Tag: realism

Should Realists Denounce Trump’s Foreign Policy?

The 2016 election season continues to unfold in increasingly bizarre ways. Donald Trump’s latest attempt to construct a coherent foreign policy speech may have failed to impress, but his campaign’s use of the word ‘realism’ led once again to calls for realists to openly denounce the Republican candidate and his views. As Dan Drezner argues over at the Washington Post,

In the interest of political self-preservation, realists need to get out in front on this. Because the thing about Trump is that every foreign policy position he touches has become less popular over the past calendar year. If realism gets lumped together with Trumpism, that is very, very bad for realists.

There are a bunch of problems with this argument, starting with the fact that Trump really isn’t espousing a realist worldview. To be sure, the Republican candidate has said a couple of things that are more restrained than his party’s foreign policy has been in recent years. Skepticism of nation-building and the idea that American allies should contribute more to their own defense are relatively uncontroversial (and generally popular) ideas that would move U.S. foreign policy in a more restrained direction. Most of Trump’s other proposals, however, including his ill-defined strategy to combat ISIS, his determination to reverse the nuclear deal with Iran, his apparent and disturbing willingness to consider the use of nuclear weapons, and his eagerness for trade wars, are not.

As many have noted, Trump’s foreign policy is best defined as incoherent. Monday’s speech provides another case in point: though the campaign described it as a return to “foreign policy realism,” the approach outlined by the candidate sounded more like a form of nationalist imperialism – complete with the seizure of natural resources from distressed countries – than anything else. Frankly, the only major similarity between Trump’s policy proposals and realism is his willingness to view the world in a win/loss framework. As a theory, realism is more than cost-benefit analysis, but one can see why a simplistic understanding of it would appeal to the candidate.

Here’s another problem with the demand that realists should repudiate Trump: they already have, loudly and repeatedly. In Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt admonished Donald Trump to “keep your hands off the foreign policy ideas I believe in.” Cato’s own Trevor Thrall highlighted Trump’s know-nothing approach to foreign policy here. Many others have done likewise. As I wrote back in April, the primary defining characteristic of Trump’s foreign policy is not restraint, but inconsistency.   

And there is no evidence that realists (or restrainers) support Donald Trump. Reporters from Defense News recently tried to ascertain who a potential Trump administration might call on to staff key positions. It’s unlikely that John Bolton, recently suggested by Trump as a potential Secretary of State, will be mistaken for a realist any time soon. Not only did they find no realists willing to take such positions – one prominent advocate of restraint is mentioned in a purely speculative way – but they found few foreign policy experts willing to consider it, period.

Finally, the notion that realists can only repudiate Trump specifically by signing an open letter is unhelpful. The first open letter of the campaign season – signed by over 120 Republican foreign policy specialists – was valuable, signaling their broad disgust for their party’s nominee and his policies. But it was narrowly written, and since that time at least four other open letters have been published, each with a slightly different rationale, and slightly different signatory lists. Indeed, most have already been signed by prominent advocates of both restraint and realism. And there are a variety of reasons why some realists might not have signed the prior letters: they may not agree with everything proposed, they may be barred by professional or legal obligations from supporting or opposing political candidates, or perhaps they are simply not Republicans! Another open letter will not solve these problems.

Such criticism often comes with the implicit – or explicit – demand that realists endorse Hillary Clinton. Yet Clinton’s interventionist foreign policy approach is also problematic. Her support for the interventions in Iraq and Libya, and her continued support for unwise ideas like a no-fly zone in Syria remain concerning. Ultimately, those who call for realists to denounce Trump may be right about one thing: for realists, this election is a lose-lose proposition. 

Four Lessons to Ponder Before Going to War

In about 30 seconds this morning on Fox News Sunday, George Will laid out the prudential case for proceeding very cautiously when contemplating a war:

WALLACE: So George, with that as trailer, what’s the lesson that we should take from Iraq, and particularly as it comes to future U.S. policy?

WILL: Four lessons, I think.

First, the government has to choose always on the basis of imperfect information. I agree with Bob [Woodward]. There were no lies here [in the Bush administration’s incorrect claims about WMD]. It was a colossal failure to know what we didn’t know.

Second, the failure to ask Admiral Yamamoto’s question. When he was asked by the government of Japan could he take a fleet stealthily across the Pacific and strike Pearl Harbor, he said yeah, but then what? He knew they would have on their hands an enormous problem in the United States.

Third, Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule: if you break it, you own it. Just as when the Kennedy administration in November 1963 was complicit in the coup against Diem, in South Vietnam, we owned South Vietnam ever after.

But fourth and most important, the phrase nation-building is as absurd as the phrase orchid building. Orchids are complex, organic things. So are nations. And we do not know how to build nations any more than we know how to fix English-speaking home grown Detroit. 

Our Astrategic Syria Debate

Only a terrifically secure country could have as poor and astrategic a debate about war as the one we’re having about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. 

Actually, we’re not having a debate about taking sides in Syria’s civil war. That’s the problem. We’re debating Syria as though it’s an engineering question—an electrical outage, or a bit of erosion in the backyard. Doing so removes the most vexing aspects of the issue, leading us to the delusion that military action can easily make things better. 

Too much of the discussion has focused on moral arguments and too little of it on the very real political problems beneath the war. Take the advocacy of Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. As Hamid wrote of his thinking on Syria in January 2012, he was pro-intervention “emotionally, and from a purely moral perspective,” but had some nagging non-emotional, non-moral concerns: “I cannot say whether military intervention would work.” By June, though, the emotional and the moral took over, with Hamid declaring that it was “not the job of civilian think tanks” to figure out how military intervention would produce the desired outcome. 

Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, who until recently occupied George Kennan’s old office at the State Department, has similarly assumed away Syrian politics, making the case for intervention much easier. As she tweeted Sunday, “Suppose US goal in #Syria were simply to STOP THE KILLING. Forget who might/might not win down the line. What’s fastest/best way to do that?” 

But forgetting who might win down the line waves off the central problem: the killing is happening for a political reason. Bashar al-Assad and his enemies are not engaged in wanton, nihilistic slaughter; they are struggling over political control of Syria. Any analysis that removes that basic fact from the discussion of how to “STOP THE KILLING” turns a complex political question into a technical, scientific project, creating the delusion that it can be readily fixed by the U.S. government. 

In fairness to Hamid and Slaughter, they are carrying the torch of a time-honored American tradition of foreign policy thinking. Historically, debates over foreign intervention in the United States have featured liberal analysts against realists and the military. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower reportedly had to admonish his activist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to calm down: “Don’t do something, Foster, just stand there!” 

In the 1990s, apolitical liberal thinking on war reached its pinnacle. When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell expressed hesitation about the Clinton administration’s intervention ideas, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lashed out: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” And President Clinton’s lack of understanding of war caused him to ruminate, accurately, to General Hugh Shelton that it would “scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”

In the 1990s, realists like Richard Betts were warning Americans not to fall victim to the “delusion of impartial intervention.” Admonishing policymakers for their newfound enthusiasm for limited, ostensibly apolitical intervention, Betts reminded readers of a ground truth: “A war will not end until both sides agree who will control whatever is in dispute.” This is as true in Syria as it is anywhere. Alternatively, if analysts want to use the U.S. military to regime-change Assad, they have every obligation to explain how they intend to shepherd the country toward whatever political order they seek.

More honest hawkishness can be found at the Institute for the Study of War, whose recent paper advocating aiding the Syrian opposition admitted that politics matter

The goal behind U.S. support to the opposition should be to build a force on the ground that is committed to building a nonsectarian, stable Syria, with a government more likely to respect American interests. 

That outcome is presumably what all analysts urging intervention desire. The trick is to acknowledge the problems of connecting military means to our political desiderata. Anyone who doesn’t deal with the underlying political problems at stake is threatening to push the country into another ill-considered, potentially costly war.

Romney’s Foreign Policy Opportunity

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will duel on foreign policy this week as they both address the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Romney heads off toBritain,Israel, andPoland to burnish his foreign policy credentials.  It will be difficult for Romney to overcome Obama on this set of issues.  Denizens of neoconservatism scorn the president as a weakling on terrorism and other international issues, but that is not how most Americans see him.  The killing of Osama Bin Laden (as well as dozens of other high-level al Qaeda operatives) has largely inoculated Obama against the “weak on terrorism” allegation, and the public generally gives him decent marks on most other foreign policy issues.

In the two areas where there has been grumbling about the president’s performance—escalating and perpetuating the war in Afghanistan and doing little about the bloated Pentagon budget—Romney’s neoconservative allies advocate measures that most voters dislike even more than they do Obama’s approach.  If Romney is to seize the opportunity to score points against the president on foreign policy, he needs to break with the hawkish extremists in his party and take a very different tack than he has done so far in the campaign.  Unfortunately, his harsh statements toward China and Russia—including describing the latter as America’s principal global adversary—and his alarmingly bellicose rhetoric toward Iran suggest that he is taking his foreign policy positions from George W. Bush’s playbook.  That is a bad move both politically and in terms of good policy.

In his speech to the VFW, Romney should outline a new security strategy built on the foundation of cautious, national-interest realism—a position that once characterized the GOP and still finds some resonance among the party’s rank and file.  That move, though, would require him to challenge the neoconservative conventional wisdom on four major issues.

First, he needs to advocate a prompt withdrawal of U.S.forces from Afghanistan, even faster than the Obama administration’s alleged commitment to have U.S.forces out of that country in 2014.  The intervention in Afghanistanis the poster child for how a limited and justified punitive expedition against a terrorist adversary (al Qaeda) can morph into an open-ended, nation-building crusade on behalf of an inept, corrupt Third Worldgovernment.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to discern whether Romney has a policy regardingAfghanistan.  To the extent he has said anything substantive on the issue, it creates worries that he may want to keep American troops in that snake pit indefinitely.

Adopting a new, smarter position onAfghanistanleads to the second point Romney should emphasize in his VFW speech: a repudiation of nation building as aU.S.foreign policy goal.  It is bitterly ironic that, beginning with the Bush administration, Republicans seem to have become more enthusiastic than Democrats about humanitarian interventions and nation-building ventures.  Republicans rightly used to scorn such crusades as wasteful, utopian schemes.  Condoleezza Rice once remarked that it should not be the mission of theU.S.military to escort children to school in foreign countries.  Romney needs to return the GOP to that wise skepticism.

Third, Romney should advocate a complete reassessment ofWashington’s overgrown network of formal and informal security commitments around the world.  It is absurd for theUnited Statesto continue subsidizing the defense of allies in Europe andEast Asiatwo decades after the collapse of the Soviet empire and nearly seven decades after the end of World War II.  Those allies shamelessly free ride on America’s security exertions, choosing to under-invest in their own defenses and refusing to make a serious effort to manage the security affairs in their respective regions.  Even if theU.S.government was cash-rich and running chronic budget surpluses, the current policy toward obsolete alliances would be wasteful and ill-advised.  Maintaining such a policy whenWashingtonhas to borrow money fromChinaand other foreign creditors to do so, borders on insanity.

Reassessing alliances and other security commitments points to the final change that Romney should advocate: a willingness to cut military spending.  The United Statesspends nearly as much on the military as the rest of the world combined.  The House of Representatives just voted to appropriate $606 billion for defense—and that figure does not include $11 billion to pay for the nuclear arsenal, a budget item housed in the Energy Department.  Instead of promising to increase military spending to four percent of GDP—an extra of $2.5 trillion over ten years—Romney should reverse course and support cutting that bureaucracy’s budget as part of an overall austerity program for the federal government.  And as noted, the overseas missions should be trimmed or eliminated to match the capabilities and budget of a smaller force.

Such an agenda might not please the attendees at the VFW convention, and it certainly would not please the junior varsity from the Bush-Cheney administration that Romney has been relying upon thus far for advice on foreign policy.  But it would appeal to a wide swath of American voters and put Barack Obama on the defensive.  Most important, it would be a wise policy alternative for the American republic.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Cleveland vs. Greenberg on Isolationism (so-called)

Props to Grover Cleveland at Pileus for his short but perceptive take on David Greenberg’s op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times. Cleveland places the piece in the “Not Worth a Read” category and asks:

Hasn’t this kind of simplistic “history” and inaccurate categorization of today’s critics of liberal internationalism/neoconservatism been written about a million times already?  And aren’t these types of pieces really just rhetorical bullying to prevent a serious discussion of American foreign policy?

Answer: Yes, and yes. And Cleveland is hardly the first to make this observation. (e.g. here, here, and here)
 
As with other writers who have crawled out of the woodwork recently to write about isolationism (so-called), Greenberg is sure that it’s bad, both for the country and for the Republican Party.
 
I agree with that statement. But I disagree with Greenberg’s characterization of the discussion taking place within the Republican Party (and the country) about the purpose of U.S. military power to be in any way comparable with the debate over ratification of the League of Nations Charter in 1919 or overwhelming public opposition to joining the war in Europe 1940 and 1941. Greenberg says that today’s isolationism “rejects America’s leadership role in the world.” I sense, instead, a skepticism toward the costs and benefits of American global hegemony, and a welcome (and to be expected) desire to shed some of these burdens.

To be clear, a sharp turn inward would be bad for the country. Global engagement has made the United States into the envy of the world. And yet, there is an ugly form of hostility toward outsiders that runs throughout U.S. history. Today, it manifests itself in the xenophobia, nativism, and outright bigotry that maintains that the United States can remain strong only by deporting 12 million undocumented immigrants and building a 20-foot high wall along the Mexican border. Isolationism is also manifested in protectionism, a false belief that American manufacturers and American workers can disconnect from the global marketplace, and that producers and consumers alike would both be better off if we were all confined to the domestic U.S. market.
 

But it is neither accurate to say that most Americans are isolationists nor that a different foreign policy, one more focused on self-defense and exhibiting restraint abroad, reflects isolationism. Rather, Americans crave a different foreign policy than that practiced by both Republicans and Democrats over the past two decades. They hunger for alternatives that would allow the United States to remain engaged in the world, but at less cost, and with other countries doing their fair share. In this context, it is hardly surprising that some Republicans (and some Democrats, too) are cautiously testing the waters of acceptable discourse. If they find that middle ground, between reflexive war-making and head-in-the-sand pacifism, they might strike political paydirt.
 
As to Greenberg’s claim that the GOP is mere moments away from being captured by the ghost of Robert Taft, I share Justin Logan’s skepticism. Still, I am bemused by the terror that the specter of so-called isolationism is currently striking in the hearts of interventionists of both the liberal and neoconservative variety. Given that so many of them were (and are) cheerleaders for the reckless war in Iraq, the unnecessary and doomed-to-fail armed social work being tried in Afghanistan, and the foolish and unconstitutional war/non-war in Libya, I might take grim solace in the fact that they are finally getting their just desserts.
 
I might, except that the backlash against these and other misadventures might eventually push the country toward genuine isolationism, with all of its ugly connotations.
 
Here’s hoping that we can find that sensible center, of a United States that remains deeply engaged with the world, but that has dropped all pretensions to managing it.

More from McCain on ‘Isolationism’

Over at World Politics Review, Justin Logan and I collaborated on an article about the supposed rise of  ”isolationism” within the GOP.

The charges come mainly from Sen. John McCain, though presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty copped that line yesterday, drawing praise from the editors of The Weekly Standard.

McCain directed his “isolationism” fire late yesterday at West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, one of 27 senators who signed a letter to the president calling for a substantial troop reduction in Afghanistan. On the floor of the Senate, Manchin explained his reasoning: “I believe it is time to for us to rebuild America, not Afghanistan.”

According to McCain, Manchin’s comments “characterize the isolationist withdrawal, lack of knowledge of history attitude that seems to be on the rise in America.”

But McCain needs to reconnect with recent history, and contemporary reality. Nation building is a fool’s errand: costly, counterproductive, and unnecessary. We could continue to hunt al Qaeda with far fewer troops in Afghanistan. A smaller presence would provide us with sufficient flexibility to deal with other challenges elsewhere — and help us to put our own house in order. McCain is OK with spending over $100 billion a year in a country with a GDP of around $16 billion, while our economy suffers.

Not surprisingly, most Americans, including many Republicans, reject McCain’s views. And they should. As Justin and I explain in the WPR article:

Foreign policy should not be conducted by polls and focus groups, but in this case the public is right, and the interventionist consensus in Washington is wrong. The threats facing us are not so urgent that we must maintain a vast military presence scattered across the globe and consistently make war in multiple theaters at once. The United States is the most secure great power in history, and if policymakers would act like it, the evidence suggests the public would support them.

In particular, given that our recent overseas military interventions have carried significant costs and delivered very few measurable benefits, it is hardly surprising that Americans are pushing back against the sorts of foreign adventures McCain favors. We don’t know whether the faint rumblings of common sense in the GOP presidential primaries indicate that Beltway elites are finally coming around to our view, but we hope they do. Should that happen, it would be prudence prevailing, not isolationism. (Full text here.)

Why any Republican aspiring to the presidency would follow the advice of a two-time loser like McCain (in 2000 to G.W. Bush, and in 2008 to Barack Obama) is beyond me. It makes even less sense for Democrats to listen to him.

On Differentiating ‘Realists’

Jacob Heilbrunn wrote a piece recently wondering “where have all the serious Republicans gone [on foreign policy]?”  Heilbrunn observes correctly that the loudest Republican voices on national security these days are advancing a variety of zany views, taking as evidence Mitt Romney’s empirically-challenged attack on the new START treaty.

In a similar vein, Daniel Larison wonders whether a return to Republican “realism” is even anything to thirst for:

In practice, if the GOP “reclaimed its realist roots” I wonder how much would change for the better. Republican realism sounds good by comparison with what we have had for the last decade, but most actual Republican realists, especially those in elected office, did little or nothing to challenge the endless hyping of foreign threats and the frequent recourse to military intervention abroad in the ’90s…  How many realists not affiliated with the Cato Institute expressed serious reservations about NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia before the August 2008 war? As sympathetic as I am to many realist arguments, and as much as I appreciate the efforts of the most sober realists to try to steer Republican foreign policy thinking in a constructive direction, until Republicans reject confrontational and aggressive foreign policy goals it will not matter very much if they adopt realist means and rhetoric.

The answer to Larison’s question about NATO expansion is that it was quite unpopular among non-Cato realists.  John Lewis Gaddis wrote at the time [.pdf] that “historians – normally so contentious – are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill-conceived, ill-timed, and above all ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world.”  He “could recall no other moment…at which there was less support, within the community of historians, for an announced policy position.”  That might have been putting things a bit too strongly when it came to realists, but not very much.  That is, actual realists, who don’t, by and large, get called to Washington.

This, I think, is the crucial distinction to make.  The bottom line here is that there is a big disconnect between people in the Beltway who call themselves realists and actual realists.  Ur-realist Kenneth Waltz once described himself as “a fierce critic of American military policy and spending and strategy, at least since the 1970s.”  John Mearsheimer points out that realists opposed the Vietnam War almost to a man (except for Henry Kissinger), and that realists opposed the Iraq War almost to a man (except for Henry Kissinger).  Since at least the Johnson administration, realists have tended to be dovish relative to the Beltway consensus as it has existed at any point in time, and active dovishness is not permitted in polite company in Washington.

Not only is it a mistake to hearken back to a Glory Day of Republican Realism, it is really a mistake to characterize any existing Beltway faction as “realist.”  Belligerent nationalists, Wilsonians, liberal imperialists…all those we have.  Realists, not so much.