I now understand that idealism is as important, in its own way, as realism in international relations. This week, I found that understanding has been useful in assessing the utility of several very good essays.
Here’s an essay by Charles Krauthammer, who is eviscverating a smart man who has said some intelligent things, but is also referred to jokingly as “a man who’s never met a status quo he didn’t like” (Brent Scowcroft). Krauthammer’s point is that Scowcroft does not understand the power of the ideal, the necessity of an ideal, in dealing with others, and that is why Scowcroft is consistently wrong about some things.
This cold-bloodedness is a trademark of this nation’s most doctrinaire foreign policy “realist.” Realism is the billiard ball theory of foreign policy. You care not a whit about who is running a foreign country. Whether it is Mother Teresa or the Assad family gangsters in Syria, you care only about their external actions, not how they treat their own people.
Realists prize stability above all, and there is nothing more stable than a ruthlessly efficient dictatorship. Which is why Scowcroft is the man who six months after Tiananmen Square toasted those who ordered the massacre; who, as the world celebrates the Beirut Spring that evicted the Syrian occupation from Lebanon, sees not liberation but possible instability; who can barely conceal a preference for Syria’s stabilizing iron rule.
Even today Scowcroft says, “I didn’t think that calling the Soviet Union the `evil empire’ got anybody anywhere.” Tell that to Natan Sharansky and other Soviet dissidents for whom that declaration of moral — beyond geopolitical — purpose was electrifying, and helped galvanize the dissident movements that ultimately brought down the Soviet empire.
It was not brought down by diplomacy and arms control, the preferred realist means for dealing with the Soviet Union. It was brought down by indigenous revolutionaries, encouraged and supported by Ronald Reagan, a president unabashedly dedicated not to detente with evil, but its destruction — i.e., regime change.
For realists such as Scowcroft, regime change is the ultimate taboo. Too risky, too dangerous, too unpredictable. “I’m a realist in the sense that I’m a cynic about human nature,” he admits. Hence, writes Jeffrey Goldberg, his New Yorker chronicler, Scowcroft remains “unmoved by the stirrings of democracy movements in the Middle East.”
This is the crux of the argument for some of the elites I met in DC in 2002-2003. Stability above all, they said; chaos and blood is painful. The Middle Eastern folks I met this month cautioned a slow pace. Slow, they said. We don’t know what will replace what we have now. The people aren’t ready. We don’t want chaos and blood.
Chaos and blood…or fear. I didn’t truly grok King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (pdf, less readable html) until confronted with these nice folks with courageous positions cautioning not to go too fast.
Sharansky also opened my eyes with his book The Case For Democracy. He’s still emphasizing those themes. In this essay in the Washington Post this week he does what he sees as the most useful tool–naming names–and points out that unfree practices will not make a nation free.
Two years ago this week, Russian law enforcement authorities, guns drawn, stormed Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s plane. His arrest and imprisonment, and the insufficient response of the democratic world to his case, represent a great setback for the march of democracy in Russia.
The charges against Khodorkovsky ostensibly focus on financial improprieties related to his control of the Russian oil giant Yukos. But one need not be an expert in that company’s finances to recognize that the law was used selectively against Khodorkovsky to thwart the political ambitions of a possible future opponent of President Vladimir Putin.
Many democratic leaders are sympathetic with Khodorkovsky but are unwilling to press the Russians to release him for fear that this issue will undermine efforts to resolve other geopolitical issues. But I know as well as anyone that the supposed trade-off between democratic idealism and geopolitical realism is largely a false choice. In the early 1980s, my wife, Avital, who had been mounting a worldwide campaign for my own release from prison in the Soviet Union, had the hard facts of realpolitik explained to her by a senior White House official in an administration that was extremely sympathetic to my plight. Pointing to a map of the world, the official outlined the many geopolitical issues that were at stake between the United States and the Soviet Union. “Do you really believe,” he asked, “that we can subordinate all these issues to the question of your husband’s release?”
“What you don’t understand,” she replied, “is that only when my husband is released from prison will you be able to resolve these issues.”
Scowcroft comes from a military background, and understands deeply the military mindset. The military mindset is excellent for some things and a hindrance in others, such as analyzing grand strategy with an idealist bent or nonmilitary mindset. Scowcroft’s writing is somewhat echoed by an analyst in the UK, Chris Donnelly, who has an essay that’s been burbling through the most senior UK and US military ranks. The essay has many good points, and is a good read. The essay does, though, have a glaring mistake in my view: Idealism, particularly the desire for freedom and its current opponent the dystopian caliphate of Qutb and Wahab, has not made it into Donnelly’s analysis.
7. The main drivers of today’s revolution in the nature of conflict, in my view, are: (a) the growing gap between rich and poor countries, (b) the uncontrollable proliferation of technology, and (c) the information explosion.
8. For an example of the growing gap between rich and poor countries, a map of the Mediterranean basin is a good place to start. Write on the map, for each of the countries to the north and south of the Mediterranean, the UN figures for the population, GDP and per capita income for 1990, today and projected to 2020. The trends are clear. The demographic implications alone are very dramatic. Another example: The combined wealth of the richest 250 people in the world is equal to the combined annual income of the poorest 2.5 billion people in the world. Above all, the poor are now aware of the disparities.
9. The proliferation of technology refers to all modern technology not just to the technology for weapons of mass destruction. Technological advantage in war and conflict is normally transient, and always depends not just on the available technology but also on our ability to learn how to use it and to incorporate it into our systems. In the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the French had an effective machine gun. Wheras the Prussians did not. German Radar technology in 1939 was actually superior to the British. But in both cases the losers failed to integrate their technology into a system which would exploit it and as a result threw away their technological advantage. Note Al Qaeda’s effective asymmetric use of technology, or the skill with which criminal gangs use modern communications technology. Not only can we sometimes not match the flexibility of these organisations and their ability to learn, but it can cost us Â£1000 to defeat what it costs them Â£1 to do.
10. The ‘Information Explosion’ has two aspects: IT and Media. Today’s rapid developments in IT are well known. But with this presumed efficiency comes serious potential vulnerabilities. The ability to launch attacks on information systems depends not on wealth but on the cleverness of the attacker, and our opponents are just as clever as we are. As to media, I would argue that media (in all its forms) has become so out of control and all pervasive that it now constitutes an additional environment in which we must operate. To use a military example: a soldier planning a battle is taught always to give first consideration to the “ground”, ie. the environment in which the battle will be fought – open countryside, rivers, towns, mountains, etc. “Ground” affects both sides – not necessarily equally. It cannot be changed very much, if at all. But it can be exploited by either side. To ignore the ground is unthinkable to a soldier. To fail to prepare the ground is unforgivable. To underestimate its influence is usually disastrous. Today, media is like a new environment in which we operate and which affects everything we do in policy making as in armed conflict. Yet many of us still do not usually give in the attention it deserves.
11. Of course the key to understanding the dynamics of today’s revolution in the nature of conflict is to understand how all the above factors interact with each other and with the world around us. The spread of information and technology gives weapons, and the ability to use them effectively over a long period of time, to those with a grievance to redress.
Donnelly’s almost got it, he’s got all the parts that fit together, but misses what I consider to be key to such an analysis. Instead of thinking of the opening of repressive societies Ã¡ la Sharansky or President Bush’s Second Inaugural, Donnelly writes in almost Marxist terms of economic disparity. Ralph Peters once made an observation that it wasn’t merely economic disparity but awareness of the better situation others have, in quality of life and not merely economics, that was such a bitter shock to people that it resulted in the same kind of apocalyptic terror groups that appeared when the Protestant Reformation overturned people’s basic life assumptions. An example of why that awareness is essential to revolution would be North Korea, or parts of China, where the lack of that knowledge keeps the dictator’s boot firmly on the throats of the locals. That’s why China’s building the Golden Shield information blocker, and why North Korea so tightly controls mass information inside the country.
One can also see “poor but proud” places where people see themselves as able to get to to a life they want to live, without the upheaval of revolution looming over them. Donnelly hasn’t quite thought this concept through in this way, thinking of economics as a military analyst, and that’s why I disagree with him here in an otherwise very good paper.
That disagreement forces a change in how to build and execute grand strategy. Brant Hadaway (via Instapundit) once said Bush was channeling Sharansky in his Second Inaugural, and points like these are as idealistic and not-Realist as Reagan’s “tear down this wall!“.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.
So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
Scowcroft doesn’t get why this is important, I think. Neither does Donnelly.
In any struggle there are people who think one thing, people who think another, and a vast middle who is apathetic or undecided. The middle swings and so does the majority. Explaining and understanding why the ideal is useful and sometimes trumps a realist world is going to be important to achieving the goals of the Second Inaugural. Getting this idealistic thinking across to our friends and allies may be a hard thing to do, but perhaps worth the effort–at least to help others see where we’re going, if not to have them join us.
(Sent to Mudville’s Open Post)
Update: A friend sends along a New Yorker piece by Jeffrey Goldberg (“Breaking Ranks”, not on line, but there’s a Q&A here) that explains a little about the rift between the 1990-era administration and the 2002-era administration.
Update: I received a suggestion to link to one of my first posts, which had that speech by Scowcroft that I enjoyed attending. Scowcroft hit many of the themes Robert Kagan later mentioned about the difference in mindset between the U.S. and Europe. Here’s also a post with a link to Captain Ed, who argues against some Scowcroft suggestions.
Update: Le Corbusier takes a break from his machines to similarly out himself as an idealist.
Update: OxBlog has thought about a this subject too; see here (take one) and here (take two). David Adesnik quotes James Taranto’s point about realism and war, which I’ve mentioned in the comments.