Friday, 9 May 2014

Can some common sense inform our foreign policy?

As the Ukrainian tragedy lurches toward internecine slaughter seasoned with ultra-nationalist bullshit, I enjoy the observations of an astute political scientist who carries no water for any of the many sides, Harvard professor Stephen Walt. He’s a relief after hearing the knee-jerk leftist commentary attributing all cynical nastiness to the Obama camp and in essence letting Putin off the hook. Others, who share my sympathy with the Ukrainians who ousted a kleptocratic regime, seem determined to ignore the crude and unhelpful role of their self-interested western backers, Russian (not just Putin’s) sensibilities about their borders, and especially the undeniable presence of neonazis in the power vacuum produced by the Ukrainian uprising.

Walt writes in his Foreign Policy blog (open access if you keep below a half-dozen articles per month) in the spirit of his “realist” philosophy of geopolitics, which I take to mean that, generally speaking, nation states have interests, not morals, and while it’s all very nice to talk about freedom, democracy and human rights, that’s mostly not how the sausage gets made.

I am cariacaturing him, but over the years I have come to appreciate his cut-the-crap posture, which is not at all the same as the neocon arrogance manifested by the Bush-Cheney criminals. (Walt consistently hated what they did and said so). Nor does he think much of the liberal interventionist wing represented by Samantha Power and, earlier, those who backed the attack on Serbia and the independence of Kosovo.

In his article called “The Bad Old Days Are Back,” Walt dismisses the idea that power politics is a thing of the past as so much facile rhetoric, especially given the blatant use of force by those who purport to think we’ve moved beyond that messy old history. In fact, pretending that power politics is gone to be replaced by a Fuyukamian consensus about a universal western-style liberal capitalist state looks a lot like a convenient cover to getting one’s own way—sort of like the way military dictatorships love to say that they’re above “politics.”

Because this vision was both seductive and self-congratulatory, it’s unsurprising that so many members of the U.S. foreign-policy elite succumbed to it. A world without power politics put the United States at the center of a supposedly tranquil order and portrayed America’s global role in a consistently positive light. It offered up an optimistic vision of international affairs in which mutually beneficial cooperation was the norm, yet it also gave the foreign-policy elite plenty of worthy and seemingly feasible projects to pursue in the name of the greater global good. With power politics gone, American foreign-policy mandarins could focus on a bunch of not-very-powerful “rogue states” and on spreading democracy, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, chasing down terrorists, spreading human rights, and whatever other worthy projects occurred to them.

Indeed, a lovely fantasy. But Walt then lays out why it didn’t quite work out:

The hubris of NATO expansion. In the early years after the Soviet collapse, no one could stop the U.S. from pushing the eastern boundaries of its military alliance as far as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic states with further ambitions openly discussed. Some in the foreign policy apparatus may now be regretting that Poppy Bush’s promises in the 1990s that the U.S. would not do that were ignored.

The hubris of remaking the map of the Middle East by military force: not much need be said about the stupidity of turning the 9/11 tragedy into an excuse to conquer a country that had nothing to do with it. Result: some trillions of dollars wasted, more terrorism than ever spreading throughout the region and serious diversion of needed attention from problems elsewhere.

Ongoing mishandling of China: “If power politics is over, Beijing doesn’t” seem to have gotten the message,”says Walt.

Ongoing mishandling of Russia: Guess what, the Russians perceive that they have interests in what happens in the states along their border, what a surprise. Putin and his mafia state couldn’t have appreciated the overthrow of a kindred spirit next door, either. While it would make sense to hope for something more humane to take their place, the wisdom of sending John McCain to rally with Ukrainians in the town square escapes me—unless you specifically wish to provoke Putin’s reaction or stick a finger in his eye.

Walt also argues that the U.S. has spent so much on its military that the allies have had a free ride. And he notes that the financial meltdown and subsequent Obama-led financiers’ coup smashed the aura of the Washington Consensus, showing the world that the current state of free-market capitalism isn’t all they’ve cracked it up to be.

Walt concludes that the “unipolar moment” post-1990 in which Washington called all the shots has come to an abrupt end. He worries that the neocon bluster that you hear from the disloyal GOP opposition is gaining strength given the lack of coherent policy orientation from the current team. He sees the entire foreign policy establishment floundering out of a refusal to see the world in “realist” geopolitical terms, which leads them to accuse Russia and China of aberrant behavior rather than doing exactly what one would expect—and what we would do if the roles were reversed. “Are they kidding us, kidding themselves, or all three at once?” he asks.

Walt’s advice, which will be ignored just as his sustained criticism of the Israel lobby has been, is to get real, “play hardball with friends and foes alike, . . . set clear priorities and stick to them instead of being blown off course by each new crisis or upheaval.”

Walt is not an insider, for now, at least. But he represents a sober, establishment view. I wonder how much he appreciates the takeover of the state by the financier elites and their influence on policy decisions. And I’m a lot more cynical about the benign marvels of American power. But for avoiding debacles and wasteful adventurism, we could do a lot worse than follow his advice.

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