REVIEWING A NEO-REALIST
Marc Shulman of The American Future has an excellent review up of Taming American Power by the eminent political scientist of the Neo-Realist school. Dr. Stephen M. Walt . Marc’s review has more range and depth than I am discussing here because I want to focus on one particular point of Marc’s critique:
“In my view, Walt has considerable difficulty fitting al Qaeda and other Islamic terror organizations into his conceptual framework. This is probably true for most or all neo-realists. A school of thought that has the balance of power as its foundational principle is ill-equipped to understand a world in which the primary security threat is from transnational, religiously-inspired terrorist groups. For the U.S. or any other country to base a foreign policy on the assumption that al Qaeda will respond to carrots and sticks in the same manner as states would be the height of folly. “
Very well put. The dominant schools of thought in IR are Liberalism and Realism with Realism having more of an edge among practitioners in the diplomatic corps, intelligence services and staffers on the Hill ( among whom you also find idealists of various stripes). Neither Liberalism nor Realism/Neo- Realism have come to grips with Islamist terrorism or the broader phenomenona of the deterioration of the Westphalian state system, the rise of non-state actors or even, in my view, the implications of globalization. Both schools are simply too state-centric in their analytical orientation and are intellectually very, very, insular. They are not yet getting the context of everything else, nor do I think they will any time soon.
“Many more states are threatened by al Qaeda and/or al Qaeda-inspired terrorism than by aggression from another state. Given the nature of the threat and the unmatched strength of the U.S. military, balance of power theory, if it is to have any validity in the current era, would have to say that other states would have moved into ever-closer relationships with America in the years since 9/11. Except for heightened behind-the-scenes cooperation within the intelligence community, quite the reverse has happened. The counter-argument is that, as has been shown in several public opinion polls, many populations fear U.S. power more than terrorism — even if their governments do not. It would be absurd for America to assign a greater priority to appeasing foreign publics than to eliminating terrorists.”
To generalize and simplify Marc’s point, globalization has made it far easier for non-state and subnational actors to destabilize nation-states by striking at systemic ” choke points” and causing an enormous amount of economic and moral damage via ripple effects at a very low cost in terms of investing resources. Bin Laden spent pennies to cause millions of dollars of damage. On the flip side, state vs. state war between major powers has grown increasingly unlikely.
Hence the increasing popularity and traction in government circles of explanations by defense intellectuals like Dr. Barnett’s PNM theory, William Lind’s 4GW and John Robb’s Global Guerillaism, all of which begin with a strategic and systemic orientation.
“If al Qaeda and the like were not part of the equation, Walt’s thesis — that the Bush Doctrine, because it has intensified anti-Americanism among peoples and governments, and allies and enemies — would have merit. But, not only is al Qaeda part of the equation, it is the most important part of the equation. Given that there is scant evidence that the policies of the Bush Administration has undermined relationships among intelligence organizations, it is far from clear that altering these policies in a manner that would lessen anti-Americanism would aid in the fight against al Qaeda. There may be — and, in my opinion, there is — a trade-off between improving our relations with foreign governments and our overseas approval ratings, and the efficacy of our efforts to defang the Islamic terrorists.”
Here I must disagree with my friend Marc.
Of course the Bush Doctrine intensified anti-Americanism – there were many statesmen who were quite content, privately, to see the United States under attack, despite their loud public declarations of sympathy just as there were some genuinely hostile statesmen who were quite alarmed at al Qaida’s brazen attack ( if Bin Laden can hit the U.S. then…) and gave the U.S. a surprising amount of sub rosa help. The intelligence information Teheran provided on the Taliban and Iraq was substantial – something neither Khameini nor President Bush are likely to shout from the rooftops.
The Bush Doctrine forced many players to put some cards on the diplomatic table that they would rather have kept in their hand. Regardless of their view of American policy on its merits, I think most foreign leaders would have preferred that we had pretended we were keeping to the status quo even as we toppled the Taliban and invaded Iraq. We denied a lot of important people a face-saving lie in front of their own people and forced them to take a position. Nor does a more assertive ” hyperpower” suit any of the would-be regional hegemons from Paris to Moscow to Beijing – their interest lies in a United States that is a passive and restrained stabilizer of the international system.
Now I think the old, Cold War status quo was as dead as Julius Caesar and admitting that the international system is totally broken, as Bush did, will be to the long-term good because eventually it will force the great powers to find a new consensus – but it is undeniable that the Bush Doctrine came with some sizable short term costs.
Read Marc’s review in full here.