Saturday, February 19, 2005

Back to Realism?

The February/March issue of Boston Review is worth checking out. In their New Democracy Forum, Stephen M. Walt lays out a new grand strategy for U.S. foreign policy in classic realist style. Afterwards, scholars such as Richard Falk, Joseph S. Nye Jr. and Mahmood Mamdani critique Walt’s realist vision.

Walt lays out three possible directions that American foreign policy can go: global hegemony, selective engagement, or offshore balancing. Walt argues, using 2002’s National Security Strategy as proof, that the Bush administration is gunning for hegemony. This brings up a micro problem and a macro problem. The micro problem is empire always enflames nationalist passions --“a profound social force” in Walt’s words -- with Iraq as the latest example. The macro problem is the tendency to use preponderant power indiscriminately (i.e. Bush Doctrine of preventative war), because it will cause regional powers to coalesce into a bloc to balance U.S. power.

Walt's second option,selective engagement, functioned as the foreign policy of both Bush Sr. and Clinton. Here, the U.S. wields its considerable power reluctantly and multilaterally through institutions like NATO or the U.N. The obvious examples were Iraq in 1991 and Bosnia and Kosovo during the late 90s. But the U.S. wasn’t being selective enough Walt writes, maintaining an archipelago of military bases throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East, while giving “unconditional backing for Israel, uncritical support for traditional Arab monarchies…which…contributed to growing anti-Americanism,” thereby helping spawn Al-Qaeda and its subsequent mutation into an ideology or mass movement.

The “final” option, offshore balancing, is the one Walt advocates. Yet it doesn’t seem all that different from American post-WWII security policy and amounts to pursuing hegemony through proxies, or what neo-Marxists describe as neo-imperialism. Here’s how Walt explains offshore balancing:

In this strategy, the United States deploys its power abroad only when there are direct threats to vital American interests. Offshore balancing assumes that only a few areas of the globe are of strategic importance to the United States (that is, worth fighting and dying for). Specifically, the vital areas are the regions where there are substantial concentrations of power and wealth or critical natural resources: Europe, industrialized Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Offshore balancing further recognizes that the United States does not need to control these areas directly; it merely needs to ensure that they do not fall under the control of a hostile great power and especially not under the control of a so-called peer competitor. To prevent rival powers from doing this, offshore balancing prefers to rely primarily on local actors to uphold the regional balance of power. Under this strategy, the United States would intervene with its own forces only when regional powers are unable to uphold the balance of power on their own.

Again, I’m not sure how this differs from what U.S. foreign policy has done historically since 1945. Moreover, if we continue to rely on proxies in U.S. regions of interest, we’ll have to ally ourselves with those already in power, namely the same corrupt Arab monarchies and dictatorships that refuse to recognize elementary human rights. Also, I’m not so sure Bush’s foreign policy isn’t just old-fashioned realism anyway, dressed up in an idealistic veneer. Let us not forget, democracy promotion didn’t become the main rationale for Iraq until late in the game. The truth is, while we try to compartmentalize different theories of international relations, U.S. presidents use a mish-mash of these ideas to achieve one goal: American primacy. While foreign policy can be conducted more rationally, it will only ever be as moral as the narrow economic and strategic interests that propel it.

Nevertheless, Walt's suggestions -- such as being a fair peace broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians, promoting political liberalization in the Arab world, and securing loose nukes -- are miles above the Bush Doctrine's preventative war and unparalleled supremacy.