Ethical Realism

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After neo-conservatism, after muscular wilsonianism — after Iraq — the left-leaning Anatol Lieven and right-leaning John Hulsman are suggesting a new American approach:

Ethical realism points toward an international strategy based on prudence; a concentration on possible results rather than good intentions; a close study on the nature, views, and interests of other states, and a willingness to accommodate them when possible; and a mixture of profound American patriotism with an equally profound awareness of the limits both on American power and on American goodness.

Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, Ethical Realism

In short: more modesty, less Messiah, but still engaged. But what kind of engagement, in this chastened mode, is appropriate?

Figuring out a new way to walk through the world [Gab / Flickr]

Their book comes out at an interesting time. The realists are back, obviously. James Baker is heading the Iraq Study Group. Robert Gates is Secretary of Defense in confirmation. (And Henry Kissinger is still “almost like a member of the [Bush] family,” says Bob Woodward.) So what changes when you add the “ethical” surname to the realism mantle? And if we replace the goal of democratization with that of Lieven and Hulsman’s “Great Capitalist Peace,” are we settling for a perpetually inequitable globalized economy? And apart from ethics, is this wise? Is a world of haves and have-nots a recipe for long-term stability?

But how about a simpler (hah!) thread question to start: Can you be ethical and realist at the same time?

And a challenge: Lieven and Hulsman were able to contruct a serious argument despite serious political difference. (Do the New America and Heritage Foundations even play softball together in same the wonk league?) Let’s rise to their level.

Anatol Lieven

Senior research fellow, New America Foundation

Former correspondent, The Financial Times and The Times

Co-author, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World

Christopher Preble

Director, Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute

Former U.S. Navy officer and Gulf War veteran

Extra Credit Reading

Shadi Hamid, Spring-time for Realist Blogging?, The Belgravia Dispatch, January 1, 2006: “Nikolas K. Gvosdev, the editor at the excellent National Interest, has recently started up a blog, The Washington Realist. I particularly liked his description of realism in his inaugural post back in November: ‘We all know the drill–the realists idolize ‘stability’ above all else, and really they must be “un-American” because they dislike freedom and democracy, preferring the company of autocrats and dictators……This ignores the emergence of American streams of realism that do understand the importance of values and aspirations as a component in shaping foreign policy–a point even Henry Kissinger, the ‘uber-realist’ lightning rod for both the left and the neo-conservative right in the United States–acknowledges.’”

James Crabtree, Everyone Hates George Bush’s Foreign Policy, NDN Blog, October 10, 2006: “[Ethical Realism] might sound like a contradiction in terms, like dry rain or compassionate conservative. But the two make a convincing, intriguing partnership. Lieven is a democrat, a multilateralist and a brit. Hulsman is a republican, a realist and an American. And yet they teamed up for a bi-partisan foreign policy tag-team to tell the world they both think George Bush and his Neo Conservative henchman are, broadly speaking, nuts.”

Steven Benen, The ‘think tank’ where independent thinking will get you fired, The Carpetbagger Report, August 7, 2006: “In the world of DC think tanks, the Heritage Foundation has no serious rival. The far-right institution has more power, influence, money, and even real estate than any competitor, regardless of ideology. But as TNR’s Spencer Ackerman explained in an interesting online piece today, at Heritage, it’s not enough to simply be a loyal Republican; if you disapprove of the neoconservatives’ approach to foreign policy, you’re going to get fired. That’s exactly what happened to Heritage’s senior foreign policy analyst, John Hulsman.”

Rushworth M. Kidder, Dear Nancy and Harry, Ethics Newsline, November 13, 2006: “So you were spot-on, Nancy, in telling the nation after the election that the ‘Democrats intend to lead the most honest, the most open, and the most ethical Congress in history.’…You’ll do it, I hope, by giving genuine, sustained, and probing attention to ethics — and by facing down four dangerous counterarguments.”

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  • plnelson

    “a concentration on possible results rather than good intentions; a close study on the nature, views, and interests of other states,”

    In principle it sounds great. Results rather than intentions, close study, etc. It sounds like something a scientist or engineer (like me) could endorse But it has one major flaw: there IS no science to this. We have no way to predict what will be successful or what the outcome of some intervention will be. “Experts” will disagree. Hard data is scarce. Other forces will intentionally try to undermine our success. There will be no way to have confidence in any policy.

    If I’m designing a circuit or when my father (who was a civil engineer) was designing an aqueduct there are formulae and data and material specifications and tolerances and other things to rely on to give us confidence in our design and so we can specify a range of operating capacities for it. There’s nothing like that for foreign policy. Talking about “prudence” and “realism” is delusional and gives false confidence. The neocons had no basis for confidence in their plans, but neither do the “realists”.

    Since it’s all a crap-shoot, the correct solution is to have to roll the dice as infrequently as possible since every roll of the dice represents a potential disaster. A major power such as the US can never become completely disengaged from the world. But we can deliberately set as a goal becoming LESS entangled with the world, especially the wackier parts of it that we have no realistic hope of understanding well enough to rationally influence. We can start by making specific plans for energy independence. We can also adopt a non-interventionist policy in the internal affairs of other nations. We can put tighter statutory or even Constitutional limits on authorizing US military force.

  • http://del.icio.us/plaintext plaintext

    But building an aqueduct also represents a crap shoot and potential for disaster in spite of the fact that a masterful, realistic?, discipline may have been employed in its design and creation – the tendency toward entropy being inevitable if not predictable. The ethical question is whether the potential for disaster outweighs the benefits of delivering water to a thirsty populace.

    Having not read the book, I would deduce that an ethical realistic assessment of the Iraq invasion is proposed as another “ounce of civet” that will sooth us upon discovering the reality that defeat (lack of success?) in Iraq was inevitable. How can we propose to be ethical when we bomb their country under the auspices of benevolence – no, this is done in hindsight. Is there some fundamental moral lapse which guides us (USA) inevitably to this violence?

    Beyond that, this ethical realism is pretty elitist stuff and it would not surprise me to find that it has little purchase in places such as Iraq where an aqueduct (even were it erected by Saddam Hussein himself) is a more apt vision of success than a properly realized constitution however Democratic or Republican or even Islamic.

    But perhaps the thesis of ethical realism, although proposed in relation to our conquest of Iraq, has a more futuristic tone. Now we enter the realm of speculation. Will America apply this new credo to Iran? N. Korea?, China? Places where the realistic approach seems to be all that is available without confronting the concept of “limited nuclear war.” And where is this great ethos guiding us in places like the Sudan where such an approach may be employed without the likelihood of environmental catastrophe? We simply do not have any valid track record of consistency and were it my country, I would not relish the prospect of another experimental political philosophy thrust upon me.

  • plnelson

    “But building an aqueduct also represents a crap shoot and potential for disaster in spite of the fact that a masterful, realistic?, discipline may have been employed in its design and creation”

    Not even CLOSE. The vast, overwhelming majority of civil engineering projects do not fail. They work within their design envelope, as designed. On the rare occasion when one does fail, e.g., the recent tunnel collapse in Boston, it makes national headlines and becomes a subject for study of generations of engineering students.

    Foreign policy adventures hardly ever work as designed . . . Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon in the 1980′s, etc. There is simply no demonstrable basis for confidence in any plans to deal with broken societies and violent conflicts.

    “The ethical question is whether the potential for disaster outweighs the benefits of delivering water to a thirsty populace.” My point is that we do have demonstrably credible means of making such an assessment WRT to aqueducts and other engineering projects. We DO NOT have the ability to make such assessments WRT to foreign policy and it’s intellectually dishonest to presume that we do.

  • Mr. V.

    Would “ethical realism,” by some other name, spell “realpolitik”?

    The emphasis on “possible results rather than good intentions” with a careful eye “on the nature, views, and interests of other states” sounds like Machiavelli’s “verità effettuale,” which embodies the notion of usefulness as the only objective reality–i.e., to regard others as they actually are, rather than as they are often fancied to be and, thus, to attempt improving them along possible lines, rather than impossible ones. (See The Prince, chapter 15.)

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    Everyone is now saying the realists are back but I’m wondering if they ever really went away. One of the key assumptions of the realist school is that might is right. Following this, we could say that the more moderate petite-réaliste have returned and the pumped up, grande-réaliste, (referred to more commonly as neo-conservatives) with their over-inflated view of US might have been humbled by the Iraq war.

    I call both groups realists because they ultimately believe in the preeminent power of US military and US led globalization, and by implication the desire for unfettered access to other’s resources and markets.

    The grande-réaliste may have tried to window-dress their policy as American goodness with terms like “freedom” and “democracy” to sell the project to an accepting public and political body, but the rest of the world quickly saw through this.

    So now the petite-réaliste group has gained the upper hand, but it is blind optimism to think they will be more ethical in their dealings with other states. Politicians and government act more than ever at the behest of corporations driven by profit not social justice. Yes, they will be more, well, realistic about America’s ability to shape world history, especially on its own. After 6 years of grande folie, this in itself is a welcomed change.

    Just please don’t brand the next edition as more ethical in order to once again feel good about US imperialism.

  • Old Nick

    I like where sidewalker is going. I wanna piggyback: Here’s a question for the ‘realists’: if the people of another country wish to restrict from access to their natural resources the portion of the multinational corporation-constituency our government hauls the military/diplomatic water for, do these new ‘realists’ simply shrug and say ‘okay’?

    Or do they bully, cajole and/or otherwise raise the specter of the US military and/or other economic ‘sanctions’ until the ‘markets’ of the recalcitrant nation open widely to US-based multinational exploitation?

    How on earth did our coltan/petroleum/etc. get into their country?!

    The nerve of those people to resent or obstruct our God-given right to extract their lands’ resources!

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    The petite-réaliste generally oppose the grande-réaliste’s ideology driven approach to international relations with their more pragmatic and rational approach to the exercise of power.

    But one should not accept this simple dichotomy without due consideration of the fundamental goal of these two schools of realism: US imperialism. Their approach may be different, the grand version more inclined to step on the emotional accelerator and the petite version more incline to step on the sentimental brake, but their aim and their ideology of liberal capitalism is the same.

    An alternative would be a policy driven by the “real” evidence of human suffering and the very “ethical” action of diverting the billions in US military spending and profiteering to programmes that would help poor and sick people around the world.

  • plnelson

    “Here’s a question for the ‘realists’: if the people of another country wish to restrict from access to their natural resources the portion of the multinational corporation-constituency our government hauls the military/diplomatic water for, do these new ‘realists’ simply shrug and say ‘okay’?”

    Wouldn’t that depend on the goals? ‘Realpolitik’ is essentially geopolitics without sentimentality – you do whatever will most pragmatically achieve your goals. If the best way to do that is to get in bed with a tyrant or provide relief aid for a tsunami or withdraw your troops from a war that’s not working then that’s what you do. In the case of oil, above, if your goal is to secure a ready supply of the stuff then you do what you have to do.

    In theory I agree with that approach. I’ve long held that the only legitimate purpose of any government’s foreign policy is to advance the interests of that nation. In my view the ONLY metric by which we should measure US foreign policy is whether it makes us (US citizens) freer, richer, or more secure.

    But the flaw in this whole discussion, which I pointed out above and which I will continue to remind readers of, is that fundamentally, it assumes we have more power to predict the results of our actions and policies than we actually have. So whether it comes to trying to secure a supply of oil, free people from a tyrant, stop a civil war, etc, a “realist” approach is, itself, unrealistic, because it’s based on knowing what the result or outcome of some intervention will be.

  • plnelson

    “and their ideology of liberal capitalism is the same.

    An alternative would be a policy driven by the “real” evidence of human suffering and the very “ethical” action of diverting the billions in US military spending and profiteering to programmes that would help poor and sick people around the world. “

    Not necessarily. I would argue that the objective evidence is that those societies that have adopted “liberal capitalism” as the locomotive of their economic train have eliminated far more poverty and raised people’s material living standards way more than any aid program. I would suggest China and India as good examples of where 10′s of millions of people rise out of poverty every year thanks to capitalism. Singapore and Hong Kong provide earlier examples, and contrasting South and North Korea provides more evidence.

    On the other hand, if you look at Africa, where the US, the EU and NGO’s, together, have provided 10′s of billions of dollars in aid for decades and most of it has been squandered or ended up in the hands of corrupt officials, and the African people are mired in poverty and endless conflict among themselves we see what happens to aid programs.

    BOTH of these illustrate my ongoing point here because neither one was a planned outcome of US foreign policy. No one had a clue when Nixon “opened” China that the the PRC would turn into the capitalistic powerhouse it is today. And everybody thought that by now Africa would start to get its act together.

    We cannot predict outcomes with any reliability. So whether it’s throwing money at the poor in Africa or invading mideast nations, we should just say “no” unless outcomes don’t matter.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    plnelson,

    I think if you look at countries with a secure middle-class, such as Japan and those in Northern Europe, you’ll find that it was not liberal capitalism or neo-liberalism that grew these, but rather capitalism kept in check by strong social policies and programmes and government intervention on behalf of those who cannot swim with the sharks. It would also be hard to describe China political economy as liberal capitalism. But this is beside the point.

    What I am suggesting is that the petite and the grande realists are more similar than they are different and that an ethical approach to international relations would look quite different and be based less on self-interest and more on cooperation and building global social security through a range of grass-roots initiatives. Can you tell me that the billions wasted on arms if diverted into building schools, hospitals, sanitation facilities and providing other means to increase self-reliance will not have a positive effect?

  • plnelson

    “I think if you look at countries with a secure middle-class, such as Japan and those in Northern Europe, you’ll find that it was not liberal capitalism or neo-liberalism that grew these, but rather capitalism kept in check by strong social policies and programmes and government intervention on behalf of those who cannot swim with the sharks.”

    Japan does NOT have strong social policies or much of a safety net – their “safety net” is based on family and cultural values or individual decisions by corporations. And Europe has gone about as far as it can with its model – The big economies – France and Germany – have almost no GDP growth and double-digit unemployment rates – their model seems to be a failure in a world where labor, creative talent, and products are global.

    As for China – I wasn’t talking about their “political” economy – just their economy. I agree their political econmy is not liberal capitalism; technically it’s fascism. For those who don’t recall the differences between different systems – socialism is a system where the major industries are owned by the state. Fascism is a system where the economy is essentially capitalistic (private ownership of businesses and investment capital) but the government is totalitarian and repressive and business has close ties with the government. This describes the PRC perfectly.

    “Can you tell me that the billions wasted on arms if diverted into building schools, hospitals, sanitation facilities and providing other means to increase self-reliance will not have a positive effect?”

    I thought I made myself clear: The answer to your question is that NOBODY can tell you that. That’s my whole point – policies that are based on being able to confidently assert that some major foreign policy initiative will produce a predictible result are intrinsically not realistic. Africa provides a good example of how it’s possible to pour vast government and private-aid resources into a place and still have an endless disaster.

  • plnelson

    Just to make a meta-point about the last few entries, where we’ve talked about different countries and systems . . .

    Comparing Japan and China and Singapore and different African places and Iraq and France and Germany and the US, etc, really illustrates the big point here – we have NO IDEA what features of the cultures, histories, family structures, languages, religions, philosophies, and geographies of these places make them the way they are or are prerequisites for particular outcomes.

    What made it possible for Japan to turn into the modern high-tech economy they are today, and why did they adopt a free press and multiparty political system after WWII with so little difficulty, and why did they lay down their arms and get to work straightaway rebuilding their country during the American occupation, instead committing acts of sabotage against US forces the the Iraqis do? There have been countless books written on these questions and I’ve probably read half of them. Back in the 80′s James Fallows publically called me “Nelson the Bad” in the Atlantic Monthly magazine for accusing him of Japan-bashing in an article he wrote.

    We can speculate on these things and there are certainly many opinions and points of view, but we cannot say we “know” the answer with any intellectual honesty whatsoever! And that is the reason why realpolitik and “ethical realism” are unrealistic.

  • rc21

    plnelson: Great posts I agree once again.

    Question. Do you think ethical realism, or realpolitik allowed Hitler to come to power and come close to destoying most of the western world. And do you believe this same thinking is what allows butchers like Saddam,Idi Amin,PolPot , Castro. etc to rise and stay in power for so long. Just wondering what your thoughts are on this.

    As an aside I was for Bush taking out Saddam, and I wish he would have made the fact that he is a cold hearted murderer as the number one and only reason for doing so. If the UN had any degree of morality or decency. We would not see these genocidal wars popping up every other week. But I digress.

  • plnelson

    Question. Do you think ethical realism, or realpolitik allowed Hitler to come to power and come close to destoying most of the western world. And do you believe this same thinking is what allows butchers like Saddam,Idi Amin,PolPot , Castro. etc to rise and stay in power for so long.

    The problem with comparing Hitler to the others is that he actually invaded and conquered most of Europe. Since realpolitik is based on the principle that nations should act in pragmatic terms without regard to sentimentality then allowing Hitler to come to power is a clear failure of realpolitik because in pragmatic terms allowing a despotic nation to conquer Europe is not a very practical outcome.

    WRT the others – Saddam, Amin, Castro, Pol Pot, etc – a pragmatic approach would dictate that other nations should only interfere when there are practical reasons for doing so and when the costs and outcome can be predicted well. Those conditions are seldom met.

    The whole question comes down to the purpose of government. As I said above, I regard the only legitimate purpose of US foreign poliicy to be to advance our interests as US citizens, i.e., to protect or enhance our freedom, security, and prosperity. If taking out Saddam or some other dictator would do that at a cost less than whatever he costs us alive, then great. If not then I don’t see any logical point to it.

    Keeping it pragmatic avoids the fuzzy moral questions that killing Saddam just because we don’t like him introduces. When is it OK to kill a foreign leader? Who gets to decide? Are we the “enforcer” for the UN? That whole line of thinking becomes an ambiguous rat-hole.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    plnelson: That’s my whole point – policies that are based on being able to confidently assert that some major foreign policy initiative will produce a predictible result are intrinsically not realistic.

    It seems you are thinking too grandly when you talk about major foreign policy. Of course there are no quick-fix, social engineering style solutions. That’s why more grass-roots efforts not led by the CIA, the Pentagon, or aid agencies with a political agenda should be supported.

    plnelson: Africa provides a good example of how it’s possible to pour vast government and private-aid resources into a place and still have an endless disaster.

    Annual US aid to Africa is about 6 billion, that is two weeks’ spending on the Iraq war. It is less than 1.5% of DOD spending. How can one call 6 billion vast government and private aid resources? If we think about these numbers, it is folly to suggest that the US and other wealthy nations have made any serious effort to assist Africa.

    plnelson: Japan does NOT have strong social policies or much of a safety net

    This is a huge surprise to me. My children went to subsidised daycare and now go to public schools. My family is covered by universal health care. If I loose my job I will receive unemployment insurance. My neighbour has a disability and is on social aid. There is a public pension system that I pay into for retirement.

    Most of the social welfare laws were enacted in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, so while it is true that Japan had a more traditional system of family and community based mutual assistance, as the strength of these social institutions have waned, the public social welfare system has strengthened, though it is now under threat as Japan adopts more neo-liberal economic policies.

  • plnelson

    Annual US aid to Africa is about 6 billion

    No.

    This is a common mistake liberals make: thinking the government is the be-all-and end-all. US government aid is only a tiny part of total US aid to Africa. The United States has a vibrant private sector economy and most US aid to Africa is not sent through the government, but instead through pricvate aid agencies, religious organizations, or organizations that focus on specific problems (e.g. the Bill and melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to fight malaria).

    The Economist magazine says that total aid to Africa since 1960 has been $450 billion dollars – the equivalent of four Marshall Plans.

    “plnelson: Japan does NOT have strong social policies or much of a safety net”

    This is a huge surprise to me.

    Japanese government per-capita spending on health, pension, and poverty programs is a tiny fraction of that in the US. Japan still relies on the family as the basic unit of social support, and on personal savings and personal responsibility for retirement and “rainy-day” situations, and they also have high expectations of employers covering many basic social welfare functions that are performed by governments in other countries. It will be interesting to see whether this changes as the social contract with employers continues to break down as it has in recent years.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    plnelsonThe Economist magazine says that total aid to Africa since 1960 has been $450 billion dollars – the equivalent of four Marshall Plans.

    Let’s do your math. If we take the figure of $450 billion and divide it by 45 years (1960-2005), we get 10 billion a year, not the “liberal” figure of 6 billion I mentioned above. That makes it about 2.25% of the US DOD annual budget, not 1.5%. Or it is just slightly more than one year of the US Department of Defense budget.

    Slight differences, same result: a foreign policy that has everything to do with US imperialism and little to do with helping humanity.

    I won’t belabor this point since it is off the topic of the thread, but if you look at OECD health spending statistics, for example, you’ll find that Japan’s public spending is just slightly less than the US. One should also factor in that Japanese people are generally healthier (far less obesity, for example) which keeps costs down. Please provide some facts to back up your bold opinions.

    http://www.oecd.org/document/46/0,2340,en_2649_33929_34971438_1_1_1_1,00.html

  • plnelson

    “Slight differences, same result: a foreign policy that has everything to do with US imperialism and little to do with helping humanity.

    I won’t belabor this point since it is off the topic of the thread”

    It’s not off topic at all. The point is that over decades Africa has received enourmous amounts of aid – far more than any other place of comparable population in the world, and yet they are a complete mess and by many metrics getting worse. So this supports my point that outcomes cannot be predicted and therefore the whole philosophical underpinnings of “ethical realism” or realpolitik are fundamentally flawed.

    Aid-to-Africa as a percentage of the US DoD budget has no more relevance to this question than aid-to-Africa as a percentage of the size of the US entertainment industry or the travel industry, or how much Americans spend on their cars every year. Money is fungible and before we can talk rationally about whether we, the American public, should spend one dollar or 100 billion dollars we first have to have clear evidence that spending it will produce reliably predictible results.

  • Sutter

    Plnelson, you certainly raise an important point — we should be less confident that our actions will result in the consequences we desire or predict. That is a cautionary lesson for practitioner of all schools of the foreign policy debate, be they neocons, realists, liberal internationalists, Wilsonian idealists, or whatever. (By the way, though you criticize realism, you are a “realist” as that term is used in foreign policy debates; in that context, the term means an individual who believes that only the national interest, strictly construed, should guide foreign policy decisions. In fact, the principal foreign policy journal is the bimonthly (until recently quarterly) “The National Interest.”) But I don’t think that point gets you as far as you want it to take you. That is, the fact of indeterminacy doesn’t mean we just shouldn’t try. The stakes in foreign policy are just too high, and foreign policymakers — like all policymakers — have to act under conditions of uncertainty. You are correct that they should do so with minimal hubris, but I don’t think you are right that the answer is to do as little as possible. The risk of getting Africa wrong may be high, but that doesn’t prove that it is greater than the risk of doing nothing. Ditto a thousand other foreign policy issues. All that you (very valid) criticism proves is that policymaking is far less determinate than civil engineering or circuit design, not that it isn’t worth doing.

    Related to this, I would challenge the underlying presumption that there is a clear distinction between action and inaction. Even if it is true that we cannot know the consequences of doing X, we also cannot know the consequences of doing “not X.” To take the example on everyone’s mind: We know now, in hindsight, that the Iraq war didn’t go as we had hoped and planned. The invasion thus in some ways proves what I take to be the valid aspect of your point. But if we put ourselves back in late 2002 and early 2003, we also did not know for sure what would happen if we did NOT act: Did Saddam have WMDs (looks like he probably did not, but nobody could be perfectly sure and at least some Western intelligence organizations said otherwise at the time)? Would he commit further massacres? Would he again bid — militarily or otherwise — for control of Iranian and/or Sauid oil? We couldn’t just couldn’t know. And whatever one’s view on the war (then or now), I think we have to acknowledge that uncertainty is not the exclusive domain of “action.” And once we recognize that, I think your syllogism between the inevitability of indeterminacy, on the one hand, and suspicion of any action, on the other, breaks down.

  • Sutter

    To be clear — I meant above “the principal REALIST foreign policy journal.”

  • jdyer

    “Ethical realism” is an oxymoron, like “giant shrimp.”

    Those who saw it as a euphemism for “real-politick,” are correct. Real politick has the virtue of not pretending to be “ethical.” This is what the phrase really means:

    “Do what you must in self defense and don’t worry about ethical issues.”

    A better choice of words might be global situational ethics, which would parallel the concept of “situational ethics” used to describe the study the existential life of people, rather than impose some ideal ethical principle on human behavior.

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    plnelsonIt’s not off topic at all.

    I was referring to our back-and-forth about Japan’s welfare system as off topic not about foreign policy and Africa, though I think you know that.

    From what most posters have suggested in this threat, there is an agreement that ethics and realism, in all its flavours, are are a bit like oil and water.

    So the question is what should be/can be an alternative.

    plnelson proposes a self-interested more stay-at-home policy unless outcomes can be predicted. SutterSutter reminds us that non-action is a form of action and both have unpredictable results. Also, whether aggressive or passive, policy focused on national interest is real-politick.

    I would propose a policy, not of grande-realism, where one attempts to impose democracy and freedom with the sword and the consultant, bombing and buying distant others into submission to gain access to their markets and resources, but rather a policy of social justice, where the goal is equality and the means all kinds of grass-roots efforts, such as micro-borrowing, fair trade, etc.

    If a nation is trying to win over hearts and minds, to be respected, emulated and even loved, why support dictators, bomb villages, impose your way of life, create economic barriers, and generally bully other peoples?

  • rc21

    Your idea of social justice, and someone else’s idea of social justice may be 2 different things. Should we bully other nations into accepting our views on social justice?

  • Sutter

    Rc21, while I agree that this might be true once we get to particulars, I suspect we generally share broad-stroke views on social justice, and I suspect those are the issues Sidewalker has in mind. So, for example, basic human rights and political freedoms, economic subsistence, and so forth are all consistent with any vision of social justice that we should feel bound to tolerate.

    I do not purport to support this particularly aggressive form of “social justice foreign policy,” but ethicist Peter Singer made a provocative argument in 1999 on this topic, which is worth consideration: http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/19990905.htm.

  • plnelson

    That is, the fact of indeterminacy doesn’t mean we just shouldn’t try. The stakes in foreign policy are just too high,

    In most cases that’s exactly what it means, precisely because the stakes are so high. The physician’s pronciple, “First do no harm” should be the operative guideline here.

    One reason the “stakes are so high” is because the US has continued to put itself into situations where we are exposed to high-stakes situations. For instance, our reliance on oil from dangerous and unstable places in the world forces us to have to pay more attention to those places than we otherwise would. Our huge budget and trade deficits make us more dependent on places like China for both loans and manufacturing. We’ve deliberately pursued policies that expose us to these unstable gambles.

    To use an analogy – my wife and I are fiscally conservative. We have a huge rainy-day reserve. We pay cash for our cars and drive them into the ground. We have a tiny fixed-rate mortage on our house so small we could easily pay it on unemployment compensation and so small that our equity is so big that house prices could drop 80% and we’d still be in the black. These policies insulate us from swings in interest rates and house prices and whether we get laid off. As a result we are not forced to always be in high-stakes situations.

  • plnelson

    Did Saddam have WMDs (looks like he probably did not, but nobody could be perfectly sure and at least some Western intelligence organizations said otherwise at the time)? Would he commit further massacres?

    But there was no serious evidence he had WMD’s. And what do the massacres have to do with it? Was he killing Americans? Did he massacre more people than were killed in the Iran/Iraq war? Should we have stepped in to stop that? Look at Darfur or North Korea. Darfur has massacres, N Korea has nukes (AND massacres if you count all the people who have died from famine).

    And where is the evidence that we even know HOW to step in? Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti are all in sispended animation, Somalia is taken over by Islamic fundies, Vietnam only started to settle down after we LEFT – we have no good track record on nation-building – “doing nothing” looks pretty good to me in terms of US interests.

  • Sutter

    PLN,

    You won’t get an argument from me on the deficits — I would in fact argue that the Bush administration’s most significant foreign policy blunder, long-term, is not the war in Iraq but the decision to pursue a reckless and unsustainable fiscal policy.

    But I still don’t believe you’ve addressed the key issue here, which is that the distinction between action and inaction is much murkier than you acknowledge. Yes, we are unnecessarily susceptible to political shifts in the Middle East (because of oil) and the Far East (because we rely on Japan and China to finance our debt). But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have other interests, or that living more like the Nelson household would insulate us from the great bulk of world affairs. Even if we applied your (strict realist) foreign policy platform, we would continue to be affected — pervasively — by simple stuff like the basic economic circumstances of our trading partners. To take a good example: The Asian financial crisis in the late ’90s. We (in part through some of the Bretton Woods organizations) intervened and put a lot of money on the line to solve the crisis before it tanked the world economy and the domestic economy. Many economists believed we would be unable to fix the situation. I don’t have the expertise to evaluate what the odds of success resulting from an activist policy were at the outset. As it happened, though, it mostly worked, and American families were mostly spared. These kinds of crises will arise no matter how (or whether) we put our own affairs in order, and in many cases the risks associated with trying will be low compared to the risk of doing nothing.

    And of course, this is only taking the most extreme “realist” position into account. For those of us who believe that there are reasons outside the narrowly defined “national interest” that might matter, the stakes will remain even higher than suggested above. Even if there’s no immediate self-interest involved, for example, many people believe that there may be a moral obligation to prevent genocide, and that if the American people support that policy at the polls on those moral bases, then steps taken to stop a genocide constitute a valid exercise of national power. (I know you disagree here, and I’m not trying to debate you on this point — just to show that in a pluralistic society, these issues will come into the policy debate.) In these cases, your point — that it is harder to effect the change we want reliably — should be heeded, but it should not be the end of the inquiry.

  • Sutter

    The presumption that massacres don’t matter only rings true for straight realists. It does not ring true to the neocons on the right, nor for the liberal internationalists on the left. (And I notice you left out my question regarding future invasions, which would speak directly to your realism). And you seem to be presuming that absent intervention, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, or Haiti would be at least as well off as now. I don’t think there’s any proof for that presumption (and in the case of Kosovo especially, I think we can be pretty sure the reverse is true — but only, of course, if one cares about massacre when it is perpetrated against non-Americans, which I do).

    I’m not supporting the Iraq war, but

  • plnelson

    “but rather a policy of social justice, where the goal is equality and the means all kinds of grass-roots efforts, such as micro-borrowing, fair trade, etc. ”

    What would you cite as evidence that social justice works, and how would you define “works”, that is, what could we test for that would indicate whether it was worth the cost?

    There is a widespread belief mong both liberals and neocons that spreading our “values” – democracy, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, etc, produces some sort of general goodness. But we don’t actually know that. These things might just be a sort of peculiar western affectation, sort of like the belief that free markets and capitalism in the PRC must perforce lead to political freedom.

    I think that spreading our “values” is just as imperialistic as anything else. If we think these ideas are so great the best and lowest-cost way of spreading them is to do a really good job of them here at home so people in Iran and Syria and the PRC etc will want to emulate us. A billion dollars spent in the US to improve education, infrastructure, health care, etc, will not only help Americans, but will be more effective at promoting the benefits of our system than the same money spent on USIA and VOA propaganda overseas. Let’s clean up our own act first – Al Jazeera etc love to seize on reports of corrupt US politicians and election problems. We shouldn’t waste one second lecturing to them while we have mud on our face here in the US.

  • plnelson

    And you seem to be presuming that absent intervention, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, or Haiti would be at least as well off as now

    No I seem to think that WE would be as well off. As I said above, US foreign policy should be calibrated to to advancing our security, liberty and prosperity. Unless our interests are at stake we should not be intervening in every conflict in the world. Bosnia, Kosovo etc were not nearly as bad as other situations in Africa, for instance, and no one was advocating intervention there. Moreover the Balkans were much more likely to have a direct effect on Europe (because of floods of refugees) so it was up to the Europeans to act if action was required.

  • plnelson

    For those of us who believe that there are reasons outside the narrowly defined “national interest” that might matter, the stakes will remain even higher than suggested above.

    But if Americans free themselves of that belief it will at least REDUCE our tendency to get involved in all kinds of situations where we are clueless. Somalia Haite, Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo, all represent cases where the public was cajoled by unscrupulous politicians into supporting costly interventions that did not benefit us in any way using strictly emotional manipulation.

    I agree there there will always be some situations where we can’t be sure whether inaction might be worse than action. I don’t agree that Iraq was one of them – I think Iraq was a case where any calm, cool, dispassionate analysis would show that the risks of going in were much higher than the risks on NOT going in.

  • Sutter

    We agree with respect to Iraq. On the other points, though, I’d respectfully note that your argument has circled back on itself. You started out suggesting that the fact of indeterminacy leads to a particular sort of foreign policy preference that only looks to immediate national interests, because it’s not worth pursuing extraneous policiies given the high likelihood that we won’t get it right. I (and others) suggested in response that there was indeterminacy on both ends of the choice whether or not to act, and that the risks of inaction matter a great deal too. You now dispute that by asserting that we should not pay too much heed to the risks of inaction, because they generally won’t be borne by Americans, and that’s all that we should be concerned with. That’s a fine position to take (it’s not mine, but it’s a fine position), but it’s circular: you’ve wound up arguing that “we should look only to the national interest in conducting foreign policy because we should look only to national interest in assessing our interests.” (My quote, not yours.) As noted above, I think your syllogism breaks down even for realists (even if you only consider the risk that Hussein would have invaded Saudi Arabia or Iran, the risk of inaction was worth _considering_, and that risk certainly related to our national interests, strictly defined). But it certainly breaks down for those of us who believe that massacre of non-Americans is bad and that stopping such massacre is a legitimate use of government power.

  • plnelson

    “we should look only to the national interest in conducting foreign policy because we should look only to national interest in assessing our interests.”

    No, I’m saying:

    #1 The fewer situations we consider becoming involved in the less chance we have of making a mistake, since outcomes cannot be reliably predicted

    #2 The purpose of government is to advance the national interests of its citizens, so one way we can pare the number of such situations is to not even consider those where a strong case of national interest cannot be made.

    #3 Another way we can pare the number opf potential situations is by having fewer economic and natural resources dependencies.

    It’s not realistic to expect to eliminate all uncertain high-stakes decisions, but if we can even cut the number of potential decisions in half we can reduce the risk of a major mistake like Iraq or Somalia in half.

    Obviously someone will argue that intervening for purely humanitarian reasons IS in our national interest because it reduces regional instability, etc but then the burden of proof is no them to show that this is actually true, and not conjecture, and that we are likely to be able to intervene successfully, AND that it necessarily falls to us to do it. Since it is unlikely that any of those preconditions of proof can be met I think a philosophy like mine will keep us out of a lot of trouble.

  • Potter

    This is a huge topic. George Kennan prescribes a council of wise elders to form our foreign policy.

    For me the answer is a deeper sense of ethics and a deeper (more aware) realism.

    It seems to me that, if it is true that the only legitimate purpose of US foreign policy is to advance our own interests, those interests have got to now become global. In other words the “our” has to be us all, the whole planet. We have to stop thinking so narrowly. This to me is a step towards a more ethical foreign policy.

    Regarding realism, that begins with knowing and understanding the real world more deeply than we do. And there is an enormous lack in this area. Those who design our foreign policy put us at real risk acting out of their ignorance. To mention two areas of willful ignorance, the current disdain of science, and ignorance understanding the nature other cultures.

    We cannot enhance our own well-being uniformed. If outcomes of our actions (including aid) are poor then our knowledge and understanding ( with regard to solving those problems) is at fault.

  • plnelson

    I think your syllogism breaks down even for realists (even if you only consider the risk that Hussein would have invaded Saudi Arabia or Iran, the risk of inaction was worth _considering_, and that risk certainly related to our national interests, strictly defined). But it certainly breaks down for those of us who believe that massacre of non-Americans is bad and that stopping such massacre is a legitimate use of government power.

    After the first Gulf war Saddam had no capacity to invade anybody. And massacres happen all the time and no one has ever proposed that it’s the responsibility of the US to intervene on every continent where they occur. Instead, what happens is that those massacres that happen to fit into some political agenda get lots of press.

    But “lots of press” seems like a bad basis for foreign policy. Was the massacre of the Kurds by Saddam really worse the the bloodbaths in Rwanda, the Congo, the Ivory Coast, Uganda, Liberia, etc? Human Rights Watch said that governmental killings in Iraq were actually in decline in the years leading up to the invasion. How do we rank the starvation of North Koreans compared to the number of people killed in border fighting in Myanmar, or disputes in Kashmir? Some estimates of the number of people killed in the ongoing independence conflicts in PGN run into the 10′s of thousands, but most Americans have never even HEARD of that one. What about Chechnya or Colombia or Sri Lanka? What about Darfur?

    If we’re going to be all realistic and rational about intervening on purely humanitarian grounds to stop massacres and ethnic cleansing then it’s up the advocates of such a strategy to explain how such crises should be ranked or prioritized, who should do the intervening, with what resources, and how to estimate the cost of paying for it and cleaning up the mess afterwards.

  • plnelson

    It seems to me that, if it is true that the only legitimate purpose of US foreign policy is to advance our own interests, those interests have got to now become global. In other words the “our” has to be us all, the whole planet. We have to stop thinking so narrowly. This to me is a step towards a more ethical foreign policy.

    You can’t have it both ways. It’s US foreign policy because it’s the US taxpayers, soldiers, citizens, reputation, properity and security that’s at stake. The “whole planet” isn’t helping us pay for these adventures in either money or blood. There are limited financial and military resources, and the risks and costs are not distributed evenly on every person and every nation, so hard decisions have to get made. We need a rational, objective way to decide where, when, and with what resources it’s appropriate to get involved.

  • jdyer

    I get it, to Anatol Lieven Americans are neither as moral nor as wise as the Europeans, especially the Brits.

    Speaking as a Democratic hawk, a fighting liberal as it were, I would suggest the Mr. Lieven mind his own country which is on its way of being Islamicized and not pretend to know better than we do about how to defend ourselves.

  • jdyer

    I am also dissapointed that no one from the fighting liberal camp is on hand to answer Lieven’s tendentious views.

  • jdyer

    [This comment has been deleted because it failed to follow our commenting guidelines. - Brendan]

  • jdyer

    For those interested in a different series of views about the Iraq war I would suggest they read the latest issue of The New Republic where the issue is disscussed from number of different points of views.

    http://www.tnr.com/

  • Umayyad

    .

  • hurley

    Word for the day: retromingent.

    Ben Bradlee used it best:

    “You have revealed yourself as a miserable, carping, retromingent vigilante, and I for one am sick of wasting my time communicating with you”

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Word for the next day: Embiggen

    Jebediah Springfield/Hans Sprungfeld used it best:

    “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man,”

    “Patriots will embiggen America.”

    List of neologisms on The Simpsons

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Link correction(hopefully):

    List of neologisms on The Simpsons

  • jdyer

    “Retromingent: Urinating backwards. Also an animal such as a raccoon that urinates backwards. As in: “You have revealed yourself as a miserable, carping, retromingent vigilante, and I for one am sick of wasting my time communicating with you” (Benjamin C. Bradlee, Editor, The Washington Post). From the Latin retro- (back) + mingent from mingere (to urinate).”

    How original!

  • plnelson

    What does ANY of this Simpsonian nonsense have to do the this thread?

    I hope the moderators will delete the last 6 or so posts. This is a serious topic and if you don’t have anything to contribute don’t post!

  • hurley

    pinelson: “embiggen” new to me, so happy for it, but understand your frustration with the down-market drift, though I wouldn’t endorse deleting messages. That said, I’m surprised more listeners don’t jump in when Chris & co. are accused of anti-semitism, and so forth. It’s not an accusation to be taken lightly, unless of course the accuser is taken lightly, which might well be the case.

    jyder: Your point escapes me. I didn’t claim to invent the word, or the quote (why would I have quoted it?). I just gave a reference to its usage. Tom Bissel used it recently in defence of Jonathan Franzen. It seemed timely, in any case.

    I greatly enjoyed the show. Many thanks again.

  • jdyer

    “That said, I’m surprised more listeners don’t jump in when Chris & co. are accused of anti-semitism, and so forth….”

    The evidence of this show being anti-Israel is subtle but overwhelming.

    “It’s not an accusation to be taken lightly, unless of course the accuser is taken lightly, which might well be the case.”

    I don’t care what you think, hurley. People in the Jewish community where I reside think differently.

  • hurley

    jdyer says:

    “I don’t care what you think, hurley.”

    But clearly you do, otherwise why read what I write? Best to support your assertion with a silent proof of its validity.

  • jdyer

    “But clearly you do, otherwise why read what I write?”

    wrong Hurley, I read a lot of nonsense without caring about it. How else will one decide if one cares about something, by not reading or listening to the nonsense?

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