R. B. A. Di Muccio
R. B. A. Di Muccio is a guest commentator for The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A former assistant professor and chair of the international relations program in the political science department at the University of Florida, he is now vice president of research and advisory services for a global business advisory firm. He received his Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Southern California. These article are republished from V & V, a web site of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania.
Will the Real Realists Please Stand Up?
Barack Obama's supporters have been trying to create a narrative around his foreign-policy doctrine for several years now, even before he was president. The goal has been simple: to preempt efforts to portray Obama as a nave idealist by establishing his so-called "realist" credentials. A Google search on the phrase "Obama realism" yields an astounding 704,000 hits, with all of the top ranked hits supporting this core narrative. One could almost say mission accomplished.
But as we have seen elsewhere, President Obama's advocates have taken a concept with a relatively unambiguous meaning (think, "tax cut") and have turned it on its head to win legitimacy for ill-conceived policies. The result is not only a gross distortion of what "realism" actually means to students of international relations, but also a terribly misguided doctrine that, in my estimation, is making the world more dangerous.
As near as I can tell, Obama's purported realism appears to be a sort of foreign-policy version of the serenity prayer: "change what you can, accept what you cannot." In other words, being a foreign-policy "realist" within this narrative is merely about being "realistic" about things.
Thus, for example, why get all worked up about a nuclear Iran when there's realistically very little we can do about it anyway?
Put bluntly, just being "realistic" is far cry from true political realism in the tradition of Thucydides, Sun Tzu, St. Augustine, Hobbes, von Clausewitz, Niebuhr, Morgenthau, Waltz, and others.
So, if realism is not merely a matter of acting out the serenity prayer on the world political stage, what is it?
Descriptively, classical realism is rooted in a fundamentally pessimistic view of human nature, growing out of the Judeo-Christian notion of original sin. Because human beings are individually prone to depravity and evil, their collective behavior will be similarly prone. To expect or hope otherwise is simply to deny reality.
From these principles, clear prescriptions follow. While individuals are free to deny the reality of human nature in their personal affairs, the world affords no such luxuries to national leaders. Given human nature and the absence of a global arbiter, nations must seek to protect their own interests and security, which are constantly at risk.
Furthermore, realism is often painted as a "straw-man" philosophy that blindly promotes the use of military force. This is simply not true. Morgenthau crafted his realist treatise, Politics Among Nations, largely based upon his belief that democratic leaders failed to confront a rising Germany in the 1930s because they were acting upon utopian rather than realist principles. On the other hand, Morgenthau was also convinced that the Vietnam War was folly because it couldn't be justified in terms of U.S. national security.
In short, realism is not about accepting all conditions as they are; it is about accepting one eternal condition, "national interest defined in terms of power."
Now, realism does not deny the existence of common interests (e.g., low tariffs), or the potential importance of moral principles (e.g., human rights), or the possibility that some people are fundamentally good. What it does reject though -- utterly and completely -- is the wisdom of ever betting national security on such considerations.
This brings us full circle back to the "Obama realism" narrative. This narrative has heavily leveraged not only the realistic-outlook-as-foreign-policy-doctrine already discussed. It has also rested on the argument that George W. Bush certainly was not a realist (given his Wilsonian wars to make the world safe for democracy). But neither Obama's realistic outlook, nor the fact that Bush was probably not a very good realist, makes Obama a true realist.
Afghanistan and Iran provide two excellent though very different cases in point. We now know that Obama never believed any of his rhetoric about Afghanistan as the "necessary war of national security." If success in Afghanistan truly were vital to U.S. interests, Obama wouldn't care one iota whether the dogged pursuit of that success would cause him to "lose the whole Democratic party."
On Iran, the contrast between realist and un-realist doctrines is even starker. Does anyone believe that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons, and does anyone not agree that such a development would constitute a massive threat? Anyone? And yet, all indications are that the Obama administration is increasingly accepting of a nuclear Iran and is attempting to reset the world community's expectations on this issue.
Are these actions those of a true realist? In both cases we need only ask: "What would Morgenthau say?" On Afghanistan, Morgenthau would be utterly appalled at the transparently domestic political motivations dominating the president's policy. On Iran, he would surely regard as inexplicable and totally misguided the unwillingness of the United States to confront and thwart this unmistakable threat to stability and security.
President Obama a realist? Hardly. And because he is not, we stand on the precipice of a politically motivated capitulation in Afghanistan and a refusal to oppose nuclear proliferation in Iran. If there's anything we should all be hoping for, it's that the real realists will soon stand up.
How Jimmy Carter and I Were Wrong on North Korea -- And How Carter Is Still Wrong
It is not often that I am struck speechless by any individual act of political commentary. Yet, former President Jimmy Carter accomplished just that through a recent editorial in the Washington Post. To put it bluntly, the article is a poignant example of what appeasement looks like in black and white. Of course, "appeasement" is a strong word, viewed as name-calling; but it is a descriptive term that I have studied at length, and that applies here.
In a nutshell, Mr. Carter's argument is that North Korea's recent actions merely confirm that:
Pyongyang is ready to conclude an agreement to end its nuclear programs, put them all under IAEA inspection and conclude a permanent peace treaty to replace the "temporary" cease-fire of 1953.
Did you catch that? It's not a misprint. North Korea's recent revelation of increased uranium enrichment and deadly bombing of targets in South Korea are not the erratic and dangerous provocations of the most erratic, dangerous and provocative regime on the planet. Rather, they are actually "consistent messages" to the West of a readiness to acquiesce.
Dr. Paul Kengor has suggested in these pages that Mr. Carter is only the latest among "duped" progressives in the United States who have been misled by pro-Communists and the North Koreans. I beg to differ. To be duped implies the preexistence of at least a minute possibility that the person had been capable of perceiving the situation correctly in the first place, but was ultimately convinced otherwise.
Not so here. For Mr. Carter to land on such a spectacular level of separation between reality and perception requires a worldview hopelessly skewed by utopian ideals and driven by an all-consuming desire to see every single conflict resolved peacefully, come what may. President Carter isn't being duped, he is being enabled.
On this topic, I know of what I write. You see, I am a reformed "dupe-ee." In 1998, I published an article in Peace Review (10:2) titled "The Irony of U.S. Policy Towards North Korea." My argument was that despite being saddled by what I called "inherently problematic native logic," the appeasement of North Korea as of 1998 had been a surprising success.
I was wrong. Having written a doctoral dissertation on the topic of appeasement, including a detailed analysis of how the policy of appeasement had failed to avert war in the 1930s, I was motivated to try to find a positive example. Could there be a case where appeasement worked? That example seemed to present itself with the so-called "Agreed Framework" concluded between the United States and North Korea in 1994, led by Jimmy Carter.
The agreement, occasioned by North Korea's threatened departure from the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), provided for massive energy aid. The goal was to help convert North Korea's fledgling weapons-grade reactors to light-water/nuclear-reactor technology, along with securing a commitment by North Korea to remain in the NPT.
My analysis highlighted "substantial progress," such as improved North Korean diplomacy, economic liberalization, and improved North-South Korean relations. The all-carrot-and-no-stick approach seemed to be causing real behavior change, I concluded, while also averting the outbreak of violent conflict.
Alas, my assessment was quickly overtaken by events. Already in 1999, there was a significant naval skirmish in the Yellow Sea; in 2002, yet another hot flare-up that killed several South Korean sailors. By 2003, the U.S.-North Korean deal had completely collapsed, with more bad news to follow: 2006 saw further underground nuclear tests; three years later, in 2009, Pyongyang launched missiles over the Sea of Japan, conducted further nuclear tests, and formally rejected the 1953 armistice. The list goes on, up to and including the events of recent weeks.
To be fair, few believe there are easy answers to this problem. I don't know of anyone eager to use force. Moreover, successive U.S. administrations of both parties have fallen prey to North Korea's serial use of brinksmanship to gain more aid and achieve gradual acceptance of its nuclear program. Finally, China's and even South Korea's positions have been persistently conflicting, unclear, and problematic. It's a true conundrum.
In fact, the only person on the planet who does not seem burdened with uncertainty in this matter is Mr. Carter. That is because he is a committed appeaser. In order to avoid debilitating cognitive dissonance, appeasers must view the rogue actor's grievances as legitimate and its aims as rationally limited.
In this sense, Carter's views fit perfectly. As Carter says, the Kim regime's actions are only "designed to remind the world that they deserve respect in negotiations that will shape their future," emanating from their desire to "avoid domination by others."
It's a breathtaking example; an object lesson in appeasement thinking. Appeasing the North Koreans, the world's most egregious agitators, has only resulted in unending cycles of successively more dangerous crises.
President Carter is still wrong on North Korea. Let's hope the current administration is not. *
"If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it?" --Benjamin Franklin