Monday, December 1, 2008

no alternative to American aggression

Occasionally, I encounter arguments about foreign policy (particularly on cable news) that operate on the belief that there is a simple binary divide between realism and neoconservatism, as though no mature foreign policy could be advocated from outside those two camps. It's a conceit that frankly makes me want to run very fast into a very hard wall. Realism and neoconservatism, for all their mutual antagonism, really differ only in their preferred methods for manipulating, intimidating and damaging sovereign countries, and in what lines of rhetoric they use to justify the same. Their divide is really a question about means, not ends: what's the best way to preserve and strengthen the American imperium?

James Poulos has a post up today that is sort of a funky jazz fusion of the two, like some Asian/Tex-Mex restaurant in an Indian casino. (Zagat rated!) It's a testament to the ingrained absurdity of American foreign policy that someone as bright as James can begin a post discussing the failings of neoconservatism and come up with a list like this:

(1) Prevent the transformation of Russia into an enemy.

(2) Help India transition into a position of increased regional dominance and security.

(3) Speed Europe as quickly and surely as possible into the role of assertive global power capable of managing full responsibilities.

(4) Continue to manage China’s ‘peaceful rise.’

(5) Prevent Iraq from collapsing into a failed state.

(6) Prevent Pakistan from becoming the next Afghanistan.

(7) Arrange to avoid the spread of Islamic jihadism in Africa.

(8) Arrange to avoid the spread of civil war in South America.


This is a list, of course, that Vladimir Putin could love, an unapologetic statement of hegemony and imperial conceit. I count one two three four five of the eight that are simple questions of imposing American wishes onto foreign shores, and I'm not confident the other three can possibly be undertaken by this America without become yet more excuses for military aggression, destructive espionage and adventurism.

What is it about the American psyche that imagines that we have any business "managing" another country's peaceful rise? What sad, strangled vision of democracy enables a vision of foreign policy that has as its bedrock principle the idea that we are entitled to enact whatever change in whatever country we might decide? I am wondering what James would think about Chinese attempts to manage our peaceful decline. What if Europe doesn't want to take an assertive role in bullying the collective bad actors of the earth? They certainly have the imperial history necessary to understand the grave consequences of that stance, as well as the recent history of war on home soil that America profoundly lacks. The despicable history of American intervention in South America makes the notion that we have the moral clarity or right to stop civil war therein a cruel joke.

Poulos's list would appear uncontroversial to most American commentators. Strange, then, that so many of the world's dictators who we deride have taken to expressing themselves in precisely the kind of "stability and democracy" rhetoric that this kind of list relies on. Vladimir Putin, who pursues his country's military aggression with the kind of brio and ruthlessness that Donald Rumsfeld would admire, still finds it necessary to invoke the security of "his" people living in South Ossetia, when justifying the Georgian campaign. Neoconservatism and realism, far from being enemies, have bled into each other, mixing together to make one grand apologetic elixir for the aggressors of the world to rely on when leveraging their interests. The rule is simple: do what it takes to get what you want, and some justification, towards safety or to human rights, will emerge. America is still watched by the world, and it's not just music videos and commercials. The world's strongmen have been listening to our foreign policy justifications, and they took notes.

Ah, but of course, if there is one iron-clad rule to our foreign policy debate, one insisted on by realists, liberal internationalists and cons, paleo and neo, it's that there is no "moral equivalence" between America's actions and those of our antagonists. This is such an iron-clad article of faith that no argument needs to be made about particulars at all. Merely string the two words together, "moral equivalence," and the assumption is that you have brutally cowed anyone who argues that American actions in the world have moral content, and that this moral content can be reasonably compared to that of other countries. Well, there still remains some small contingent of us who don't believe that American actions are definitionally righteous, or more righteous than identical action undertaken by our antagonists, and we are unmoved by the lame feints in the direction of human rights and compassion that have infected our foreign policy discussions. Human rights are precisely what we sacrifice when we set out to remake the world to fit our designs. Military occupation and expansion are the death of democracy, always.

The only grand vision I have for foreign policy is this: that we leave the rest of the world alone, that we act only in instances of immediate and inevitable danger to our country and our close allies, and that we trust to the (time-honored) tradition that the best way to avoid conflict is not to start it. Sadly, I am destined to frustration for the foreseeable future; as this ideology has the benefit of being moral, supportive of democracy and pragmatically advantageous, it is naturally deeply unpopular.

(And oh, the work "relatively" can do...)


ryan said...

Now wait a minute here. You're all for the robust mitigation of domestic human suffering on moral grounds. But not for the mitigation of international human suffering on the same grounds? Nor, apparently, will you permit any international causes for domestic suffering to be grounds for a more activist foreign policy. Why is intervention in the form of throwing billions of dollars at something only okay at home? National sovereignty?

To turn your favorite question back at you, "And then what?!" Hundreds of thousands of people are being slaughtered in Sudan. And then what? International jihadists are destroying Pakistan and Iraq, threatening the lives, livelihoods, and security of millions, both within and without their respective countries. And then what? Russia is threatening the independence of its neighbors. And then what? Latin American strongmen are threatening to plunge their continent into chaos and poverty. And then what? Millions of illegal immigrants streaming across our borders have controversial but undeniable effects upon our economy. And then what?

For someone so concerned about good men doing nothing in the face of evil, your preferred foreign policy seems downright bizarre, and I can't for the life of me see what's "moral" about it, especially when the "do nothing" option seems to leave so much of what you would call evil completely unaddressed.

Freddie said...

I believe in democracy, ryan. The changes I want to see in American domestic governance I want enacted through democratic change. No aggressive or expanionistic military venture, no matter how well-intentioned, can be synthesized with a respect for democracy, as self-determination is an absolutely non-negotiable prerequisite for democracy. The people of Iraq or Iran or the Sudan or North Korea or anywhere else on the globe are not members of my democratic polity. There's no vote I can partake in to create the change I want to see in their countries. Theres no representative I can elect to be the kind of leader I want for them. This has nothing to do with lack of compassion. It has everything to do with respect for the basic notions of freedom from influence by great powers, and self-determination. That respect has terrible consequences, but abandoning it means abandoning the project of democracy.

ryan said...

"Self-determination"? You support any number of domestic programs that cut directly against that virtue. For example, it's okay for you to take my money against my will and give it to some self-determining schlub as long as there are enough people who agree with you to get a damn bill passed. That's democracy, as far as I can understand it. What exactly is moral about that? What about my right as a self-determining individual to tell him (and you), when you come to take my money, to go to hell? Just because I get a vote does not mean have the right to determine my own fate.

Well, the answer would seem to be that self-determination isn't really an absolute right. You don't get to do whatever the hell you want. This is true domestically, so I don't see why it shouldn't be any more true internationally. And if you value self-determination so much, shouldn't you be advocating for more military intervention in authoritarian states? The citizens of North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Burma, etc. don't have a political voice. If you believe in democracy, how can you possibly oppose regime change?

"Self-determination" my ass. You've got your policy preferences, and they don't include foreign (mis)adventures. Fair enough, but at least admit that you're being inconsistent.

Freddie said...

I think you are misunderstanding what I mean by self-determination. You might find this post clarifying.

I don't believe, ryan, that there's an inconsistency. While I'd like to be a real internationalist, the fact is that I'm not: there is such a thing as a state, and as illegitimate a construct as that may be, it exists. The people who my government taxes have a part in that government. They have votes, they have representation, and they have the ability to speak out against what they disagree with. When American invades some foreign land for its own good, what recourse does that country have? What possible method for redressing their grievances? What certainty do you have that these countries want to be liberated? The fact of the matter is, if we believe in democracy at all, we cannot act as if we are the arbiters of what is right for other countries. If you disagree with the ability of people within a democratic polity to level laws, rules and taxes on each other, that's a principled stand. It's just not called democracy. Similarly, if you believe that some good may be done by crossing borders and enforcing what we believe to be the right thing on sovereign people, you might be right. But it's got nothing to do with democracy.

MikeF said...

"While I'd like to be a real internationalist, the fact is that I'm not: there is such a thing as a state, and as illegitimate a construct as that may be, it exists."

That is as rigidly and pointlessly dogmatic as any libertarian's unyielding enthusiasm for the free market. Self-determination is fantasy when one group within a country - as has happened so many times - decides to deny other groups that same right and instead brutally oppresses them. In those cases, your position is not truly defending self-determination. It is simply pretending that the idea of the state is sacred, to the point that it trumps every consideration of human rights. Nonsense.

What certainty do you have that these countries want to be liberated?

An absolute certainty that hundreds of thousands of Rwandans would have welcomed our assistance during the 1990s, and that those who wouldn't have welcomed us had forfeited a right to have any say in the matter. Same with Sudan. Iraq is a different question of course. But we cannot treat these cases from the standpoint of dogmatic opposition to ever using force. Sometimes there is a clear moral imperative to do so.

Freddie said...

An absolute certainty that hundreds of thousands of Rwandans would have welcomed our assistance during the 1990s

You're probably right, of course, but that can't overwhelm the principle. I can't take your word on it without the direct input of the Rwandan people.

If only we could have taken some sort of national poll on what the Rwandans wanted, we could have legitimacy. Oh, right-- that's called voting, and I'm sorry to say it can't be enacted from across national borders. As soon as it is the people of foreign countries who are deciding what the people want, you have undermined the project of democracy. You can't have a nation's future be determined by foreign governments without the direction and mandate of the native people and preserve democracy. And I'm a democrat.

Scott said...

There certainly needs to be a middle ground between "The State is sacred; and the US has no business whatsoever meddling in the internal affairs of other nations, no matter how odious" and "The US is so gosh darn special and morally wonderful, that it has not only the authority but also the mandate, to use force of amrs to alter foreign governments that it finds to be obnoxious".

And there is; it's called the international community.

While not perfect--a "regime change" undertaken with broad support of the rest of the world (say Desert Storm) is more likely to be done on legitimate grounds than one undertaken unilaterally, or supported only by nations subject to political pressure (such as the more recent Gulf war).

An action by the international community is a) less likely to be the impetus for a blood feud on the part of the conquered nation; b) is less subject to capture/manipulation for imperialist ends--one of the problems with the current Iraq war is that nobody really believes that it was done for legit humanitarian or security reasons; and c) carries a much higher degree of moral authority.

BP said...

Give pragmatism respect. For America to leave the rest of the world alone is not an option.

It's best to read Larison with admiring detachment.

ryan said...

Freddie, I do see the distinction you're trying to draw, I just don't think it's an entirely valid one, or at least I don't think you can get there from your particular set of commitments. You seem to have some idealized version of "democracy" such that it has an inherently positive moral valence. I can't for the life of me see why that should be true.

Politics is, as far as I can tell, simply the threat of violence. Democracy is not some objective moral good, but simply a relatively efficient and pleasant way of managing that threat in such a way that ensures that it need be carried out as infrequently as possible. Even so-called democracies run into situations in which that threat needs to be carried out, e.g. the American Civil War.

Even without that, if you happen to be a political minority, you're SOL as far as your political agenda. For some things, this doesn't matter: one may argue the wisdom of, for example, bailing out the automakers, but I'd be hard pressed to say that doing one or the other is an objective moral evil. But for others, say parents' rights to educate their children, this really does matter, and the fact that I get a vote in the matter doesn't make the majority any less oppressive.

So yes, in a sense, I do "believe" in "democracy," but only to the extent that I think it is one of the better ways of avoiding violence. But I don't think it's inherently more legitimate than any other form of coercion. Politics is coercion. There's no way around it. Democracies generally have to employ the more overt forms of brute force coercion less frequently than dictatorships, but just because they're prettier doesn't make them any less coercive. We've got pushing 3 million people locked up right now. China has less than that. But this is okay because our prisoners had a chance to vote at some point? All democracy does is decrease the incentive to rebel for anyone with a shred of perspective. One can argue that this is a good thing, but that hardly puts it in a different moral category.

What I don't get here is why you seem to think otherwise. You're an atheist, and a self-described non-interventionist, yet you assign positive moral status to representative government and, support coercive domestic policies, but aren't willing to extend that overseas. The political process, i.e. the application of threats to produce results, is different in form from domestic politics, but how is it different in kind? Whether it's a domestic majority or an international sovereign saying "Do this or I'll kick your ass," the recipient of such a demand always has the same options: pay up or throw down. If they decide to say "No," they either get thrown in jail, start a civil war, or an international war. Why is the application of violence morally different in any of those circumstances if I get a vote?

Matoko said...

Whether it's a domestic majority or an international sovereign saying "Do this or I'll kick your ass," the recipient of such a demand always has the same options: pay up or throw down.

Because it simply doesn't work, Ryan.
Not internationally at least. We can do that domestically because everyone here has agreed to the rules.
We simply cannot terraform other cultures into judeoxian democracies through force.
Case in point, Iraq, where America spent 700 billion dollars and 4000 lives to midwife the birth of an Islamic state (the Iraqis wrote shari'a law into their constitution.)
We can't afford gallant, doomed, and profoundly unrealistic international initiatives anymore.
Let's learn from experience and, like Candide, stick to our own garden.

Jake said...

ryan- i'm constrained to agree w/ you to the extent that the goal of foreign policy should be liberty, not necessarily democracy.

the question for policymakers, therefore, should be how liberty is best achieved in foreign lands. sometimes the answer is dropping a few bombs or a bloody coup, sometimes it's soft power and other times it's diplomacy.

on the other hand, i don't think that your policy of eliminating human suffering everywhere in the world is a workable one, as america's resources, though vast, are limited. perhaps you think resources should be directed toward the sudan or kashmir instead of gm and ford... maybe so, but even then there would be myriad shitstorms that we couldn't afford to weather.

it's nice to acknowledge that a child starving in detroit is the same as a child starving in north korea and we should thus take steps to end all human suffering wherever it occurs. but that approach would turn the entire world order on hits noggin. national sovereignty has served as the basis of international law since the treaty of westphalia, in like, the 1600s. every treaty since and every ngo from the UN to the world bank to the africa commission has been premised on agreements among *nations*. again, maybe you believe the world order ought to be turned on its head, but it would be nice if you had a new order in mind first.

finally, i'm not sure you're breaking any new ground with your argument that politics is the threat of violence ("war is an extension of politics by other means"). of course it is... so what?

ryan said...

Makato and Jake: I'm doing a bit of devil's advocate work here. I don't really think the state is really supposed in the business of mitigating suffering at all. Freddie does. So while I'm not trying to suggest that the most responsible foreign policy involves constant interference with the domestic affairs of other states, I am trying to tease out why Freddie seems to think the two positions are coherent.

With that in mind, I'd point out that it's one thing to say that as a prudential matter it's easier to get away with--and manage--on the domestic front than across polities, but that isn't a reason to say that it's wrong to do so. All you can really conclude from there is that because the logistics are harder you need a more convincing set of circumstances before you try something across national borders. You can't conclude that international intervention is inherently wrong, and that's what Freddie seems to want to say. You can't use a prudential argument to reach a moral conclusion. Doesn't work. I can agree with you that foreign intervention is difficult, but I can also conceive of a view that rather than "sticking to our own garden," we're constantly on the lookout for opportunities to be interventionist, keeping in mind the difficulties involved. Clearly that's not what either of you or Freddie wants. Why? Respecting sovereignty as a moral good? Where, exactly, does that come from, pray tell?

And Jake, the "so what" is that it's inconsistent to say that it's okay to use violence domestically, but not internationally on the basis that coercion is wrong. If it's wrong one place it's wrong both places. I happen to believe that it isn't wrong, so this isn't my problem, it's Freddie's. And again, "It doesn't usually work out" doesn't mean that it's wrong, it just means we have to be careful.

I'm still completely unconvinced that Freddie's expansive role for the state on a domestic level is at all compatible with his minimalist concept for international interventionism. If that commits one to a position that, as Jake suggests, turns the world order on its head, that's not my problem, it's Freddie's.

Matoko said...

Ryan, my prism is evo theory of culture.
The best intervention we can do is the subtlest one.
Dubai Ports World was an excellent example of where we could have used to soft power to grow a viable stockmarket in MENA. That is the kind of international intervention I would be in favor of.
Memes are competitive, and selection of the fittest works there also. Economic initiatves to support free trade and capitalist economies is the intervention we should promote.
We can't export Judeoxian democracy as a product--that strat is a loozer. "Scolding" is a loozer, mil-intervention is a loozer.
Be subtle, be subversive, be smart.

And I'm with Freddie on preferring to spend treasure locally to better the lives of citizens. Bootstrapping only works for the 40percent (of the bellcurve).....the low tail needs help.

Matoko said...

By scolding I mean sanctions and public denounciations.
Never works.

Freddie said...

The problem is, ryan, that I'm not a dictator, but a member of a civic polity, and while that means that I have my opinion and my vote, everyone else does too. So we talk and we vote, and together we determine the way forward for our country. Yes, eventually, democracy is always coercive for some. The minority often has to do things they don't approve of, like paying taxes. But they have a say, they have a forum and a vote, and they have some impact on the course of events.

Where, meanwhile, is any similar way forward for those who we would invade? What say did Iraqis have before we invade? What say would those from Darfur have? They have none. They aren't part of a civic society that enables them to influence our behavior. They are different because they aren't our fellow citizens, not because they are less worthy, but because they are disenfranchised from our decision making process. I don't think we have the right to profoundly change the lives of those who have no voice in our process.

ryan said...

Well, Freddie, I see what you're trying to do, but I'm not sure you can make your distinction hang on "having a voice" or not.

Say, for example, that like 2/3 of the people in America, you live in a county in which at least 60% of the people in your voting district vote one way. If you're in the minority in one of those districts, then essentially you have no political voice, because your preference will never be expressed politically. Unless you're going to fall back on there being some essential moral quality in even having the ability to participate in the political process, however futile the result, the difference between such a person and someone in a foreign country is negligible. Neither has any realistic hope of their political voice having any concrete effect. Yelling against a dictator in Venezuela has about as much effect as a conservative voting in the Upper West Side or a liberal voting in rural Alabama.

If you're going to divorce effectiveness of one's political voice from the value of having one period, then you're going to have to deal with the fact that resisting invasion is, at root, an exercise of political expression. The fact that you lose doesn't seem to be any more significant whether one loses in the election booth or the battlefield.

My question is this: are you going to posit an inherent moral difference here completely irrespective of outcomes? Just to be clear here, doing so would completely eliminate, say, monarchy, as a legitimate form of government. If you do want to posit such a distinction, where does it come from? What exactly are you going to base that on, especially given your atheistic commitments?