Thursday, May 1, 2014

Intro to International Relations: Why Neocons can't govern.

Better students of foreign policy than I have observed the seemingly insatiable Neoconservative desire for saber-rattling and even armed intervention. The Neocons have one foreign policy play, and it involves violence, implied or actual.

Current events have provided lots of opportunities for the Neocons to complain from the back seat. John McCain is perhaps the leading Neocon Senator. He's been damned near ubiquitous these past 12 months, demanding aid to the Syrian Rebels, and military strikes on the Assad government in retaliation for Syrian use of chemical weapons, and a "more robust" US response in Ukraine.


All images from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise noted

One might have hoped that after the Neocon debacle in Iraq, they'd have the humility to stay quiet for a few years, rethink their assumptions, perhaps do a post-mortem on why Iraq failed to greet us as liberators, finance its own "liberation" and evolve into a stable US client that would "promote democracy" in the region.

Neocons are not dumb. Many of them have impressive academic achievements. Others have distinguished careers in national security. But there's a remarkable lack of variety in their proposed response to an endless variety of problems faced by the United States abroad. Very smart people can nevertheless be locked into a paradigm, and I would argue that this has taken place within the Neoconservative foreign policy community.


The Classical Realism school of International Relations Theory provides a convincing explanation of why this is the case. Neoconservatives are unconsciously pursuing what prominent Realist Hans Morgenthau would call "a policy of Prestige". In Morgenthau's typology, a policy of Prestige is pursued by a declining power, in an attempt to maintain its position within the hierarchy of the International System.


Paul Wolfowitz, who testified before Congress that we would be greeted in Iraq "as liberators"

As I write this, I anticipate the howls of protest at my use of the term "declining" to describe the United States. Fortunately, no one reads this blog. But in any case, such objections are the product of people unfamiliar with IR Theory. To venture briefly into the weeds...

In the International System, "power" is both "situational" and "relative".

Situational power means the amount of influence that can actually be brought to bear in a specific circumstance. It is related to Clausewitz's dictum: "War is the continuation of politics by other means". A war is not "won" unless its stated policy objectives are achieved. Situational power is power for what purposeIt is an objective fact that in 1972, the United States possessed the theoretical capability to kill every living person in Vietnam. That would have ended the war immediately. But that "ability" was irrelevant to the struggle between the United States and Vietnam. American "power" varies from situation to situation.

"Relative" power means power in relation to whom? In virtually any "situation", the United States is "more powerful" in relation to Papua New Guinea than the US is in relation to the People's Republic of China. If the United States GDP is growing at 4% per year (would to god that it were), and the PRC's is growing at 8% per year, the United States is less powerful relative to China each year, although it may still be more powerful in an absolute sense.


There are excellent reasons to use GDP as the definitive measure of a State's "power" within the International System. The search for both a definition and a useful metric of international power consumes a lot of IR Theory's time. They've got scores of enormous multivariate models of "power", using statistics like steel production and kilowatt hours produced and national literacy levels, and they all give you exactly the same rank ordering of nation-states that simple GDP does.
THIS is the why, despite still being the apex power of the International System, the United States is a "declining" power. Since the end of WWII, the United States has enjoyed economic growth, the enhancement of its military capabilities, increased the number of channels through which it can exert influence...

but so has the rest of the world. And having started from near zero at the end of WWII, they have increased their power more, relative to us.

So, back out of the weeds...

Classical Realism predicts that the United States, as a declining power, will pursue a policy of "Prestige". The policy of Prestige attempts to "demonstrate" the power (and continued relevance) of the nation-state carrying out the policy. A State pursuing a policy of prestige engages in numerous interventions and disputes within the international system, even when its national interests cannot credibly be said to be engaged. That should sound awfully familiar to students of current events, as well.

Neocon Hawk Bill Kristol, sometimes referred to as "Dan Quayle's brain"

Consider the common themes behind various Neoconservative policy prescriptions. The Neocons spend a great deal of time talking about the need to "demonstrate American resolve", and "display American leadership". Neocons are all about "sending a message" to whichever adversary is destabilizing the International System. Think about what it is the Neocons are advocating here...

these are purely symbolic purposes they're advocating. They're attempting to deter destabilizing actions by projecting an image of US power.

If that's not Morgenthau's policy of Prestige, I don't know what is.

Having identified the underlying paradigm of Neoconservative foreign policy, it is probably still necessary to explain why it is inimical to US national interests.

Neoconservative foreign policy is expensive. Since Neoconservatives are less concerned with American decline relative to other States than they are the perception of American decline, they need the United States to spend a lot of time throwing its weight around. Neoconservatives advocate some form of US intervention in virtually every dispute which takes place within the international system, irrespective of its nature, or the actors involved, or its utter triviality to US national interests.

These interventions are dissipations of US power rather than demonstrations of it. US power in the international system is a function of its economic strength, not its ability to impose a conclusion on international disputes having little or nothing to do with us. 

This is Dick Fuld. he's not a neocon, but his mismanagement of Lehman Brothers precipitated the Great Recession . In the process, he did more damage to American national security interests than anything done by Putin, or Assad, or Edward Snowden. But he's only worth about $160 million now, so I'm sure he's been chastened.


Furthermore, Neocon interventions are themselves often destabilizing, as can be seen in Iraq, or Nicaragua, or Iran

Finally, Neoconservatives make a couple of the classic errors of foreign policy described by Morgenthau. They badly overestimate US capabilities, and they confuse military power with "power" in the International System. Their thinking here is almost unforgivably shoddy; 'If the US is more powerful than Russia, it ought to be able to dictate the outcome of events on the Russian border'.

There is another point I'd like to make about Neoconservative foreign policy prescriptions, but it's not from the standpoint of a Classical Realist.

Neoconservatives, as unwitting advocates of a policy of Prestige, are primarily concerned with the symbolic effect of the actions they advocate. As I said above, they are concerned with US "credibility", and "demonstrating resolve" and "sending a message".

But they want to achieve these symbolic objectives through very real means.

When you decide to "demonstrate your resolve" by dropping high explosives on actual, non-symbolic people, or "send a message" having young American citizens risk death or mutilation...

you need to be damned sure that you're going to produce a concrete benefit that can be identified by objective observers, instead of engaging in mere posturing. The cost of Neocon policy is often very real horror and misery.