NONZERO  THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY  By  ROBERT WRIGHT
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PART I: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND

PART II: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORGANIC LIFE

PART III: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Published in the New York Times, July 16, 2006]

An American Foreign Policy That Both Realists and Idealists Should Fall in Love With

By ROBERT WRIGHT

As liberals try to articulate a post-Bush foreign policy, some are feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance.

They have always thought of themselves as idealistic, concerned with the welfare of humankind. Not for them the ruthlessly narrow focus on national self-interest of the "realist" foreign policy school. That school's most famous practitioner, Henry Kissinger, is for many liberals a reminder of how easily the ostensible amorality of classic realism slides into immorality.

Yet idealism has lost some of its luster. Neoconservatism, whose ascendancy has scared liberals into a new round of soul-searching, seems plenty idealistic, bent on spreading democracy and human rights. Indeed, a shared idealism is what led many liberals to join neocons in supporting the Iraq war, which hasn't turned out ideally. In retrospect, realists who were skeptical of the invasion, like Brent Scowcroft and Samuel Huntington, are looking pretty wise.

It's an unappealing choice: chillingly clinical self-interest or dangerously naive altruism? Fortunately, it's a false choice. During the post-cold-war era, the security landscape has changed a lot, in some ways for the worse; witness the role of “nonstate actors” last week in India, Israel and Iraq. But this changing environment has a rarely noted upside: It's now possible to build a foreign policy paradigm that comes close to squaring the circle—reconciling the humanitarian aims of idealists with the powerful logic of realists. And adopting this paradigm could make the chaos of the last week less common in the future.

Every paradigm needs a name, and the best name for this one is progressive realism. The label has a nice ring (Who is against progress?) and it aptly suggests bipartisan appeal. This is a realism that could attract many liberals and a progressivism that could attract some conservatives.

With such crossover potential, this paradigm might even help Democrats win a presidential election. But Democrats can embrace it only if they're willing to annoy an interest group or two and also reject a premise common in Democratic policy circles lately: that the key to a winning foreign policy is to recalibrate the party's manhood—just take boilerplate liberal foreign policy and add a testosterone patch. Even if that prescription did help win an election, it wouldn't succeed in protecting America.

I.

Progressive realism begins with a cardinal doctrine of traditional realism: the purpose of American foreign policy is to serve American interests.

But these days serving American interests means abandoning another traditional belief of realists—that so long as foreign governments don't endanger American interests on the geopolitical chess board, their domestic affairs don't concern us. In an age when Americans are threatened by overseas bioweapons labs and outbreaks of flu, by Chinese pollution that enters lungs in Oregon, by imploding African states that could turn into terrorist havens, by authoritarian Arab governments that push young men toward radicalism, the classic realist indifference to the interiors of nations is untenable.

In that sense progressive realists look a lot like neoconservatives and traditional liberals: concerned about the well-being of foreigners, albeit out of strict national interest. But progressive realism has two core themes that make it clearly distinctive, and they're reflected in two different meanings of the word “progressive.”

First, the word signifies a belief in, well, progress. Free markets are spreading across the world on the strength of their productivity, and economic liberty tends to foster political liberty. Yes, the Chinese government could probably reverse the growth in popular expression of the past two decades, but only by severely restricting information technologies that are prerequisites for prosperity. Meanwhile, notwithstanding dogged efforts at repression, political pluralism in China is growing.

Oddly, this progressive realist faith in markets seems to be stronger than the vaunted neoconservative faith in markets. After all, if you believe that history is on the side of political freedom—and that this technological era is giving freedom an especially strong push—your approach to fostering democracy isn't to invade countries and impose it. And if you believe that the tentacles of capitalism help spread freedom, you don't threaten to disrupt economic engagement with China for such small gains as the release of a few political prisoners.

A strong Democratic emphasis on economic engagement always threatens to alienate liberal, human rights activists, as well as union leaders concerned about cheap labor abroad. But the losses can be minimized, thanks to the second meaning of the word “progressive.”

II.

The American progressives of a century ago saw that as economic activity moved from a regional to a national level, some parts of governance needed to reside at the national level as well. Hence federal antitrust enforcement and the Pure Food and Drug Act. Analogously, problems that today accompany globalization call for institutionalized international responses.

In the economic realm, progressivism means continuing to support the World Trade Organization as a bulwark against protectionism—but also giving it the authority to address labor issues, as union leaders have long advocated. Environmental issues, too, should be addressed at the W.T.O. and through other bodies of regional and global governance.

Nowhere does this emphasis on international governance contrast more clearly with recent Republican ideology than in arms control. The default neoconservative approach to weapons of mass destruction seems to be that when you suspect a nation has them, you invade it. The Iraq experience suggests that repeated reliance on this policy could grow wearying. The president, to judge by his late-May overture toward Iran and his subdued tone toward North Korea, may be sensing as much.

Still, he is nowhere near embracing the necessary alternative: arms control accords that would impose highly intrusive inspections on all parties. Neoconservatives, along with the Buchananite nationalist right, see in this approach an unacceptable sacrifice of national sovereignty.

But such “sacrifices” can strengthen America. One reason international weapons inspectors haven't gotten a good fix on Iran's nuclear program is that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty gives them access only to “declared” sites. Wouldn't Americans be willing to change that and let inspectors examine America more broadly—we have nothing to hide, after all—if that made it harder for other nations to cheat on the treaty?

There is a principle here that goes beyond arms control: the national interest can be served by constraints on America's behavior when they constrain other nations as well. This logic covers the spectrum of international governance, from global warming (we'll cut carbon dioxide emissions if you will) to war (we'll refrain from it if you will).

This doesn't mean joining the deepest devotees of international law and vowing never to fight a war that lacks backing by the United Nations Security Council. But it does mean that, in the case of Iraq, ignoring the Security Council and international opinion had excessive costs: (1) eroding the norm against invasions not justified by self-defense or imminent threat; (2) throwing away a golden post-9/11 opportunity to strengthen the United Nations' power as a weapons inspector. The last message we needed to send is the one President Bush sent: countries that succumb to pressure to admit weapons inspectors will be invaded anyway. Peacefully blunting the threats posed by nuclear technologies in North Korea and Iran would be tricky in any event, but this message has made it trickier. (Ever wonder why Iran wants “security guarantees”?)

The administration's misjudgment in Iraq highlights the distinction—sometimes glossed over by neoconservatives—between transparency and regime change. Had we held off on invasion, demanding in return that United Nations inspections be expanded and extended, we could have rendered Iraq transparent, confirming that it posed no near-term threat. Regime change wasn't essential.

To be sure, authoritarianism's demise is a key long-term goal. Authoritarian states never have the natural transparency of free-market democracies, and the evolution of biotechnology will make an increasingly fine-grained transparency vital to security. But this degree of transparency will only slowly become a strict prerequisite for national security, because the bioweapons most plausibly available to terrorists in the near term aren't effective weapons of truly mass destruction. (Anthrax isn't contagious, for example, and there is a vaccine for smallpox.) For now we can be patient and nurture regime change through economic engagement and other forms of peaceful, above-board influence.

The result will be more indigenous, more culturally authentic paths to democracy than flow from invasion or American-backed coups d'etat—and more conducive to America's security than, say, the current situation in Iraq. Democrats can join President Bush in proclaiming that “freedom is on the march” without buying his formula for assisting it.

III.

When expressing disdain for international governance, the Bush administration morphs from visionary neocon idealist into coolly rational realist. Foreign policy, we're told, is not for naive, “Kumbaya”-singing liberals who are seduced by illusions of international cooperation.

Yet the president, in his aversion to multilateralism, flunks Realism 101. He has let America fall prey to what economists call the “free rider” problem. Even if we grant the mistaken premise that the Iraq war would make the whole world safer from terrorism, why should America pay so much blood and treasure? Why let the rest of civilization be a free rider?

The high cost of free riders matters all the more in light of how many problems beyond America's borders threaten America's interests. The slaughter in Darfur, though a humanitarian crisis, is also a security issue, given how hospitable collapsed states can be to terrorists. But if addressing the Darfur problem will indeed help thwart terrorism internationally, then the costs of the mission should be shared.

President Bush's belated diplomatic involvement in Darfur suggests growing enlightenment, but sluggish ad hoc multilateralism isn't enough. We need multilateral structures capable of decisively forceful intervention and nation building—ideally under the auspices of the United Nations, which has more global legitimacy than other candidates. America should lead in building these structures and thereafter contribute its share, but only its share. To some extent, the nurturing of international institutions and solid international law is simple thrift.

And the accounting rules are subtle. As we've seen lately, the cost of military action can go not just beyond dollars and cents, but beyond the immediate toll of dead and wounded. In an age when cell phones can take pictures and videos of collateral damage and then e-mail them, and terrorists recruit via Web site imagery, intervention abroad can bring long-term blowback.

Further, when you consider the various ways information technology helps terrorists—not just to recruit more fighters to the cause, but to orchestrate attacks and spread recipes for munitions—and you throw in advances in munitions technology, an alarming principle suggests itself: In coming years, grass-roots hatred and resentment of America may be converted into the death of Americans with growing efficiency.

That domestic security depends increasingly on popular sentiment abroad makes it important for America to be seen as a good global citizen—respecting international laws and norms and sensing the needs of neighbors. One of President Bush's most effective uses of power was the tsunami relief effort of 2004, which raised regard for Americans in the world's largest Muslim country, Indonesia. Much of the war on terror isn't military.

Of course, some of it is, and we'll need the capacity to project force anywhere, anytime. Still, a full accounting of the costs of intervention makes it clear that we can't afford to be the world's army.

Fortunately, globalization has made the peaceful suppression of at least some forms of disorder easier. Economic interdependence makes war among nations less attractive, and never before has this interdependence brought so much transborder contact among businesspeople and politicians.

So it's not shocking that India and China, which clashed repeatedly over disputed borders during the cold war, have kept things cool since becoming enmeshed in the global economy. Or that the most worrisome nation of the moment, North Korea, is about the most isolated from the global economy; or that its rival for worrisomeness, Iran, is far from full immersion.

Obviously, wars can happen even when they're irrational. Still, their growing irrationality is a progressive force worth honoring. It strengthens the case for economic engagement and for regional and other international bodies that help cement commercial entanglement with political cooperation.

IV.

The excesses of neoconservative idealism have prompted various scholars to adapt realist principles to a changing world. The political scientists John Ikenberry and Charles Kupchan outlined a “liberal realism” two years ago, and Mr. Ikenberry's book, After Victory, showed how international governance can serve the interests of hegemonic powers. This fall the historians Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman will publish a foreign policy manifesto called Ethical Realism.

Such works are true to the spirit of Hans Morgenthau, chief architect of realism. Writing in the mid-20th century, he emphasized that realism's implications would change as the world changed. World peace could require radical constraints on national sovereignty, he said, and the nation-state might drop in significance as “larger units” rose.

Morgenthau seems to have sensed something that later political scientists dwelt on: technology has been making the world's nations more interdependent—or, as game theorists put it, more non-zero-sum. That is, America's fortunes are growing more closely correlated with the fortunes of people far away; fewer games have simple win-lose outcomes, and more have either win-win or lose-lose outcomes.

This principle lies at the heart of progressive realism. A correlation of fortunes—being in the same boat with other nations in matters of economics, environment, security—is what makes international governance serve national interest. It is also what makes enlightened self-interest de facto humanitarian. Progressive realists see that America can best flourish if others flourish—if African states cohere, if the world's Muslims feel they benefit from the world order, if personal and environmental health are nurtured, if economic inequities abroad are muted so that young democracies can be stable and strong. More and more, doing well means doing good.

Of course, resources aren't infinite, and the world has lots of problems. But focusing on national interest helps focus resources. Notwithstanding last week's carnage in the Middle East, more people have been dying in Sri Lanka's civil war than in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But given the threat of anti-American Islamist terrorism, forging a lasting two-state solution in the Middle East is a higher priority than bringing lasting peace to Sri Lanka.

This sounds harsh, but it is only acknowledgment of something often left unsaid: a nation's foreign policy will always favor the interests of its citizens and so fall short of moral perfection. We can at least be thankful that history, by intertwining the fates of peoples, is bringing national interest closer to moral ideals.

Harnessing this benign dynamic isn't the only redemptive feature of progressive realism. Morgenthau emphasized that sound strategy requires a “respectful understanding” of all players in the game. “The political actor,” he wrote, “must put himself into the other man's shoes, look at the world and judge it as he does.”

This immersion in the perspective of the other is sometimes called “moral imagination,” and it is hard. Understanding why some people hate America, and why terrorists kill, is challenging not just intellectually but emotionally. Yet it is crucial and has been lacking in President Bush, who saves time by ascribing behavior that threatens America to the hatred of freedom or (and this is a real time saver) to evil. As Morgenthau saw, exploring the root causes of bad behavior, far from being a sentimentalist weakness, informs the deft use of power. Realpolitik is reality-based.

Is progressive realism salable? The administration's post-9/11 message may be more viscerally appealing: Rid the world of evil, and do so with bravado and intimidating strength. But this approach has gotten some negative feedback from the real world, and there is a growing desire for America to regain the respect President Bush has squandered. Maybe Americans are ready to meet reality on its own terms.

 

Robert Wright, a visiting fellow at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, is author of The Moral Animal and   Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.