Thursday, May 04, 2006

Defending Idealism: Beinart, Niebuhr and the Republicans

On the balance, the biggest challenge to global politics in the medium term is the battle over the relative dominance of what International Relations people call "realism" and "idealism". The former is on the rise -- as a reaction to the perceived overly naive neoconservative approach to global affairs. Almost all of the most prominent IR academics signed a letter calling for more "realism" in the run up to the Iraq war; and as written here, there is a strong urge within the strategy and defense environment to revert to safer defensive ways. The ghost of realism is isolationism: exactly what is not needed when globalization is at stake.

This battle of ideas -- ideologies and inclinations leading
to policy -- is dissectable on several different levels, but not predictably so. The neonservative idealism is one such surprise; the American Democrats tentative love affair with realism another. The New York Times Magazine ran an amazing article on the subject, pitting two versions of American self-understanding against each other in an attempt to reconstruct the long lost Democrat responsible standing on foreign and security policies.

The Democrat challenge is almost completely the same for
the European left. Ever since the end of the Cold War, the European left has been wandering in a vaccum of ideas. The Socialdemocratic parties look at globalization, humanitarian interventionism, the protection and spread of freedom with extreme ambivalence, and all of them have failed to produce a proactive or even positive agenda. Failing that they have been left to always react, always second-guessing and always correcting more than proposing a course.

New Republic editor Peter Beinart's article is the best description so far of a solution to the Democrat challenge (maybe tied with the pieces written by Matt Bai in the same publication about the Republican and Democrat electoral machines; his forthcoming book will also be very interesting). A few nuggets from "The Rehabilitation of the Cold-War Liberal" which is reworked from his coming book The Good Fight: Why Liberals — and Only Liberals — Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again:
Democrats have no shortage of talented foreign-policy practitioners. Indeed, they have no shortage of worthwhile foreign-policy proposals. Even so, they cannot tell a coherent story about the post-9/11 world. And they cannot do so, in large part, because they have not found their usable past. (...)

But before Vietnam, and the disappointment and confusion it spawned,
liberals did have a clear story of their own. In the late 1940's and 1950's, intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and policymakers like George F. Kennan described America's cold-war struggle differently from their conservative counterparts: as a struggle not merely for democracy but for economic opportunity as well, in the belief that the former required the latter to survive. Even more important, they described America itself differently. Americans may fight evil, they argued, but that does not make us inherently good. And paradoxically, that very recognition makes national greatness possible. Knowing that we, too, can be corrupted by power, we seek the constraints that empires refuse. And knowing that democracy is something we pursue rather than something we embody, we advance it not merely by exhorting others but by battling the evil in ourselves. The irony of American exceptionalism is that by acknowledging our common fallibility, we inspire the world. (...)

George Kennan, architect of the Truman administration's early policies toward the Soviet Union, called Niebuhr the "father of us all." And in the first years of the cold war, Niebuhr's emphasis on moral fallibility underlay America's remarkable willingness to restrain its power. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States represented half of the world's G.D.P., and the nations of Western Europe lay militarily and economically prostrate. Yet the Truman administration self-consciously bound America within institutions like NATO, which gave those weaker nations influence over American conduct. "We all have to recognize, no matter how great our strength," Truman declared, "that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please." As the historian John Lewis Gaddis has written: "It was not that the Americans lacked the capacity to force their allies into line.. . .What is surprising is how rarely this happened; how much effort the United States put into persuading — quite often even deferring to — its NATO partners."

Kennan believed America's great advantage in the cold war was that the Soviet Union constituted an empire, which held its alliances together by force. By contrast, he argued, if the United States resisted the imperial temptation and built alliances that respected foreign nationalism, those alliances would endure.
Getting Democrats to embrace a certain form of idealism is highly important in strategic, electionesque terms for them -- but, leaving the left-right question out here, even more so for global politics in general. Yet the Democrat rebirth is perhaps less iof a problem for the overall struggle between idealism and realism than the coming legacy of neoconservatism -- and with it, idealism -- within Republican circles. Authoritarianism and non-interventionism is on the rise in the global environment, especially through China and Russia (as argued here and here). Preserving the good governance element in the Long War, and thus counterinsurgency proper, is highly important even if it means proxy "wars" with China over influence in Africa and other developing regions -- actually the whole of Thomas P.M. Barnett's Non-Integrating Gap.

But this cannot happen unless the Republicans do not revert to pure realism and a penchant for blunt use of force. Getting the Republicans to see and embrace the collaborative OECD-ification of the Gap is more crucial even than securing a Democrat reversal to it. John McCain still looks the best bet on this account.

And the European left? They would do well to substitute USA for the "West" in Beinart's article and take a positive stance on progressiveness -- maybe even learn a lesson from the self-assured Republican agenda: the European left's greatest challenge is the surplus of self-doubt. A bit of self-doubt is fine: legions are devastating.

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