Thursday, December 28, 2006

How realistic is the reality of Realism?

With the collapse of Bush foreign policy in Iraq a vacuum has been created. Liberal Internationalism is not an option under this White House. Vice President Cheney and the Neo-Conservatives are rushing to patch the holes their sinking ship and may succeed. If they don’t then that leaves Realism

Can the Realist school of foreign policy making a comeback? James Baker, former Secretary of State and co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, is certainly a member and proponent of that camp. What is Realism? Here is a short definition published before on this blog:
The Realists believe the United States should only do what is in its interest. They do not believe in values, only interests. There are no friends, only temporary allies. Thus support for Saddam Hussein during the war with Iran, which he started, then turning around and going to war against Saddam Hussein three years later when he invades Kuwait, then leaving him in power when he is defeated in that war, then encouraging the Iraqi people to rise up against him, and then doing absolutely nothing to support the Iraqi people when he crushes this rebellion is no contradiction to the Realists but simple adjustments to policy made to maintain the balance of power which is perceived to be in American interests.
Is this desirable as an alternative to the current policies? Timothy Garton Ash thinks not. Here is his piece in today’s Guardian:
In world politics, 2007 may be the year of realism. If that means getting rid of dangerous illusions, it's a good thing. If it means abandoning idealism, it's a bad thing. In the way of things, it will probably mean some of both. Back in 2002, a senior adviser to President Bush told the journalist Ron Suskind that people in "the reality-based community" - journalists, for example - had got it seriously wrong. "That's not the way the world really works any more," the adviser said. "We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality." So, while ignoring the reality-based evidence for global warming, and relying on what wits described as "faith-based intelligence" for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Bushies set about transforming the world through a democratic revolution kickstarted by the use of force. The empire struck.

Five years on, the reality has struck back. As we move into 2007, all the talk is of sobering realities - Iraq, Afghanistan, climate change and global economics. … Insufficient action will be taken in 2007, you can be sure of that, but at least the reality is no longer denied.

… Bush is no longer pretending that "we're winning" in Iraq. The Iraq Study Group (ISG) has reaffirmed the centrality of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement to the future of the west's relations with the Arab and Muslim world. Even if the Bush administration is not prepared to talk directly to Iran and Syria, the idea of crusading against an ostracised "axis of evil" is comprehensively discredited. Of the three alleged members of that axis, Iraq is now more of a recruiting ground for terrorists than it was five years ago, North Korea has nuclear weapons and Iran is stronger than ever. So much for a faith-based foreign-policy.

Unfortunately, this new realism comes packaged with an older realism, or realpolitik - an approach, last seen in the administration of Bush Sr, which insists you must take your allies where you find them and not worry too much about the way they treat their subjects. The national interest, and the west's economic and security interests, justify good relations with friendly autocracies such as Saudi Arabia. James Baker, co-chair of the ISG, and Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to Bush Sr, are leading representatives of this approach. Although Bush Jr is resisting this return of the father, the trend in Washington is clearly from Bush II back towards Bush I.

A country to watch in tracking this trend is Iran. Before the invasion of Iraq, we wanted two things from Iran. First, to slow down, and preferably halt, its nuclear programme. And, second, to speed up the process of domestic political change, leading to more respect for human rights, pluralism and, eventually, democracy. Now we want three things from Tehran: those two plus its help in stabilising Iraq, through its influence with the Shia majority there. Iran is stronger and more hostile, yet we want more from it. There is no way we will get all three at once. So which area will the west go soft on in 2007? I bet it will be human rights and democratisation.

Signs of the new old realism are also to be found in the policy of the west's most articulate serving exponent of idealistic liberal internationalism, Tony Blair. Recently, London rolled out the red carpet for the friendly dictator of Kazakhstan. In southern Iraq, British troops are preparing their withdrawal, leaving something well short of democracy. In Dubai before Christmas, Blair said that in the struggle against terrorism, and facing the threat from Iran, we must strengthen our ties with "moderate", albeit authoritarian, Arab states. Challenged about the authoritarian character of the United Arab Emirates - where, in recent elections to an advisory council, just 1% of citizens were allowed to vote - Blair told the Financial Times: "It's got to move at its own pace, but the direction is very clear."

I'm waiting for someone to pen a new version of the late Jeane Kirkpatrick's famous article of 1979, "Dictatorships and double standards", in which she argued that friendly, anti-Soviet, rightwing autocracies should be treated differently from pro-Soviet, leftwing totalitarian regimes. Double standards? Yes, please. Today, a friendly autocracy will be defined partly by its positioning in the struggle with jihadist terrorism and partly by its readiness to sell its energy and natural resources to the west. Since China is competing for those resources and does not give a damn about the human rights records of its suppliers, our capacity to impose political conditions on our suppliers is correspondingly reduced.

What should this policy be called? Most people have forgotten that Bush Jr came to power in 2001 preaching a "new realism", in contrast to what he pilloried as the unfocused, liberal idealist interventionism of the Clinton years. However, after the 9/11 attacks and especially in his second term, he came to advocate a breathtakingly idealist policy of global democratisation. The American political writer Robert Kagan described Bush's new approach as a "higher realism". So that was the new new realism. Now we have the new new new realism, or new3 realism. If new2 realism had an unrealistically large admixture of idealism, believing that democracy would spread across the Middle East as it had across eastern Europe after 1989, new3 realism risks swinging back to the opposite extreme, making the old mistake of believing that a durable order can be built on friendly autocracies. So let us indeed have a reality-based international community in 2007, but let's not have too much realism. In the long run, nothing could be less realistic.

No comments: