An American Foreign Policy That Both Realists and Idealists Should Fall in Love With (ROBERT WRIGHT, 7/16/06, NY Times)
[I]t’s now possible to build a foreign policy paradigm that comes close to squaring the circle — reconciling the humanitarian aims of idealists with the powerful logic of realists. And adopting this paradigm could make the chaos of the last week less common in the future.
Every paradigm needs a name, and the best name for this one is progressive realism. The label has a nice ring (Who is against progress?) and it aptly suggests bipartisan appeal. This is a realism that could attract many liberals and a progressivism that could attract some conservatives.
With such crossover potential, this paradigm might even help Democrats win a presidential election. But Democrats can embrace it only if they’re willing to annoy an interest group or two and also reject a premise common in Democratic policy circles lately: that the key to a winning foreign policy is to recalibrate the party’s manhood — just take boilerplate liberal foreign policy and add a testosterone patch. Even if that prescription did help win an election, it wouldn’t succeed in protecting America. […]
Progressive realism begins with a cardinal doctrine of traditional realism: the purpose of American foreign policy is to serve American interests. […]
There is a principle here that goes beyond arms control: the national interest can be served by constraints on America’s behavior when they constrain other nations as well. This logic covers the spectrum of international governance, from global warming (we’ll cut carbon dioxide emissions if you will) to war (we’ll refrain from it if you will).
This doesn’t mean joining the deepest devotees of international law and vowing never to fight a war that lacks backing by the United Nations Security Council. But it does mean that, in the case of Iraq, ignoring the Security Council and international opinion had excessive costs: (1) eroding the norm against invasions not justified by self-defense or imminent threat; (2) throwing away a golden post-9/11 opportunity to strengthen the United Nations’ power as a weapons inspector. The last message we needed to send is the one President Bush sent: countries that succumb to pressure to admit weapons inspectors will be invaded anyway. Peacefully blunting the threats posed by nuclear technologies in North Korea and Iran would be tricky in any event, but this message has made it trickier. (Ever wonder why Iran wants “security guarantees”?)
The administration’s misjudgment in Iraq highlights the distinction — sometimes glossed over by neoconservatives — between transparency and regime change. Had we held off on invasion, demanding in return that United Nations inspections be expanded and extended, we could have rendered Iraq transparent, confirming that it posed no near-term threat. Regime change wasn’t essential. […]
The slaughter in Darfur, though a humanitarian crisis, is also a security issue, given how hospitable collapsed states can be to terrorists. But if addressing the Darfur problem will indeed help thwart terrorism internationally, then the costs of the mission should be shared.
President Bush’s belated diplomatic involvement in Darfur suggests growing enlightenment, but sluggish ad hoc multilateralism isn’t enough. We need multilateral structures capable of decisively forceful intervention and nation building — ideally under the auspices of the United Nations, which has more global legitimacy than other candidates. America should lead in building these structures and thereafter contribute its share, but only its share. To some extent, the nurturing of international institutions and solid international law is simple thrift.
And the accounting rules are subtle. […]
Of course, resources aren’t infinite, and the world has lots of problems. But focusing on national interest helps focus resources. Notwithstanding last week’s carnage in the Middle East, more people have been dying in Sri Lanka’s civil war than in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But given the threat of anti-American Islamist terrorism, forging a lasting two-state solution in the Middle East is a higher priority than bringing lasting peace to Sri Lanka.
This sounds harsh, but it is only acknowledgment of something often left unsaid: a nation’s foreign policy will always favor the interests of its citizens and so fall short of moral perfection. We can at least be thankful that history, by intertwining the fates of peoples, is bringing national interest closer to moral ideals.
The obvious problem for Mr. Wright is that the moral ideals that America seeks to vindicate are Judeo-Christian and that means that it will never be the “purpose of American foreign policy…to serve American interests.” Interests can not be squared with morals. For instance, the Realists are uniformly hostile to Israel because it would serve our “interests” to remove that irritant from the Middle East. American foreign policy, hoever, is and always has been pro-Israel for exclusively moral reasons. Likewise, it couldn’t matter less to our “interests” how many Jews a Hitler kills, how many Shi’ites and Kurds a Saddam kills, how many blacks in Darfur the Arabs kill, how badly Haiti is run, etc… We intervene — over and over and over again, in situations with virtually no strategic implications — because it is morally right, even when it is directly against our own interests.
Our foreign policy in no way approaches moral perfection, but it is morally motivated and an argument against that historical truth is unrealistic.