State of the Union

The Myth of America’s Global Peacekeeping Past

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Apparently recognizing that the American Unipolar Moment may be over, and that the international system is gradually taking a multipolar form, some pundits have been warning us that the day will soon come in which we will all be experiencing American Empire nostalgia. “If and when American power declines, the institutions and norms American power has supported will decline, too,” or “they may collapse altogether as we transition into another kind of world order, or into disorder,” wrote leading neoconservative thinker Robert Kagan. “Or we may discover then that the United States was essential to keeping the present world order together and that the alternative to American power was not peace and harmony but chaos and catastrophe—which was what the world looked like right before the American order came into being,” Kagan warned.

More recently, Kagan and others have blasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy at home and abroad for its alleged failure to stand up to U.S. adversaries in Damascus, Moscow, and Beijing. They sound even more agitated as they raise the specter of global disorder that would supposedly follow the deterioration of American power. “Some will celebrate the decline of America’s ability to deter. But wherever they live, they may find that whatever replaces the old order is much worse,” concluded The Economist magazine in a long essay which warned that “America is no longer as alarming to its foes or reassuring to its friends,” maintaining that “American power is not half as scary as its absence would be.”

These and similar arguments forecasting the End-of-the-World-as-We-Know-It unless the United States takes steps to depose Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and to force Russia’s Vladimir Putin to end Russian intervention in Ukraine, to defend American allies in East Asia in their territorial disputes with China and to end Iran’s nuclear program, to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace and to… (the list is long), are based on intellectually contradictory, if not dishonest assumptions.

When they refer to the good old days of a global stability guaranteed by American hegemony, the critics are presumably not referring to the Cold War era, but the period following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and what was celebrated as the defeat of the Soviet Union. That golden age of American military supremacy securing global peace is supposedly coming to an end because President Barack Obama was “pondering the limits of American power, out loud,” and projecting “the perception of growing American timidity” to use American military power in the Middle East and elsewhere,” as The Economist put it. This “timidity,” in turn, sends the wrong message to bad guys around the world and encourages them to challenge the power of America and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Middle East; Poland and the Baltic states in Eastern Europe; Japan and Korea in East Asia), eventually leading to new military conflicts. It might leave the Americas no other choice but to distance themselves from the United States and take unilateral steps to protect themselves, or in the worst case scenario, make deals with the Assads and the Putins of the world. The Economist even warns that in a post-American world, Israel could end up gravitating to India and China.

Yet consider the following application of such thinking back to the supposed period of the Pax Americana: The United States emerged as the victorious and undisputed global power in the aftermath of the Cold War, and yet a tin-pot dictator by the name of Saddam Hussein was willing to invade Kuwait and defy the only remaining superpower and its freshly established new world order. So the United States had no choice but to come to the aid of its allies in the Persian Gulf and use its military power to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It followed the first Gulf War with the enunciation of a “dual containment” strategy vis-à-vis both Iraq and Iran that included the deployment of U.S. troops in the region. Read More…

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“The Grand Budapest Hotel”: Ode to a World That Once Was

Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

In his study of “how Europe went to war in 1914,” The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark challenges the conventional wisdom that Austria-Hungary was an empire in decline heading toward an inevitable downfall. He argues instead that during the last pre-World War I decade, the Habsburg Empire had gone “through a phase of economic growth with a corresponding rise in general prosperity” as well as experimenting with “a slow and unmistakable progress towards a more accommodating policy on national rights.” He argues that could have created the conditions for a process of political reform and devolution of power, perhaps even to the evolution of a federalized system.

Clark recalls that many of the activists and the intellectuals who, carried by the euphoria of national independence, had celebrated the dismemberment of the Austria-Hungary after the Great War admitted in later years that they were wrong. He quotes Hungarian writer Mihály Babits who, as he reflected in 1939 on the collapse of the monarchy, wrote: “we now regret the loss and weep for the return for the what we once hated: We are now independent, but instead of feeling joy we can only tremble.”

While director Wes Anderson’s latest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is not pre-occupied with such issues as the sources of imperial decay, the rise of nationalism and other political elements that brought about the collapse of Austro-Hungary, the movie does convey a certain nostalgic longing for that empire’s bygone era, meshed with a certain melancholic sentimentalism shared by those who missed it.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is actually not set in pre-WWI Habsburg at all, but in a resort town in the imaginary Republic of Zubrowka. It centers around the mythical concierge, M. Gustave H. (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes) who works at the elegant Grand Budapest Hotel during the pre-WWII years. None of the characters in the movie mention the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that sparked WWI, or the collapse of the Habsburg Empire; for that matter, there are no references to Adolph Hitler and the rise of Nazism.

But in its soft color shades, decorative architectural style, and charming pastry stores, the fictional Zubrowka looks as though it was carved out of Austria-Hungary’s finest days, while the sense of decadence and darkness and foreboding evil conveys the horrors of the approaching World War II. And Anderson himself made it clear in interviews with journalists that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is, indeed, a bittersweet tribute to the bygone era of pre-WWI Vienna.

The movie opens and closes with scenes of a hotel that has been transformed from a monument to the majestic into what looks like charmless and crumbling guesthouse, where the current owner, Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), recalls through long flashbacks the days in which he worked as a lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) under the legendary Gustave. An educated and well-mannered concierge, Gustave exudes Old World temperament and seems to be unable to adjust to the realities of a crumbling civilizational order, as dandy aristocrats and classy ladies leave the stage and the well-mannered gentleman who headed the local police force (Edward Norton) is replaced by a ruthless Nazi-like militia leader.

Gustave was “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity,” is the way Zero remembers his mentor. The two are embroiled in the theft of an artwork that becomes the central plot of the film involving a set of characters that you would meet in an Ernst Lubitsch film. Read More…

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Rand Paul on Foreign Policy: A Start, But What’s Next?

As an exposition of the principles that guide his policy on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—as well as one day perhaps as president—Rand Paul’s recent presentation at the Center for the National Interest made a lot of sense to those who have criticized Washington’s global strategy of recent years.

His commitment to protect the national interest and the distinction he made à la George F. Kennan between “vital” and “peripheral” interests certainly appeal to a realist like myself, as do his cautionary notes about the need to embrace diplomacy before deploying force and the importance of respecting the interests of nations with whom we do not share the same values.

It was nice to get to know Senator Paul’s worldview. But here is the main problem I had with his address: Where is the policy beef, Senator? Provide us with the links between your worldview and the policies you would support and pursue.

Let’s put it in concrete terms: What exactly are the “vital” national interests of the United States as opposed to the “peripheral” ones, here in early 2014? What is the U.S. role in the world today? Do developments taking place in the Middle East and/or East Asia and/or South Asia affect core U.S. national interests, and why? If they do, what should we do about it? Should we maintain our current troop deployment, or cut it, and why would that action strengthen American national security? Should Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Israel be regarded as allies of the United States? If so, should we use our military protect to defend them from threats to their security?

Senator Paul’s address followed the all-too-familiar route of other libertarians who discuss foreign policy: reacting and criticizing. Read More…

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From Ukraine to South Africa: The End of History (Again)?

Despite the promises of liberal internationalist elites, religious fundamentalism, ethnic identity, and the old notion of nationalism have proved more resilient than unrelenting global democratic progress, not only in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya, but even in the advanced industrialized nations of the European Union.

Meanwhile, as the latest Pew Research opinion polls suggested, a majority of Americans have no interest in making the world safe for democracy and would prefer the United States to “mind its own business.” The American people are largely indifferent to the Freedom Agenda, and what they want, to paraphrase what Stalin once said about socialism, is liberal democracy in one country, the United States.

But after the death of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and in the throes of continuing political unrest in Ukraine, liberal internationalism seems to be coming back to life. It’s as though we’re back where it all started, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Empire, followed by the downfall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, with the sense that in spite of many setbacks, universal liberal democracy is once again on the march.

“The true surprise—and one that should inspire democrats around the world—is the spontaneous and spirited resistance of Ukrainian civil society” to what Chrystia Freeland described in the New York Times recently as the “thuggish leadership” of Ukraine and “Moscow’s ferocious intervention” in that country’s affairs. A “new, well-educated, well travelled, comprehensively wired generation has matured” in Ukraine, and these “young Ukrainians know the difference between democratic capitalism and state capitalism and they know which one they want,” Freeland concluded.

But didn’t we hear the same sort of arguments during the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004? Those who are depicted today as proponents of state capitalism were bashed then as “remnants of the communist elite” or “former communist party bosses” and today’s friendly yuppies, as Freeland portrays them, were hailed as democratic activists. But then the current “thuggish” president Viktor Yanukovych came to power through open and democratic elections.

The American media tend to downplay the ethnic and regional strains underlying the political tensions at the core of the color revolutions, not to mention the Arab spring. Recall that President George W. Bush was not even aware of the historical conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq when he set out to establish democracy there, and that it took some time for the press and official Washington to understand that what was happening in Iraq has less to do with the struggle for democracy and more with sectarian fighting.

Hence while there is no doubt that the current political tensions in Ukraine give expression to cultural frictions between young urbane professionals and aging conservative politicians, bureaucrats, and their business cronies, it’s also a reflection of historical antagonism and the conflicting sense of national identity among Ukrainian speakers in the Western and Central parts of the country and Russian speakers in Eastern and Southern Ukraine.

So it was not surprising that during recent elections voters in the Western and Central Ukrainian provinces voted mostly for political parties (Our Ukraine, Batkivshchyna) and presidential candidates (Viktor Yuschenko, Yulia Tymoshenko) with pro-Western platforms, while voters in the Southern and Eastern areas voted for parties (CPU, Party of Regions) and presidential candidates (Viktor Yanukovych) more oriented toward Russia. And both sides look toward outside powers (the U.S. and EU on one side; Russia on the other side) to support for policies that are rooted to some extent in historical-cultural experiences. Read More…

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A Question Libertarians Can Answer Easily

A "seastead" schematic | patrissimo / Flickr
A "seastead" schematic | patrissimo / Flickr

By asking “If libertarianism is such a good idea, why aren’t there any libertarian countries?” Michael Lind has set up the all-too familiar trap of the intellectual straw man, and it seems that many libertarians have fallen for it.

His question makes as little sense when you replace “libertarianism” with, say, “atheism” or “environmentalism” or “feminism.” Operating in a liberal-democratic system that is driven by what Isaiah Berlin described as “value pluralism,” libertarian intellectuals and activists aim at affecting the world of ideas and the political process through the policy concepts they propose, not at establishing a Utopia based on their principles.

From that perspective, it’s difficult to argue that libertarian or classical-liberal ideas as they apply to economic policies—a.k.a. “free-market ideology”—haven’t had a dramatic impact in the last four decades or so.

Anyone reading this post will be familiar with the growing power of the free-market ideas of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, and the like, and their role in launching the shift towards the restructuring the welfare state under leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, a shift that in some cases (New Zealand, for example) was transformative in nature.

Lind is correct in reminding us that the welfare state remains alive and well in the United States, Britain, and other Western countries. Reaganism and Thatcherism didn’t take the form of revolutions that led to the creation of “libertarian countries.” And it’s possible that many of the reforms in the welfare state would have taken place in the form of pragmatic responses to economic stagnation and the process of globalization even without the direct infusion of libertarian ideology.

But the fact remains that for most of the 1980s and 1990s free-market ideas were in ascendancy and the political spectrum worldwide—including Democrats under Bill Clinton in the U.S. and Labour under Tony Blair in the UK, not to mention the leadership classes of post-Communist China, Russia, and India—moved in that direction.

That didn’t transform anyplace on earth into a libertarian Utopia, to be sure. In fact, Singapore, which Lind points to as an example of a libertarian state, is if anything the ultimate Nanny State, while the economic liberalization of Chile took place under a military dictatorship.

One of the main and obvious reasons why the libertarian movement in this country has failed to develop into an effective political force has been the existing two-party system. It’s not inconceivable that if the United States had a parliamentary system, a viable Libertarian Party could have played a role in shaping legislation and policy, not unlike that of the laissez-faire Free Democrats in Germany or the left-libertarian Liberal Democrats in Britain.

The good news for libertarians marginalized by the two-party system is that their thinkers and activists are not forced to implement their ideas by way of specific policies, a process that requires making formal coalitions, concessions to other political groups, and embracing a nuanced approach to issues ranging from free trade to drug legalization. Libertarians can remain ideologically pure—which is also the bad news since it allows Lind to ridicule them as dogmatic ideologues and Utopians.

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Waiting for Senator Fulbright

My first reaction to Senator Rand Paul’s foreign policy address at the Heritage Foundation last week was that it was about time a U.S. Senator of one of the two major political parties would articulate traditional American principles of non-interventionism in a clear and concise way.

That Paul is also a Republican and a self-proclaimed conservative/libertarian political figure who is willing to challenge the neo-conservative interventionist orientation that has dominated the GOP foreign-policy agenda in recent years gave me a sense of hope that the Junior Senator from Kentucky would succeed in igniting a serious debate on America’s place in the world today.

It was also original and somewhat cool that he relied on both the renowned diplomatic historian George Kennan and President Ronald Reagan in preparing a foreign policy manifesto.

I didn’t know Kennan; Kennan wasn’t a good friend of mine; but I’m sure that Kennan (who died at the age of 101) would probably be turning in his grave if anyone would have suggested that he and Reagan had anything in common politically speaking, and especially when it came to foreign policy.

As Kennan saw it, “Reagan viewed the world through dangerous simplicities, not realist subtleties,” according to his biographer John Lewis Gaddis (George F. Kennan: An American Life) who added that Kennan, an intellectual elitist, a snobbish, and to extent, a bigoted WASP, suspicious of the masses, and with no great admiration to modernity–he even decried the invention of the car–”distrusted both happiness and California” and “probably would have distrusted Reagan, even if the president had tried to win his trust” (although before his death Kennan admitted that Reagan had helped end the Cold War). Read More…

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Should the Redskins Go Coed?

I was told recently that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) now allow young men and women who have Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, characterized by awkward and repetitive forms of social behavior, to join the ranks. “Aspies” may have difficulties functioning as part of a combat unit, but they are also very good with computers, and that makes them ideal recruits for high-tech jobs in a military force whose task is to fight and win wars.

That is the point one should highlight when the issue of gays in the military or women in combat is being discussed: winning wars. By that criterion, allowing gays to join and fight in the military was a no-brainer to me. The notion that gay men would not fit into framework of a combat unit, a “band of brothers” assumes that those “brothers” don’t already include more than a few anti-social types, not to mention, say, heterosexual weirdos or asexual creeps. Then there are those guys who supposedly would feel “uncomfortable” taking a shower with a gay guy, despite the fact that they are trained be ready to see the body of their comrades being blown up in combat.

Since the Pentagon lifted the ban on women serving in direct ground combat, the spin in the media has been that the debate over the role of women in combat is similar to the one we had about gays in the military, and only cultural Neanderthals would object to the idea of women leading a unit of marines to attack a military base in North Korea. Haven’t you seen “G.I. Jane”?

But guess what? “G.I. Jane” and “Alias’s” Sydney Bristow don’t exist in the real world but are a figment of Hollywood’s imagination, much like the notion popularized by Law and Order and other television cop shows that female detectives confront violent criminals on a regular basis.

Women do serve in the U.S. and other militaries, including in direct combat units, and in a way the new Pentagon rules only makes it official, to ensure that female soldiers serving in Iraq or Afghanistan receive equal pay and benefits. But the main question is whether women serving in combat units make the military more or less effective in executing its mission of fighting and winning wars. My approach to evaluating this is utilitarian, pragmatic, and conservative.

First, let’s get one issue off the table: I really don’t even want to get into the argument that women disrupt the unit’s fighting capability because their presence makes guys horny and supposedly ignites intra-unit rivalry between the men over the relatively few women. Since that is happening in almost every organization and business in America, I don’t see why the military should be considered a special case.

But I do have great skepticism over what seems to be becoming the conventional wisdom: that women as a group have the physical attributes to fight in combat units.

In my gym where I work out and lift weights I occasionally encounter a woman who is younger, taller, and more muscular than me and could probably beat and tie me up. And there are individual women who can and do perform active combat roles. Yet the idea that the goal of the U.S. military should now be “to provide a level, gender neutral playing field” just boggles the mind and reflects the kind of politically correct mumbo-jumbo that liberal pundits like to bombard us with.

Here is a commonsensical counter-argument: why do we continue to separate (segregate?) men and women in almost all sports and athletic competitions? In fact, there are different requirements for men and women in athletic competition, and they will probably be in place until science can change our entire biological makeup and the evolutionary process—when say, men are able to get pregnant.

Until that happens, here is a simple question: would you like to see the Redskins go coed and would you expect such a team to win the Superbowl? Well? That’s what I thought. So why would you want the Marine Corps “to provide a level, gender-neutral playing field” and also expect them to win the next war with China?

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Dreaming of Robert Taft, Getting John Bolton

After following Chuck Hagel’s Senate confirmation hearings and reading Daniel McCarthy’s thoughtful post asking “Can a Realist be a Republican?”, I want to remind TAC readers and others that they should not confuse a realist global strategy with a non-interventionist (or anti-interventionist) foreign policy.

In fact, for much of the Cold War and its aftermath, Republican foreign policy was synonymous with realism. It reflected an emphasis on protecting U.S. national interest measured in terms of military and economic power and dealing with the world as it is, as opposed to a preoccupation with transforming the existing international system based on American principles of liberal democracy.

It was never an either/or choice of course, but Republican administrations’ default foreign-policy position has historically been realism, which never precluded military intervention abroad or opposed the formation of alliances with foreign nations. The realists stressed that this extensive involvement in world affairs should be driven more by hard-core nationalism and less by the kind of vague universal principles that Oliver Stone (among others) argues should have guided U.S. diplomacy and national security (like sharing U.S. atomic secrets with the Soviets).

Indeed, as scholar Colin Dueck proposes in his Hard Line: The Republican Party and US Foreign Policy Since World War II Republican and conservative foreign policy post-World War II was very hawkish and nationalist in contrast with the earlier more anti-interventionist approach of Republican Robert Taft.

And I doubt very much that even President Dwight Eisenhower, who is now being romanticized as a prudent Republican foreign-policy president (one whose secretary of state bashed containment and called for rolling-back communism and employing tactical nuclear weapons), would have found it un-American to deploy drones around the world or to allow enhanced interrogation techniques.

Read More…

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Is Barack Obama Really a Realist?

At the risk of turning this site into an online seminar on international relations, I feel obliged to respond to comments made by my colleagues Daniel Larison and Noah Millman in response to my earlier post about Obama and foreign-policy realism GOP-style.

I think that this discussion is important because Republican leaders and conservative/ libertarian thinkers need to bid farewell to the neoconservative agenda and to embrace a new foreign-policy doctrine. That process should evolve out of the re-examination of U.S. global interests and result in the readjustment of American policies to the changing geo-political and geo-economic realities. But this debate hasn’t been taking place among Republicans and conservatives who seem to be ceding the control over it to President Obama, with Republican Chuck Hagel being now part of his national-security team.

I do agree with Noah that realism is an international-relations theory and that it is difficult to identify “realists” or their old intellectual rivals, the “idealists,” in the real world of foreign policy. But in the narratives we draw up about the debates over social and economic policies, “conservatives” and “liberals” play the leading role—even though, like “realists” and “idealists,” they are nothing more than “ideal types” to use Max Weber’s terminology, a construct that helps us make sense of the messy social and political reality around us by stressing the common characteristics of a certain phenomenon or school of thought.

So, for example, we all recognize and accept that there are conservatives who are “pro-choice” (in itself an ideal type) and who support gay marriage and some liberals who are “pro-life” and are opposed to the decriminalization of the use of marijuana. But we use the term “liberal” or “conservative” to describe the political views of someone, instead of detailing all his or her positions on political issue, even when some of his or her views are exceptions to the type.

Similarly, consider, for example, Democrat Zbigniew Brzezinski, who together with Republican Brent Scrowcroft is considered now by the Washington establishment as the elder statesman of American realism. Zbigniew is strongly committed to the main tenets of Realpolitik and argues that America’s. strategic interests, and not its devotion to lofty ideals like human rights. should determine U.S. foreign policy, especially when it comes to the use of military power, which explains why he supports expanding U.S. ties with China.

But then whenever the issue of American policy towards Russia comes up, “Zbig” is transformed into a flaming idealist, charging the Russians with the violation of human rights and repression of ethnic minorities, and urges Washington to punish Moscow. Why the difference between the attitude towards China and to Russia? Well, I invite you to lunch at your favorite Polish restaurant if you know the answer. Read More…

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What Would Kissinger Do?

Historians studying Russian and German foreign policy in the last century have tried to figure out whether the strategic thinking and diplomacy of Nazi Germany’s Hitler and the Soviet Union’s Stalin were driven by traditional national interests or by the ideologies of communism and fascism.

One way of analyzing this issue would be to ask what German or Russian leaders who were clearly pursuing Realpolitik-type foreign policies–say, Peter the Great in the case of Russia or Bismarck in the case of Germany–would have done had they been in Hitler’s or Stalin’s shoes. The general consensus tends to be that Peter the Great’s foreign policy during and after World War II would not have been so different from Stalin’s conduct; and that when it came to foreign policy, Hitler was clearly no Bismarck.

I am bringing this up in part to respond to the comments by my colleague Daniel Larison and other critics of my article on Obama’s brand of Republican realism. I did point out President George H. W. Bush and his foreign policy advisors as standard bearers of Republican foreign policy realism. So Larison brings up Libya as a way of demonstrating that Obama is no Bush I.

Well, if I am not mistaken Bush the Elder deployed hundreds of thousand of U.S. troops into Iraq, Panama and Somalia. In all these cases, Bush and his advisors justified the interventions in “internationalist” terms: Saddam violated international law by invading Kuwait; Panama’s leader was a drug dealer; and Somalia was facing a humanitarian crisis.

There is a clear realist argument to be made that those military interventions didn’t advance U.S. interests. And the only good thing that you could say about Desert Storm is that (in my view) Bush I decided not to invade Iraq and depose its leader, which he did in Panama.

So one must explain why a non-direct U.S. military intervention in Libya should be considered more “internationalist” and “interventionist” and less “realist” than the first Iraq war, Panama, and Somalia.

Read More…

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