Monday, September 01, 2008

Choose your illusion...

Human beings are fond of choosing illusions in order to keep a carefully constructed view of reality intact.

The spectrum of human behavior is narrow, and has not changed in thousands of years. Fukuyama's "The End of History" was a Hegelian mish-mash of concepts that never persuaded me to jettison the importance of power in the affairs of man.

Melioration and power plays are akin to leptokurtic distributions in statistical analysis - long periods of progress are perforated by violent periods of chaos.

The below article is timely and expounds on these themes. I don't normally post full articles, but this one merits zero editorial interference.

August 30, 2008

Where are the realists?

When Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, it ought to have been their moment.

Here was Vladimir Putin, a cold-eyed realist if ever there was one,
taking advantage of a favorable opportunity to shift the European
balance of power in his favor -- a 21st century Frederick the Great or
Bismarck, launching a small but decisive war on a weaker neighbor
while a surprised and dumbfounded world looked on helplessly. Here was
a man and a nation pursuing "interest defined as power," to use the
famous phrase of Hans Morgenthau, acting in obedience to what Mr.
Morgenthau called the "objective law" of international power politics.

Yet where are Mr. Morgenthau's disciples to remind us that Russia's
latest military action is neither extraordinary nor unexpected nor
aberrant but entirely normal and natural, that it is but a harbinger
of what is yet to come because the behavior of nations, like human
nature, is unchanging?

Today's "realists," who we're told are locked in some titanic struggle
with "neoconservatives" on issues ranging from Iraq, Iran and the
Middle East to China and North Korea, would be almost unrecognizable
to their forebears.

Rather than talk about power, they talk about the United Nations,
world opinion and international law. They propose vast new
international conferences, a la Woodrow Wilson, to solve intractable,
decades-old problems. They argue that the United States should
negotiate with adversaries not because America is strong but because
it is weak.

Power is no answer to the vast majority of the challenges we face,
they insist, and, indeed, is counterproductive because it undermines
the possibility of international consensus.

They are fond of citing Dean Acheson, Reinhold Niebuhr and George
Kennan as their intellectual forebears, but those gentlemen would have
found most of their prescriptions naive. Mr. Acheson, as Harry
Truman's Secretary of State, had nothing but disdain for the United
Nations and for most international efforts to solve world problems. As
his biographer, Robert L. Beisner, has shown, he considered such
efforts evidence of the naive hopefulness of "people who could not
face the truth about human nature" and "preferred to preserve their
illusions intact."

He strongly supported the NATO alliance but ultimately put his faith
not in international institutions but in "the continued moral,
military and economic power of the United States." He aimed to build a
"preponderance of power" and to create "situations of strength" around
the world. Until the United States acquired this predominant power, he
believed, negotiations and international conferences with adversaries
such as the Soviet Union were worthless. He opposed talks with Moscow
throughout his entire time in office.

Those early realists had little faith in the persuasive influence of
the community of nations or world opinion. "The prestige of the
international community," Mr. Niebuhr argued, was "not great achieve a communal spirit sufficiently unified, to
discipline recalcitrant nations."

The great mid-century theologian warned against "a too uncritical
glorification of co-operation and mutuality" between powerful nations
with opposing interests.

Yet it is precisely the prospect of cooperation and mutuality that
present-day realists glorify.

They revere President George H. W. Bush, who spoke of a "new world
order" in which "the nations of the world, East and West, North and
South, can prosper and live in harmony," where "the rule of law
supplants the rule of the jungle," where nations "recognize the shared
responsibility for freedom and justice."

Today the elder Bush is hailed by realists because he went to the
United Nations Security Council, while the younger George W. Bush is
condemned because he treated the U.N. as the delusion Dean Acheson
said it was.

Realism has pulled itself inside out.

Leading realists today see the world not as Mr. Morgenthau did, as an
anarchic system in which nations consistently pursue "interest defined
as power," but as a world of converging interests, in which economics,
not power, is the primary driving force.

Thus Russia and China are not interested in expanding their power so
much as in enhancing their economic well-being and security. If they
use force against their neighbors, or engage in arms buildups, it is
not because this is in the nature of great powers. It is because the
United States or the West has provoked them. The natural state of the
world is harmonious; only aggressive behavior by the United States
disturbs the harmony.

In such a world, the task of the United States is not to check the
rising powers but to steer them gently along the path that the
realists insist they are already on, toward the embrace of an
international community with laws and rules to govern their behavior
in ways that benefit all. As the self-described realist Fareed Zakaria
explains, "The single largest strategic challenge facing the United
States in the decades ahead is to draw in the world's new rising
powers and make them stakeholders in the global economic and political
order." China and Russia, along with India and Brazil, are "embracing
markets, democratic government...and greater openness and
transparency." America's job "is to push these progressive forces
forward, using soft power more than hard, and to try to get the
world's major powers to solve the world's major problems." The world,
after all, "is going the United States' way."

The original realists had no patience for such Candide-like optimism
about the inevitable upward progress of mankind. "Whoever thinks the
future is going to be easier than the past is certainly mad," wrote
Mr. Kennan in 1951, six years after the most destructive war in
history, five years into the Cold War, and one year into what was
widely seen at the time as disastrous and seemingly hopeless American
intervention in Korea. Mr. Kennan's provocative assertion aimed to
jolt Americans out of their yearning to believe that the future would
be different.

But now it is leading realists who embrace The End of History, with an
unshakable faith in the inevitable convergence of humanity around
shared values and common interests. These were exactly the hopes and
dreams Mr. Morgenthau set out to vanquish decades ago.

The original realists were not without their flaws, some of them
fatal. Mr. Morgenthau's insistence that ideology and regime type are
irrelevant to a nation's behavior was a terrible blind spot for
realism, then and now. Mr. Putin's turn toward autocratic rule at home
and his revival of old imperial pretensions abroad are intimately
related. Mr. Putin himself argues that strength and control at home
allow Russia to be strong abroad. He and his ruling clique clearly
believe that avenging the demise of the Soviet Union will help keep
them in power.

And who but a Russian autocrat would have regarded the "color
revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine as intolerable provocations?

Alexander I took quite the same view of liberal rumblings in Poland
and Spain in the early 19th century. To ignore ideology and regime
today is to misunderstand gravely the motives of autocratic leaders,
whether in Moscow or in Beijing.

Nor is the realists' own hostility to democracy, including American
democracy, particularly edifying. Mr. Kennan and the columnist Walter
Lippmann flaunted their disgust at what they regarded as the stupidity
and ignorance of the American public -- Mr. Kennan likened American
democracy to "one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as
[a] room and a brain the size of a pin."

Mr. Acheson was the great exception because he harbored no
antidemocratic prejudices and actually believed the messy American
democracy would nevertheless prove stronger in the long run. But most
realists throughout the decades, including today, have complained
bitterly about the influence of domestic political constituencies and
the various ethnic groups that allegedly distort America's
understanding of its "true" interests.

Even so we could use a little dose of the old realism now, at least
the part that would recognize a great grab for power like Mr. Putin's
and understand that it will take more than offers of cooperation and
benevolent tutelage to address Russia's revived appetites.

Perhaps a bit of realism can challenge the widespread belief that a
liberal international order rests on the triumph of ideas alone or on
the natural unfolding of human progress.

This deterministic conviction that Francis Fukuyama popularized is an
immensely attractive notion, deeply rooted in the enlightenment
worldview of which all of us in the liberal world are the product.
Many in Europe still believe the Cold War ended the way it did simply
because the better worldview triumphed, as it had to, and that the
international order that exists today is but the next stage in
humanity's march from strife and aggression toward a peaceful and
prosperous coexistence.

It is a testament to the vitality of this enlightenment vision that
hopes for a brand-new era in human history took hold with such force
after the fall of Soviet communism. But a little more skepticism, and
realism, was in order.

After all, had mankind truly progressed so far?

The most destructive century in all the millennia of human history was
only just concluding. Our modern, supposedly enlightened era produced
the greatest of horrors -- the massive aggressions, the "total wars,"
the famines and the genocides -- and the perpetrators of these horrors
were among the world's most advanced and enlightened nations.

Recognition of this terrible reality -- that modernity had produced
not greater good but only worse forms of evil -- was a staple of
philosophical discussion in the 20th century. It was the great problem
that Mr. Niebuhr wrestled with and which led him to conclude that for
moral men to do good, they would sometimes have to play by the same
rules as immoral men -- and yes, he believed he could tell the
difference. What reason was there to imagine that after 1989 humankind
was suddenly on the cusp of a brand-new order?

The focus on the dazzling pageant of progress at the end of the Cold
War ignored the wires and the beams and the scaffolding that had made
such progress possible.

The global shift toward liberal democracy coincided with the
historical shift in the balance of power toward those nations and
peoples who favored the liberal democratic idea, a shift that began
with the triumph of the democratic powers over fascism in World War II
and that was followed by a second triumph of the democracies over
communism in the Cold War.

The liberal international order that emerged after these two victories
reflected the new overwhelming global balance in favor of liberal
forces. But those victories were not inevitable, and they need not be

After the Second World War, another moment in history when hopes for a
new kind of international order were rampant, Mr. Morgenthau warned
idealists against imagining that at some point "the final curtain
would fall and the game of power politics would no longer be played."
Moscow's invasion of Georgia has opened a new act in the endless

The only question now is whether the United States will play its part,
and with the appropriate blend of realism about the world as it exists
and idealism about what a strong and determined democratic community
can do to shape it. As Mr. Niebuhr put it six decades ago, "the world
problem cannot be solved if America does not accept its full share of
responsibility in solving it."

Robert Kagan is Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace and an informal adviser to the McCain campaign.
His most recent book is "The Return of History and the End of Dreams."

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