Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World by Anatol Lieven, John Hulsman
|Reviewed By:||Jack Snyder, Robert , Renée Belfer|
|Reviewed in:||Middle East Policy|
|Date accepted online:||03/05/2007|
|Published in print:||Volume 14, Issue 1, Pages 142-176|
In the wake of the debacle of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, prudence is the new watchword in debates on American foreign policy. As James Traub has written, "everybody is a realist now." But what kind of realist? Neither America's public nor its elites have been able to sustain for long a Nixon-Kissinger style of Realpolitik that equates national interest with ruthless calculations of power.
Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, prominent foreign-affairs commentators normally found on the left and right, respectively, have joined forces to argue that prudence must dovetail with ethics in charting a more effective American world role. They are equal-opportunity critics of both cynical realism and what they see as the "fanatical" idealism of utopian liberals and neoconservatives who seek to promote democracy out of the barrel of a gun. They warn against swaggering "pseudo-realists" who talk about power but are really motivated by a sophomoric idealism, and against "pseudo-idealists" who make high-sounding promises but fail to deliver.
Instead, they harken back to the salutary example of the Marshall Plan, "a combination of the idealistic and the practical that has so often characterized American foreign policy at its best." (p. 14). Its architects understood that American power could best be used to stabilize the international order by shoring up what Lieven and Hulsman call "the Great Capitalist Peace," an economic precondition for the emergence of strong democracies in Europe then and in the developing world in the future. Trying to plant democracy in soil that lacks economic and political nutrients serves only to produce "lilies that fester," they say. Theirs is ultimately a strategy of pro-democracy idealism, but without utopian shortcuts (p. 102).
This strategy "flows directly from the ethical realist philosophy," which stresses "possible results rather than good intentions; a close study of the nature, views and interests of other states, and a willingness to accommodate them when possible." Ethical realism embodies for them a "profound awareness of the limits both on American power and on American goodness" (p. xvii). As realist philosophers like Reinhold Niebuhr and Hans Morgenthau warned half a century ago, without prudential restraints, idealism becomes at best a costly and ineffective narcissism and at worst a self-delusive mask for the opportunistic use of hegemonic power.
Fleshing out their argument for a resolutely consequentialist yardstick for measuring the ethics of decisions, Lieven and Hulsman stress that U.S. policies will be counterproductive unless they are based on a real understanding of others' legitimate concerns. For example, America cannot "expect that Iranian patriots, in a country surrounded by nuclear-armed states, should abandon the possibility of a nuclear deterrent without receiving concrete security guarantees and other compensation for their country in return. A U.S. official who recommended such action by America in similar circumstances could not just be legitimately accused of treason but charged with it in court" (p. 82). Their standard for judging whether civilian war deaths are ethically justifiable is whether the war is fought in self-defense, whether civilian casualties are proportionate to the military objective, and whether the campaign gains international support. World War II and the Afghanistan War of 2001 pass these tests, they say; the Vietnam War and the Iraq invasion of 2003 do not (pp. 78-79). In laying out these criteria, the point is not to propound an abstract standard of justice, but to identify rules of thumb that will lead to decisions that will gain acceptance and therefore be politically sustainable.
It is hard to object to Lieven and Hulsman's philosophical call for prudence and empathy. But how convincing are their empirical claims about the so-called capitalist peace? After all, it is the democratic peace, not the capitalist peace, that most social scientists trumpet. Democracies have never fought a war against each other, as long as democracy and war are narrowly enough defined. Although democracies do start wars about as frequently as do non-democracies, democracies seem to be more prudent in picking their fights. They win their wars more often, especially the ones they start, even taking their relative power into account. Democratic great powers pull back from imperial overextension with greater alacrity than do authoritarian great powers, including non-democratic capitalist ones. Political scientist Bruce Russett has shown that the distinctive behavior of democracy holds up even when he controls for per capita income, which correlates to some degree with democracy. Conversely, capitalism without shared democracy did not lead to peace in 1914, when the economically interdependent capitalist great powers, some of which were non-democracies, tore each other apart.
That said, the capitalist-peace argument does have some support. Statistical evidence mounted by political scientist Erik Gartzke suggests that disputes involving countries with highly mobile capital and interdependent capital markets are unlikely to escalate to war. Gartzke's research also supports the contention of Lieven and Hulsman that the great game of territorial rivalry has become obsolete among advanced capitalist states. Lieven and Hulsman dismiss the World War I counterexample on the grounds that pre-capitalist elites were still in command of much of Europe's diplomacy and military strategy.
Perhaps more important is their argument that well-grounded economic development is an indispensable underpinning for the emergence of stable democracy. It is well established that democracy is much more likely to become consolidated in countries with high per capita income in non-oil capitalist economies. Consequently, whether one touts the democratic peace or the capitalist peace, it makes sense to promote sustainable capitalist development, as Lieven and Hulsman do. They praise the high rates of economic growth in non-democratic states like China and Pakistan, arguing that this is the right sequence leading both to peace and, eventually, democracy. Invoking the precedent of Britain's presiding over the peaceful era of free trade between 1860 and 1914, they tout their concept of "developmental realism," which would seek to stabilize international politics by expanding trade liberalization to include agriculture and conditioning foreign aid on meeting capitalist rule-of-law targets (p. 126).
Lieven and Hulsman exhibit a touching faith in the ability of the United States and other advanced capitalist states to orchestrate stable economic growth in the developing world, at the same time as they scoff at the West's ability to export democracy. On balance, there is little evidence that the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization are any better at bringing wealth to the poorest of the poor than the Bush Administration has been at bringing democracy to the Middle East. Lieven and Hulsman are also far too sanguine about the benign political effects of expanding the middle class through trade and growth in places like China. They cite the classic work of Barrington Moore, who did indeed say "no bourgeoisie, no democracy" (p. 176). But the central point of Moore's work on
The least satisfying part of the book offers specific proposals for dealing with urgent geopolitical problems of the Middle East. Though claiming to derive these prescriptions from ethical-realist principles, their solutions echo the very same imperialist unilateralism that they are so eager to refute. They argue that the United States should demand that the European Union pay huge compensation to Palestinians in exchange for giving up the right of return to Israel, require Palestinians to accept Israel's already-built settlements near Jerusalem in the West Bank, and force Israel to allow a geographically contiguous Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem (pp. 141-44).
Their solution to the Iranian nuclear problem is similarly imperious. The United States should force Russia to take the lead in a deal that would allow Iran an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle, but would impose draconian and automatic sanctions if Iran weaponized its nuclear program (pp. 156-57). They would have been more convincing, and more consistent with the underlying philosophical principles of their own approach, if they had stuck to an idea that they briefly introduced earlier in the book: that a nuclear-armed Iran, even under Ahmadinejad, would be no less deterrable than the Soviet Union or China under Stalin or Mao, respectively (p. 113).
Despite their principled call for realistic, empathetic engagement with developing states, Lieven and Hulsman sometimes lapse into the same kind of dyspeptic hauteur that they criticize in Charles Krauthammer, coiner of "the unipolar moment." Lieven and Hulsman say that "neoconservative professions of a desire to bring democracy to other nations are all too often strangely combined with a snarling hatred and contempt for the peoples whom they say they trust to exercise the same democracy" (p. 72). Yet the impatience of Lieven and Hulsman with the tiresome frustrations of real diplomacy in the Middle East leads them back to a policy of hegemonic dictation similar to the one that they themselves denounce.
How to integrate considerations of prudence and ethics into the employment of America's global power is indeed the great question of the day. Many arguments of Lieven and Hulsman put the debate on the right track: the need to base ethical judgments on realistic assessments of consequences, the need to use power but also to understand its limits, and the need to bargain pragmatically with the powerful without abandoning the aspiration for progress. Important above all is their insight that sustainable political outcomes cannot be based on good intentions or acts of will alone, but rather on the pragmatic, painstaking assembling of the preconditions for success.
In this sense, their philosophical orientation toward ethical realism is a solid rock to build upon. However, their empirical claims about the capitalist peace need to be understood in a more conditional way if they are to be a useful strategic guide. Finally, their exasperated recommendations for dealing with the intractable problems of the Middle East serve as inadvertent reminders of how we got into the mess of imperial overstretch in the first place.