Crazy Pills

Don’t look now, but your empire is falling by fluffly
April 15, 2009, 12:53 pm
Filed under: fluffly | Tags:

David Kuhn jumps into the debate on American exceptionalism and comes out in defense of Pax Americana.  Just like Sarkozy’s little pep talk to Congress when he was here last year, Kuhn talks fondly about the American role in bringing peace to the world after the Second World War.  He notes that under American hegimonic stewardship, there have been no world wars and that the “most ignoble and bloody modern U.S. wars, Korea and Vietnam, [have only] killed 3.2 million.”  Far less than the wars of any previous period.  And thats pretty impressive, given the improved weaponry and warmaking abilities we now have.  The fact that in an age of nuclear weapons and stealth bombers the world has stayed so remarkably stable is indeed impressive and certainly due to America’s steadying involvement.

However, perhaps it is that the Pax Americana applies only to the now fading Westphalian system where states are the major players.  I know I’m treading well worn terrirtory here, but Kuhn’s article seems to overlook this.  Borders have remained, by and large, quite stable and recognized under the American hegemon, but are we as able to handle other threats?  The Taliban and tribal militias in Pakistan don’t appear to be intimidated by our power, and are increasingly posing a serious threat.  Certainly not one along the lines of a World War though, and we are almost certain not to see levels of dead that high in any foreseeable conflict.  It just goes to point out the limits in the power of Pax Americana.

The overwhelming power balance that led to this era of relative stability among states appears to mean less now.  Russia is continuing to stake out a stronger position in its near abroad, and NATO has been unable to push back much.  Quite the opposite, NATO has learned that it cannot ignore the will of Russia in its expansion.  Economically, we’re seeing smaller countries previously ignored, like Brazil or India, able to hold up free trade negotiations.  An ability not seen in the era of GATT.

As any number of much smarter people before me have pointed out, America as a dominant power in the world isn’t going anywhere.  But we may have to reinterpret what the restraints and limits of that power are in a changing, and smaller, world.  We should be cautious about overstating realities.


8 Comments so far
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I would like one of you, either Fluffly or Goodspeed, to explain to me modern realist theory and how Obama is/is not one. If I had more time I would research it myself, but I don’t. I don’t even have enough time to read the Wikipedia page on political realism. (Well, okay, maybe I do, but not right now.)

Comment by A Milder Despot

Fluffly, you may have a stupid blogger name, but you make very astute observations. Let me direct you to Pres Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations Les Gelb’s new book “Power Rules” in which he addresses the paradox in which the US is far and away the world’s dominant power though is continually frustrated by smaller and weaker parties, and cannot simply get its way. The New York Times kindly published the first chapter.

Overall, Gelb blasts the notion that hard power has given way to soft power, as well as the notion that we are in a “flat world.” Gelb argues that the American era has not passed, and that no other state or supra-state (EU) can realistically act in the name of, or be looked to for, global leadership. As a corollary however, Gelb underscores the difference between America’s actions and expectations versus its ability to effect its or the world’s goals.

His prescription is, among other things, a healthy dose of multilateralism.

As powerful as the United States is, it can’t succeed in solving or managing a major problem without the cooperation of other major countries . . . as full partners; and . . . those increasingly powerful countries can’t succeed in solving key problems without America. We swim together or sink apart. That is now beyond argument.

I strongly urge you all to take a close look at Dan Drezner’s thorough review of the Gelb’s book in the National Interest.

Mr. M. Despot, that is a charge that I will take at a later date. Though there is some good realpolitik primers in the Drezner article above and in the first chapter of Gelb. For a further Drezner description of realism, check out his 2006 article about the split between realists and neocons in the Repub party:

Second, conservatives disagree about foreign policy just as much as Democrats. At this point, the GOP is split between realists and neoconservatives. Realists, such as former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, believe that the world is inherently unsafe, and that international institutions do little to solve this problem. They are pessimistic about meddling in the domestic politics of other countries and skeptical that ideas about liberal democracy can travel well beyond the West. This is why Bush, with Condoleezza Rice whispering in his ear, disdained nation-building during the 2000 campaign.

Neoconservatives, such as former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, agree with realists that the world is unsafe and that multilateral organizations are not of much use, but they disagree over what to do about it. Neocons believe that the United States has the power and the opportunity to spread democracy into the farthest regions of the globe. An expanding zone of democratic peace can bring with it another Pax Americana. This is why Bush, in his second inaugural address, averred: “Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul.

I’ll try to relate this to the realist community’s feelings on Obama in another, grander post.

Comment by S. Goodspeed

Obama has been called a realist for his and Hillary Clinton’s approach to China. They decided that trying to address China’s internal politics and human rights record was a waste of time, and not in our interest anyway. A realist would say that we should focus on things of immediate concern like economic and security cooperation. However, traditional realists are skeptical of international cooperation, I believe, but that’s sorta’ an outmoded philosophy. Still, this is best left to Stanley to hash out later.

Comment by fluffly

n00b warning/perspective: Could one say that Neocons generally have a realist view of the way the international system is structured (basically anarchical, states as the important actors, international institutions secondary, hard power still most important, and whatnot), but are decidedly idealists on the subject of how power is used and the ability of one state to affect change in the international system?

Comment by A Milder Despot

I don’t think that works, because realists don’t believe that internal politics matter and neocons do. So even though states are the main actors, its the type of state that matters to a neocon.

Comment by fluffly

Props to Goodspeed on the personal insult.

Comment by A Milder Despot

M. Despot – That’s a good way to think about it generally.

The problem with these definitions is often that the terms tend to take on all sorts of meanings. Many academic realists will agree that realism serves best as a framework for describing and understanding past events. By making historical observations (especially regarding Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna), realists attempt to gain underlying assumptions (such as the world is anarachical, states are forced to seek survival, that a state will act in its perceived interest primarily, and that power is a state’s the sole currency), and then offer hypotheses for understanding the hows and whys, and only then will attempt (often reluctantly) to apply these lessons to current events.

Liberalism (idealism) tends to be more forward looking and prescriptive by its very nature. While obviously based historically, it is to a far less rigorous degree – viewing, for example, Europe’s blood ridden history of state-state rivalry as requiring needed change, usually through some sort of international regime or law.

In the American tradition, there is another major tradition called Jacksonianism, which is sort of a frontierist conception of foreign affairs that emphasizes “bellicose honor and individualism.” This concept was largely put forth by eminent IR scholar Walter Russell Mead, who interestingly divdes the American foreign policy traditions into the following (via Net War):

Much of the educated classes in America fall into three camps: The Wilsonians seek to promote liberal democracies and international organizations and law. Hamiltonians are realpolitik pragmatists who promote commercial ties with the world. Jeffersonians are relatively isolationist and more concerned with improving American democracy.

Neocons have often been considered a certain blend of liberal idealism and Jacksonianism. Or as one of our IR professors said, “Neocons are gun-boat Wilsonians.”

These ideas do not fully answer your question, however, it’s fun to consider. And I’ll add more later. For now, check out Stephen Walt’s (one of Fluffly’s favorites) assessment of Obama’s realism .

Comment by S. Goodspeed

Realists aren’t totally agnostic toward internal politics of states. They do however believe that the precepts of the anarchical state system play a far more decisive role in state behavior. Furthermore, as Stephen Walt and Drezner write in the above links, realists tend to triage interstate issues and look toward addressing fundamental national interests first and foremost, since these are where common ground can be forged or alternatively over which conflict will be made.

Comment by S. Goodspeed

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