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The Real World?

by devnym

At long last, America seems poised to take its real place in the community of nations. Not as the autocratic head prefect so many of its citizens seem to consider apt, but as a respectful – and respected – addition to 6 billion people making progress.

A real threat demands a realistic response. Any approach to foreign policy that hopes to create an intellectual consensus in the United States must embrace certain elements of both realism and morality. For on the one hand, a majority of Americans have demonstrated repeatedly throughout modern history their aversion to strategies based purely on criteria of international morality or humanitarianism, in their insistence that foreign policy serve the interests and above all the safety of the United States. This insistence has gained still greater force after 9/11. Equally dominant strains in the American tradition have repeatedly shown a deep aversion to strategies based on a “classical” realism free of all moral constraints and aims. For many Americans, central to these aims is a desire to spread freedom and democracy in the world.

Neoconservatives and liberal hawks do try to balance realism and morality. They were among the first to recognize a crucial fact about the terrorist threat: The internal nature of foreign countries matters as never before to American security—because Islamist revolution and extremism flourish in failed states and collapsed societies. They are correct that a classically realist approach isn’t sufficient to deal with this situation.

Their answers, however, go much too far in the contradictory directions of both hard-line realism and utopian morality—or rather, as we shall argue, pseudo-realism and pseudo-morality. In the years since 9/11, both neoconservatives and liberal hawks have sought to make democracy the central element in American strategy in the Muslim world. At the level of public discourse they have achieved tremendous success. But they haven’t achieved success where it really matters, on the streets of Iraq and in the politics of the Middle East in general. Iraq is a shambles that has gravely weakened the United States. And across the Middle East, wherever and whenever Muslims have been allowed to vote, they have voted for Islamist parties with programs that are bitterly hostile to American interests. Meanwhile, by pursuing the old-fashioned siren song of rolling back Russia, containing China, threatening Iran, and maintaining American and Israeli hegemony over the Middle East, these neoconservatives and liberal hawks have added a range of states to the list of America’s problems.

Instead of this unsuccessful approach we propose two linked alternatives: the philosophy of ethical realism, and the concept of the Great Capitalist Peace. Ethical realism was propounded in the past by some of the great figures of the American intellectual tradition, including Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, and George Kennan, and draws on a tradition stretching back through Edmund Burke to St. Augustine.

The concept of the Great Capitalist Peace is based on ethical realist thought and directly echoes Kennan’s and Morgenthau’s concepts of international order and the moral purposes of diplomacy, especially U.S. diplomacy. It denotes a global order tacitly agreed to by all the major states of the world, an order that guarantees their truly vital interests. In the short to medium term, we believe that this is essential if these states are to succeed in containing the terrorism that threatens them all. The Great Capitalist Peace depends in part on American power, and on the ability of that power to guarantee peace and order in certain parts of the world. In general, however, both the real limits on American power and the need to accommodate the legitimate interests and ambitions of other states mean that in most areas the use of American power needs to be deliberately restrained. Instead of exercising this power in an unrestrained way, the United States should whenever possible work through regional concerts linking the most important states of a region.

As its name suggests, the idea of the Great Capitalist Peace is founded on the fact that at the start of the twenty-first century all the major states of the world are committed to some version of capitalist economics and an orderly world market. The elites of these states draw tremendous personal benefits from this global capitalist system, and should naturally be opposed to allowing rivalry among themselves to destroy that market. They also have a strong common interest in resisting threats to the present world system from terrorists, extremists, and revolutionaries. By accommodating other great powers when possible, the Great Capitalist Peace makes stakeholders of much of the world, thereby perpetuating a stable, and reasonably just, global order.

The Great Capitalist Peace strategy flows directly from the ethical realist philosophy. Ethical realism points toward an international strategy based on prudence; a concentration on possible results rather than good intentions; a close study of 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.

In ethical realism, a sense of national modesty and limits is linked to a capacity to see ourselves as a nation as others see us—a capacity that in everyday human morality and interaction is generally seen as positive and attractive, while its opposite is seen as not merely unattractive but also somewhat ridiculous. As Niebuhr put it, “Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their self-esteem, are insufferable n their human contacts.”2 In international affairs , it is essential that we try to see ourselves as others do. We cannot demand that the rest of the world simply trust in our benevolence and intelligence. We cannot expect other nations to believe it is in their best interest to allow us to exercise unconstrained power. As Francis Fukuyama has pointed out, this is a trust that Americans would never for a second place in any other country—and rightly so.3 Or as Edmund Burke warned more than two centuries ago, “Nothing is so fatal to a nation as an extreme of self-partiality, and the total want of consideration of what others will naturally hope or fear.”4

Moreover, ethical realism demolishes the shabby argument now being put forth by former hard-line supporters of the Iraq War that we should excuse their responsibility for this disaster because their intentions were good. Neither in statecraft nor in common sense can good intentions be a valid excuse if accompanied by gross recklessness, carelessness, and indifference to the range of possible consequences. Such actions fail the test not only of general ethics, but also of the sworn moral commitment of state servants and elected officials to defend the interests of their peoples, and not simply to pursue at all costs their own ideas of morality—another central point in realist ethics.

Niebuhr wrote that the modern West thinks it “has an easy solution for the problems of anarchy and chaos on both the international and national levels of community, because of its fatuous and superficial view of man. It does not know that the same man who is ostensibly devoted to the ‘common good’ may have desires and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set him at variance with his neighbors.” Today, the “easy solution” being promoted by the Bush administration and the Democratic leadership is the idea that the spread of democracy will inevitably lead to international peace, economic development, and the acceptance of American hegemony.

Coming from old Anglo-American Christian and skeptical traditions, the Founders of the republic recognized that it is deeply unwise to place unlimited powers in any hands and expect innate human goodness to guarantee that they will not be abused. This prudent recognition is responsible for the checks and balances on power that are integral to the Constitution, and therefore to American democratic civilization and its shining example to the world.

When it comes to the unconstrained use of power in the world, most ordinary citizens are wiser than their national leaders. By early 2006, numerous opinion surveys were showing that large majorities of Americans are deeply concerned not only with the war in Iraq but with the entire strategy being followed by the Bush administration. Their elected representatives, and their political system, however, have so far failed to present a coherent and effective alternative to that strategy. We offer this book as our contribution to the creation of such an alternative.

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