Posted by: spacewritinguy | August 24, 2008

The Weekly Standard and the Return of History

There’s a remarkable article by Robert Kagan in The Weekly Standard that questions many of the assumptions upon which the neoconservative foreign policy ambitions have been built for the past 14 years or so. Some highlights:

  • “As Francis Fukuyama famously put it, ‘At the end of history, there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy’.” Mr. Fukuyama was one of the original neocons. He renounced the interpretation of his ideas even as the neocons continued using them.
  • “Nor has the growth of the Chinese and Russian economies produced the political liberalization that was once thought inevitable. Growing national wealth and autocracy have proven compatible, after all.” This is a surprising statement coming from a magazine that has spent at least 10 years pushing economic engagement with China as a way to liberalize it. Now what, guys?
  • “Europe is ill-equipped to a problem that it never anticipated having to face” and “This great 21st century entity, the EU, now confronts 19th-century power, and Europe’s postmodern tools of foreign policy were not designed to address more traditional geopolitical challenges. There is a real question as to whether Europe is institutionally or temperamentally able to play the kind of geopolitical games in Russia’s near-abroad that Russia is willing to play.” History was over, remember?
  • “There is some question about the United States, as well.” Recall, if you will, that neoconservatism, the Bush Doctrine, and the notion of violating the Prime Directive all fell into disfavor after the Bush Administration invaded Iraq without any plan for, or conception that there might be, an insurrection. The surge has worked, but too late to save the neoconservative temptation. Of course now Kagan is right about the U.S. now going absolutely in the opposite direction (‘We can’t solve anything by military force!”), which is no smarter.
  • “International order does not rest on ideas and institutions alone. It is shaped by configurations of power.” Kagan is moving toward Henry Kissinger’s view on statecraft here. What happened to the neocon notion that if America is successful militarily that we can also be philosophically successful?
  • “The optimists in the early post-Cold War years were not wrong to believe that a liberalizing Russia and China would be better international partners. They were just wrong to believe that this evolution was inevitable.” I can’t believe this made it into the Standard at all.
  • “The great fallacy of our era has been the belief that a liberal and democratic international order would come about by the triumph of ideas alone or by the natural unfolding of human progress.” This notion goes back to the foundations of neoconservatism, which was founded partially by reformed Marxists, who gave up on communism, but held onto some of their Marxist historical determinism. Where was this article ten years ago? Hell, five years ago?!!
  • “After the Second World War…Hans Morgenthau warned idealists against imagining that at some point ‘the final curtain would fall and the game of power politics would no longer be played’.”

The United States, despite its economic and military predominance, is going to have to relearn realpolitik, a game given name by Prussian minister Otto von Bismarck but practiced by the Romans and every European power through history facing multiple external enemies. The reckless disregard with which both U.S. political parties have exercised military power since 1989 will eventually be checked by other powers with longer memories and less tolerant attitudes toward our idealism. It’s easier to stomp on third-world countries when they don’t have nuclear weapons. Notice how we have now tiptoed around Iran for the last five years.

So what’s the solution to the neocons’ infatuation with exercising American military power? We could try a more republican (lower-case “r”) foreign policy, where we look to our own interests first and back off from trying to slay every dragon in the world. This would require a more selfish and less idealistic but more specific definition of American interests, including protecting the free flows of commerce, energy, and people across borders; reducing the proliferation of nuclear weapons; tightening this nation’s borders and security practices; and increasing this nation’s energy independence.

Unfortunately, I don’t think either McCain or Obama will follow these types of policies. Obama is eager to interfere in places like Darfur, where we have no interest and few threats, but have an opportunity to show how we can demonstrate our (Obama’s) superior morality and compassion. Never mind the fact that Darfur is part of the Sudan, which is part of the Muslim world, which means that we’d merely be opening a new front in our ongoing wars in the Islamic world to no good purpose. At the same time, Obama is obsessed with kowtowing to Kyoto, the U.N., the EU, and any other multilateral organization that hamstrings American foreign policy but leaves our opponents free to operate at will (I like Limbaugh’s point on this: how many times did Russia go before the UN Security Council to get approval for its invasion of Georgia?). He also is willing to punish American capitalism and particularly American oil companies if it plays well with political allies who believe in class warfare and hate capitalism. Never mind that higher taxes and more restrictions/regulations will NOT reduce energy costs, the biggest issue on American voters’ minds.

John McCain doesn’t have quite the opposite problems. He appreciates the utility and limitations of military force, having served and been held prisoner for his actions. He, too, is on the global warming bandwagon, and might tie the U.S. to some bad treaties if he isn’t careful. Mind you, some of our allies have moved closer to America–notably France and Britain–but if McCain swallows the notion that America must bow to European interests, we’re lost. And some of McCain’s comments during the Russia/Georgia crisis bears watching. If he’s willing to ratchet up the rhetoric, what is he prepared to do to back up that rhetoric? I can live with another Cold War (that was reality for the first 20 years of my life), as long as he’s clear up front about what that will mean for this nation and the world going forward. And how many dragons is McCain willing to slay to protect American interests?

What do these guys think American interests are, anyway? This would be an excellent debate question, and thus is not likely to be asked. The American press is all about idealism, until it’s the wrong type of idealism to suit them.

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