians walking the streets at night need to realize how dark it really is where they are walking. I think the challenge really is for some countries to live up to their own rhetoric and solve some of their own problems. when they become our problem, you won’t like it.

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