Slouching towards realism

Following on from Justin’s post here a while back, Henry at Crooked Timber sounds a note of alarm over the apparent “lovefest” between the antiwar left and the realist – or National Interest – right.

leftwingers who rush too quickly to embrace their new friends on the right should meditate upon the malign example of Henry Kissinger, and the implications of Realpolitik for the causes and issues that they’re committed to.

Well yes, except that the past two years have given interested observers of an idealistic bent a horribly detailed tour through that fine old conservative principle, the law of unintended consequences. This in particular applies to those who took the stated principles behind the invasion of Iraq at face value. Despite this, many found themselves unable to believe the government over the WMD issue and so unable to support what was therefore simply a war of aggression. A general, maybe rather fluffy belief in intervention foundered against a basic principle in foreign affairs. Many found themselves on the othercside of that issue. But over WMD this constituency learned that the government cannot be trusted even or especially in important matters. It has watched the brutal progress of the insurgency and counter-insurgency and learned that acting with good intentions does not guarantee good outcomes. It has seen the Iraqi government slide gradually under the control of Shia’ theocrats and the horrible possibility occurs that there might be no good outcomes whatever you do because some problems are simply insoluble by political agency. It surveys the general slaughter and wonders, in the dark of night, whether it really does have the right to impose its good intentions on others. It reads the columns of Matthew Parrish and Max Hastings and finds itself nodding along in tremulous agreement.

It looks ahead to Darfur, which presents a seemingly unanswerable case for international action. Yet while the spirit remains willing, the events of the past two years makes the will shrivel like a well salted slug. When hearing calls to action, it starts wondering about the small print. When listening to idealists, it begins to wonder what exactly they have to sell and what the price might actually be. It finds itself judging policies less on whether they’re right, and more on whether they’re reckless. Feeling ill-used because of its ideals, it begins to gravitate to people whose outlook concentrates on the material and the particular – to what are generally termed realists.

I suppose what I’m really talking about here is the mainstream of the great “do-somethingist” coalition that originally grew up around intervening in the Balkans conflict in the nineties, stretching from Margaret Thatcher on the right across the great, herbivorous plain of the centre and liberal left, not including national interest conservatives or people whose general political outlook necessitated radical distrust of actually existing government – Marxists and others on the far left, for instance, or full throated libertarians. This coalition split over the initial Iraq invasion and now appears to be undergoing a general crisis of faith.

Such bruised idealists are, in classical political terms, Tory converts in larval stage. As to why the Tories aren’t amongst them promoting the gospel of Interests, it’s a puzzle to me, and one I’ll have to leave to the brothers and sisters of that parish to answer.

So what is the answer for the disappointed idealist? One thing I heard quite frequently around the time of the invasion was that people were prepared to “forgive” Tony Blair in his failures of domestic governance because of his forceful expression of international idealism. Well, we know now that a government which demonstrates lying and incompetence in small, domestic matters will show the same qualities in large, international ones. To reverse the old parable, a government unable to remove the mote from it’s own eyes – and which gets away with it – will be unable to remove the beam from someone else’s. You don’t have to embrace the full realist agenda to realize that a government which can’t be trusted in a country where it can be thrown out of office can’t be trusted to take action in places where it can act with less supervision.

Personally, I’m not too optimistic about getting either, but if you’re in the market for salvaging your ideals, I’d say that this is the place to start.

  1. Paddy Carter said:

    well, you paint a picture of the situation in Iraq that is not necessarily accurate, but your position that we ought not to have intervened with our good intentions because it is – what, impossible, or very difficult – to get the good outcome we desire, is hard to refute. I’m of the pro-war persuasion, and your ‘realist’ position is the one that most makes me suspect I am on the wrong side.

    But surely it is not ‘realism’ to hold that in all cases “intervention will always fail”. Doesn’t the argument come down to a case-specific question of what is realistically achievable, with the possibility that intervention might work always worth considering? So what is ‘realism’ as a position of principle? Is it just a term for believing that ‘successful outcomes’ are much harder to achieve that generally thought? If so, I fear you might be right, but I hope that you are not.

    incidently, if you see a world full of unintended consquences where getting the outcomes you desire is almost impossibly difficult, why call Blair & Co incompetent? What does competence look like in your world – inaction?

  2. Jamie K said:

    “incidently, if you see a world full of unintended consquences where getting the outcomes you desire is almost impossibly difficult, why call Blair & Co incompetent? What does competence look like in your world – inaction?”

    it looks like acting within an accurate assessment of yor own capabilities.

    On the wider point, it isn’t necessarily the case that ‘realist’ politics calls for inaction. it tends to call for action in cases where the material interests of a nation or group of nations are affected. Not that this doesn’t have it’s own raft of unintended consequence problems.

  3. Blimpish said:

    Accurate assessments of capabilities: well, invading was relatively simple. The issue remains what to do once you’re there…

    You have to be careful about realism as a strawman. Kissinger’s quite the realist-as-showman, as Metternich probably was, too – but as with most practical politics, the doctrine has rarely been followed too strictly. The Left’s prosecution of the Tory appeasers glossed over the differences between Baldwin (who didn’t think the country would follow him, probably correctly) and Chamberlain (who was consciously pacifist) in favour of a perception of cynical realpolitikers. (It also glossed over the great support for pacifism on the Left.)

    Nevertheless, yes, a certain realism is the Right’s mainstream foreign policy tradition. So, “why aren’t Tories amongst [those] promoting the gospel of Interests”?

    Well, remember that Tories who consciously are Tory are pretty thin on the ground since Thatcher.

    But then I’d say I’m about as Tory as you’re likely to find, and I still supported the war (and still do). That’s because, unless you’re operating on the level of Sir Max Hastings, interests don’t have to be calculated on such a narrow basis. Positioning and demonstrations of power matter, as well as direct outcomes of the specific instance. Oh, and oil too. (But we don’t like to talk about that.)

    To come back to my point about strawmen portrayals of realism, by the way – as you see on the Left, realism doesn’t prevent consideration of more high-minded purposes. Most of us of a more realist disposition who did support the war were happy that one of its side benefits was to liberate (and, hopefully one day…), but that wasn’t enough to justify it – just as it isn’t in (say) Burma. Humanitarian wars strike me as positively lethal, not to mention that they necessarily imply that the enemy is not human, and can therefore be annihilated without moral consequence.

    Damned good post, by the way.

  4. Paddy Carter said:

    yes good post

    I don’t understand the relationship between ‘realism’ as in positive-outcomes-are-hard-to-achieve, and realism as in intervention-only-in-the-national-interest. Surely the two notions – motives and pragmatism – are quite distinct.

    Is this a case of one of those political camps where the two doctrines tend to cohabit, not through any necessary logical connection, but just through temprament or broader considerations (like, I don’t know, organic food and socialism).

    and although I overstated it (inaction) if competence entails acting within an accurate assessments of capabilities, and you take a dim view of anybody’s capability-to-intervene correctly, then you do end up endorsing inaction most of the time, don’t you?

  5. Paddy: the dividing line isn’t as simple as you might think – that’s why the realpolitik view is a bit of an absurdity.

    For one thing – what is the national interest, anyway? Surely we would take the view that certain kinds of states (i.e., free trading constitutional democracies) are on the whole less likely to go to war, or even that some are more easily subjugated to allow us to advance our commercial agenda. In either case, we have motives for positive outcomes (admittedly, in the latter case, rather partial ones).

    Further, our attitude to means feeds back into the ends we seek. No realist will work towards, in any meaningful way (i.e., beyond a Miss World speech), the achievement of permanent and global peace – not because it wouldn’t be great, but because it is beyond our means ever to achieve it.

    (And on your last question, yes, except for in the case of a global hegemony – which America could have if it worked for it and had the backbone to follow through, either of which conditions are yet to be proven.)

  6. Paddy Carter said:

    Blimpish, I’m still not quite there yet.

    I think I agree with you on the realpolitik thing, and that the notion of ‘national interest’ is a moveable feast.

    However, as far as I can see, that still leaves a conceptual dividing line between what we might consider our proper ends to be, and how we rate our chances of being able to intervene successfully to achieve them. So I still don’t understand why anybody calling themselves a realist in the intervention-averse sense need also lean towards any sort of national interest doctrine, however it is conceived.

    Surely a realist would not work in any meaningful way towards any end, not becuase achieving it wouldn’t be great, but because it is beyond our mean to achieve any end.

  7. Blimpish said:

    Erm… I think I’d agree, at least with your first bit. Realism is usually discussed in terms of mean; the term ‘moral realism’ is sometimes used by those (like me, I guess) who still allow some ideal factors to affect their calculations.

    On the last bit though – only if you take an extreme view of realism, which really is that all action is counterproductive and so the best thing we can do is keep to ourselves; a sort of national quietism. But that’s as unrealistic as otherwise – after all, some military deployments have such low potential costs for given benefits, the benefits are clear.

  8. James F said:

    The problem is, even doing nothing might bring unintended (and potentially catastrophic) consequences. Arghhhh!

  9. Katherine said:

    Doesn’t all this rather assume that there is a black and white definition of ‘do something’ and ‘do nothing’? Does ‘do something’ always have to mean ‘send in the troops’? There are variations of ‘doing something’, both actively and passively (and various grades in between), surely?

  10. Jamie K said:

    Just to clarify, I don’t think the law of unintended consequences is the only principle people have come to agree with, it’s just that I believe it might be making itself felt in places where it didn’t before.

    Also, as Blimpish and Katherine point out, it doesn’t imply complete apathy or a completely cynical worldview. Having said that, I’m also reminded of the confucian precept that if you do nothing then you can never be entirely wrong.

  11. … never entirely wrong, but one day entirely defeated, potentially.

  12. James F said:

    Potentially… but then again, look at Switzerland (although I concede it’s an exceptional example).

  13. Blimpish said:

    Yes, surrounded by mountains and armed to the teeth. It’s also not that much of a prize – relatively small country, after all. France and Germany each had bigger fish to fry. (Didn’t Adolph say he’d take it over with the Berlin fire brigade, once he was done elsewhere?)

  14. James F said:

    As an example I offered Switzerland semi-flippantly. The truth is I’m not opposed to military action to achieve pragmatic national interest outcomes but don’t believe that there was ever a realistic prospect of that in Iraq.

    It was always likely that this type of military action would radicalize a generation of muslim men.

    And as for oil, how have our national interests been advanced? Security of supply? The stuff was available to buy on the world market before we invaded, only cheaper, and surely will continue to be available at market rates regardless of who pumps it. And regional instability has contributed to the price rises we’ve seen. So what have we gained?

  15. Andrew said:

    James: In the short term, nothing. In the longer term, potentially something very valuable. Increased energy supply stability.

  16. Pingback: Tim Worstall

  17. Pingback: