James Joyner writes that there are three factions of elites who drive foreign policy — neocons, “liberal interventionists” and “traditional realists.” The first two factions are pretty much peas from the same pod, Joyner says, in that they both favor military intervention to cure a variety of foreign policy ills. The “traditional realists” are less likely to be interventionists, but they tend to work in academia or intelligence and don’t get much popular political support for their views.
I think this is true on a gross level. Certainly there were liberal interventionists joining with the neocons to push for war in Iraq awhile back. But what annoys me about Joyner’s essay is that the way he arrives at conclusions tends to obscure reality as much as explain it.
Here is how Joyner defines these three groups:
Neoconservatives of both parties urge war to spread American ideals, seeing it as the duty of a great nation. Liberal interventionists see individuals, not states, as the key global actor and have deemed a Responsibility to Protect those in danger from their own governments, particularly when an international consensus to intervene can be forged. Traditional Realists, meanwhile, initially reject most interventions but are frequently drawn in by arguments that the national interest will be put at risk if the situation spirals out of control.
I’m OK with Joyner’s definition of neoconservatives, but his definition of liberal interventionists is confusing — “Liberal interventionists see individuals, not states, as the key global actor and have deemed a Responsibility to Protect those in danger from their own governments.” Seems to me national governments are the key players, or actors, in that definition.
And I think Joyner is confused if he thinks the primary motivation for most of the “liberal” interventions he sites — e.g., Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti — was to protect people from their own governments. It’s more often the case that the international community and U.S. liberal interventionists will stand aside and allow all kinds of awful things to happen (think Rwanda) as long as it is contained within national borders. (Other mitigating circumstances include whether the nation is capable of nuclear retaliation or is of some interest to China, in which case the international community tends to look the other way, also.)
The international “liberal interventionists” are far more likely to intervene if the awfulness threatens the political stability of an entire region, which some believed was the case with Kosovo; or if the government perpetrating the awfulness has a history of pushing awfulness on a global scale; think Muammar Gaddafi. People can disagree whether a particular situation is likely to keep itself contained or not, of course. But the reasons given for such interventions usually are only partly humanitarian.
And when Joyner talks about “traditional realists,” he seems to be talking about moderate isolationism. But the word “realist” for me brings to mind Realpolitik, which put into practice by people like Henry Kissinger is not isolationist at all.
This is all by way of arguing “how perpetual war become U.S. ideology.” It seems obvious to me that U.S. politics is still struggling to function within Cold War ideological frameworks, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned. And once generations of Americans were conditioned to accept perpetual global war against communism, it wasn’t that much of a leap to get them to accept perpetual global war against Islamic extremism. In fact, some people seem to think they are the same bogyman.
This is all so obvious I can’t imagine why anyone feels a need to write analysis about it. Basically, over the past sixty years, we went from Republicans blaming Democrats for losing China and letting Russia get the bomb, to Republicans blaming Democrats for Islamic terrorism and letting Iran get the bomb. As far as U.S. political rhetoric is concerned, all we’ve done is change the labels.
Basically, what Joyner does here is sort all foreign policy players into his three clumsily defined cubbyholes. Then he focuses on what the cubbyholes have in common to forge his conclusion. You could have taken the same raw facts and come up with entirely different cubbyholes, or taken the same cubbyholes and focused on how they differ instead of how they are alike, and come to entirely different conclusions, and the various conclusions would be no more or less defensible.
All of the above approaches amount to just rearranging the furniture in your head, so to speak. Such exercises tend to provide answers that are devoid of actual understanding.
By the time we reach adulthood we’ve all got a filing system in our heads by which we know everything we know. When confronted with something new, the first thing we do is classify it so we know where to file it. And then we learn about the new thing in the context of how we classify it. That’s useful up to a point, but if we’re not careful it can get in the way of seeing things as they are. It tends to make us focus on how things are alike, and miss how they are different. Or vice versa. And it also tends to keep us locked into rigid, and limited, ways of thinking about things.
Along these lines — I was very much taken with something Paul Krugman wrote in his blog the other day. Speaking of David Hume, Krugman wrote,
I read Humeâ€™s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in college, probably in my sophomore year, and it changed my life. I was at the age when impressionable young people can all too easily get pulled into a rigid belief system â€” say, by getting hooked on Ayn Rand. Hume, by contrast, was wonderfully liberating: his amiable skepticism, his insistence that what we think we know comes from experience, and that knowledge is always provisional, opened up my whole outlook.
In other words, don’t get stuck in cubbyholes.