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International realism and dictatorship

April 1st, 2011

As a result of the events in the Arab world[1], I’ve been thinking some more about “international realism”, which I take to have the following central premises[2]

1. States have durable, long-term interests and their actions in international affairs are driven by the rational pursuit of those interests

2. The use or threat of military power is the pre-eminent way (or at least one of the primary ways) in which states pursue their interests

It struck me in thinking about recent events that this is essentially a theory for a world of autocracies. (Apologies to those for whom this is old news, but this is a blog, after all). In such a world, international realism reduces to the claim that individuals are driven by rational self-interest. While there are problems with this claim (it’s empirically problematic if self-interest is defined tightly, and tautological if it’s defined by “revealed preference”), it seems like a sensible starting point, at least for the kind of individuals who become successful autocrats.

Moreover, the idea that war is a central part of rational policy makes sense for autocrats. Although war is a negative sum game, it seems reasonable, under a wide range of circumstances to assume that the losses are borne primarily by the autocrat’s subjects, while the gains flow to the autocrats. Even a war that ends with the status quo ante can be beneficial to the rulers on both sides by providing a Malthusian check on a population that might otherwise prove restive, providing an excuse for increased taxation and so on. That implies the failure of the standard negative-sum game argument against war, namely, that both sides would be better off calculating the outcome of war, and agreeing to accept it without a fight.

None of this would be problematic to Hobbes, often presented as the founding theorist of international relations. But it presents problems for a world in which, at least in formal terms, most governments are democracies rather than autocracies. The central problems are

1. A central element of the case for democracy is that it allows for the resolution of competing views of the national interest. But that resolution, involving the alternation of political power, undermines the assumption that there is a stable concept of self-interest to be pursued. One party or faction may favor an alliance with country A, another with its hostile neighbour B. Moreoever, groups within different countries (for example, left or right political parties) may see each other as natural political allies against their domestic opponents

2. Both theory and experience suggest that war (even war in which the state is victorious) is nearly always against the interests of the citizens of a country, taken as a whole. Whereas ruling more territory seems obviously good for an autocrat, there is no corresponding gain from being a citizen of a large state rather than a small one. (This doesn’t rule out a need for self-defense against autocracies or irrationally aggressive democracies, but it does suggest a strong interest in promoting peace).

There are a couple of ways in which international realists might respond to this. The first, more or less standard among leftist advocates of realism, and common on the right, is to say that democracy is a sham and that international relations must be understood in terms of conflicts between national ruling classes. The main disagreement between the left and right on this is that the left views this as an undesirable (if unchangeable) state of affairs where is the right is concerned to preclude any disruption of orderly policymaking by the uninformed masses.

The centrist position as I read it is a kind of exceptionalism. While we (the US [3]) can combine domestic democracy with a realist foreign policy (based on some maxim such as “politics stops at the waters edge”) the poorer countries with which foreign policy primarily deals cannot. So, from the US viewpoint, the best option is a friendly, stable dictatorship.

With notably rare exceptions, support for friendly, stable dictatorships has worked well for the US. Among the rare exceptions: Pahlavi in Iran, Saddam in Iraq, Thieu in Vietnam, the Saudi regime (that gave us Al Qaeda). But, as if by the unredeemably opaque operation of some invisible hand, these very exceptions have created new foreign policy problems that have ensured the continued prosperity of the Foreign Policy Community.

fn1, The events in Libya have also started a new round of claims about the persistence or otherwise of US hegemony, clearly a related topic. As Phil Arena says here, it’s essentially a Rorschach test, with everyone seeing what they want to see.

fn2. I’m not too interested in definitional questions about whether this is the right characterization of the views of some particular group of scholars who may claim the label of “realism”. Clearly, the ideas are widely held, and the label “realism” is commonly attached to them.

fn3. In its modern form, international realism seems to be pre-eminently a US idea. For Europe, Japan etc, the foolishness of pursuing national self-interest through military force is a lesson that has been learned the hard way, and mostly (not entirely) absorbed into policy thinking.

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  1. Ikonoclast
    April 1st, 2011 at 10:38 | #1

    Part of the problem is that a democratic country is only a democracy at home. Abroad it is an autocracy, if it has military power to project.

    To reformulate one of the positions you stated, “Democracy is merely domestic and international relations must still be understood in terms of conflicts between national ruling classes.”

    In a true democracy, the common people would be the national ruling class. However, all democracies are subverted in one way or another. While the power of national elites might be partially circumscribed domestically, they tend to have much more freedom of action in foregin policy (if they operate from a powerful country).

    As an aside, if the Libyan rebels and Bengazhi were saved a civilian massacre by intervention, will not the intervention (if successful) just lead to a massacre at the other end of the country? If Tripoli (and Gaddafi) fall), I predict an equally large civilian massacre will be the result in any case.

    No good comes of intervening in other people’s civil wars. Sell them no weapons, do no trade with either side and leave them alone to find their own solution. Outside intervention will only widen and prolong conflicts.

  2. April 1st, 2011 at 11:47 | #2

    John, if you’re talking in an IR theory sense, you forget that realists, both neo and classical, assume the international system is anarchic in nature – the fundamental premise of realism.

    “The first, more or less standard among leftist advocates of realism, and common on the right, is to say that democracy is a sham and that international relations must be understood in terms of conflicts between national ruling classes.”

    While my experience in IR theory is limited to what I learned in my masters at UQ, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a ‘leftist realist’. Realism assumes the base units are states – not classes(see Waltz or Mearsheimer or Morgenthau), therefore (again assuming if you’re talking IR speak) what you’re saying doesn’t sound correct.

    To me, realism is a prfoundly conservative, right-facing approach to IR. Taking about it in terms of marxist class struggle doesn’t make sense.

  3. may
    April 1st, 2011 at 12:22 | #3

    oh dear,here we go.

    if i hear shrieks punctuated by dull thuds coming from next door?
    ignore?

    if i see some running for their life chased by machete wielders with a very intent look on their face?
    ignore?

    help if i can.
    if i can’t, keep out of the bloody way of those who can.

    at least then i don’t have to waste my time constructing a sophisticated argument for why i shouldn’t and incidentally,be able to live with myself.

  4. may
    April 1st, 2011 at 12:47 | #4

    aside from all that.

    what if we the changed the nomination scenario.

    instead of nations the blocs would be

    military– how much of world assets required to maintain?
    religion– ditto
    corporate– ditto plus how much contributed?
    agriculture– ditto ditto.

    and so on.

    i’m probably drivelling.

  5. Freelander
    April 1st, 2011 at 12:55 | #5

    External threats have always been a powerful unifying force. The modern state may never have developed in their absence. Those who would otherwise fight against the state can often be redirected to fight the ‘enemy’. War can be a means of keeping a state together, even if the consequences of total war, or a badly handled war, may end up ripping a state apart (for example, Russia during the First World War).

    There is no reason to believe that democracies are any less hungry for war than other forms of government. This wasn’t true in Athens or Rome, or in early, middle or late USA. A very early and popular policy in the fledgling US state was to invade Canada. Later Mexico and Spain were targets. Without concocted external threats the patriotism that glues the disparate groups in the US together would be an extremely hard sell. Too many groups in the US have radically conflicting interests. Remember, they have had one civil war. Those in the US who are against the federal government, including those who call their federal government zog, are only too willing to die when sent by their federal government into battle against another country.

  6. may
    April 1st, 2011 at 12:56 | #6

    oh i forgot.

    the untaxed crime empire bloc–how much of world assets to maintain?

  7. rog
    April 1st, 2011 at 16:28 | #7
  8. rog
    April 1st, 2011 at 16:32 | #8

    Chilling in that the documents from Iraq indicate that there never was an AQ presence in Iraq and the insurgents were local and acted on instructions from the political factions viewing for control. All those dead Americans and Iraqis, their lives wasted.

  9. Freelander
    April 1st, 2011 at 18:57 | #9

    Hell. They knew there never was al Qaeda in Iraq. They didn’t require any documents.

  10. haiku
    April 1st, 2011 at 19:00 | #10

    as if by the unredeemably opaque operation of some invisible hand

    Superb work from John Queenspan …

  11. TerjeP
    April 1st, 2011 at 19:20 | #11

    There is a difference between pure democracy and an elected autocrat. In terms of the power to declare war the US is more like an autocracy than a democracy. Whilst the US constitution insists that wars must be declared only by congress no president has yet been impeached for ignoring this aspect of the constitution.

    Obama has proved himself a hypocrite and a liar just like the bloke before him.

  12. Freelander
    April 2nd, 2011 at 00:08 | #12

    @TerjeP

    Obama has been much more successful than the bloke before. He actually fooled many of the people and was given a Nobel Peace Prize before being recognised as a hypocrite and a liar; he was actually elected and by a margin no number of hanging chads could reverse; and he managed to do it while being black and being suspected of being a muslim born in Kenya.

    Not bad going at all.

  13. paul walter
    April 2nd, 2011 at 01:24 | #13

    May, you are not talking drivel, by my lights. Adding to your comment, the idea of the economy of excess, that ensures resources are wasted on domestic bread and circuses, as well as defence spending and phony wars requiring constant replacement of obsolete weaponary from where- guess- the west- and you’ve hit the nail pretty much on the head. Weakening rivals through attrition.
    Re Terje and Freelander, I’d agree the mentality is significantly different with Obama, but Terje is right, at bottom: the politicians know there are certain areas “off limits” (eg Big Capitalism, primacy of Murdochised media, corporate taxation etc), the same as politicians here like Gillard and Abott at fed level and most of the state admins within their own bailiwicks.
    added to the blurring is the distinction between nation state who have to play by the rules, preyed upon by alliances of huge corporations or agglomerations of corporate interests with incomes greater than most states, who can capture the reins of government through political proxies. I think of the oil industry during Bush’s time and Wall St High finance with the Democrats, or the City of London with Cameron and Britain

  14. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    April 2nd, 2011 at 05:31 | #14

    Freelander – either the Republicans and Democrats are poor talent scouts, are good talent scouts but filter out the talent, or they recruit talent and then relentlessly destroy it with corrupt demands and expectations. If they actually did recruit Keynan born muslims they might at least bring some new blood into the game.

  15. April 2nd, 2011 at 09:36 | #15

    There is no unanimity concerning final demise of the US Constitutional doctrine of checks and balances. Dennis Kucinich for one, argues that Obama has exceeded his powers in relation to Libya which he suggests should imply impeachment while doubting that will happen.

    National interests are most often fictions. Autocrats, elected or otherwise, are by their nature the embodiments of institutional, including bureaucratic, interests. There is no evidence that Obama’s decision making is informed by the vicious institutional of slavery and the struggle for humanity and justice. Bombing campaigns deploy and deplete the means of death and destruction while justifying the organizations that make them possible.

    To be honest the realists should substitute their method as violence rather than the cute description “national power”. In doing so, they would have to identify with the people, such as Gaddafi, they presume to despise.

  16. jquiggin
    April 2nd, 2011 at 13:37 | #16

    @Darragh
    It’s true that leftists who accept the realist view I’ve described don’t usually wear the realist label.

    But, in the context of the current Libyan crisis, I’d impute realism to anyone who says that the reason for US intervention is to secure access to oil supplies, whether or not they think this a good thing (most right wing realists) or a bad thing (most left wing realists).

    A further complication is that some rightwing realists oppose the intervention either because they think it won’t work or because they think it really is motivated by humanitarian concerns and is therefore inappropriate.

  17. Freelander
    April 2nd, 2011 at 14:03 | #17

    The US intervention was particularly reluctant.

    Although as usual they talk about their ‘leadership role’, the reality is they were dragged into the intervention when the situation became such that they risked looking silly as the one left out. Oil has been an abiding interest in American foreign policy as it was a significant driver in British middle eastern policy, but could not in anyway been called the motive in this case. But then neither can humanitarian concerns, which have never been a significant motivation in American foreign policy, or in most other country’s foreign policies generally.

    The real motivation, as they have been dragged into it, is probably to maintain influence internationally. If they had continued to be the odd one out amongst the self-identified ‘good guys’, they would have lost influence, and lost some of what they believe is their ‘moral authority’ in a environment where their influence is significantly on the decline.

  18. paul walter
    April 2nd, 2011 at 14:44 | #18

    I think Quiggin is begging someone to reply, “if they are motivated by humanitarian concerns they can’t be right wing- oxymoronic”.
    I think following on from Freelander, that the pieces have fallen and the Yanks, like everyone else, are trying to make of the emerging situation, what they can. What makes them dangerous is that they no longer understand the damage they do, at human level. They (we?) are so now apart from human experiences at the level of the masses. More and more, I’m convinced that 19 year old young fellow who hanged himself at Curtin, as a result of sheer indifference, is a representation for and of the age. We know not what we do-
    “Banality of evil”.

  19. Ikonoclast
    April 2nd, 2011 at 15:00 | #19

    @jquiggin

    Maybe the USA’s lukewarm response to Libya (relative to say their “response” to Iraq) is related to the relative unimportance of Libya’s oil reserves (especially to the US).

    Perhaps one could do a scatter graph of US “responses” to foreign situations. Put imputed oil reserves as the independent variable and size of the US military response as the dependent variable. Admittedly, Afghanistan might be an outlier unless we could somehow factor in control of potential pipeline routes.

  20. Alice
    April 2nd, 2011 at 21:36 | #20

    @paul walter
    Paul – “the banality of evil” is right. We do not even need to lock these people up. New Zealnd doesnt – most countries dont. 19 years old and he has hung himself.
    Australians bring shame on me and I am one of them.

  21. Freelander
    April 2nd, 2011 at 22:12 | #21

    If we want to repudiate the international agreement Australia made long ago, along with many other countries, to provide refuge to any legitimate refugees who turn up on our borders then the government should simply do that and stop torturing legitimate refugees for the crime of turning up on our shores and claiming refuge.

    Repudiating that would be more honorable than the vilification and detention we are subjecting refugees to, simply to evade the obligations Australia agreed to.

  22. gerard
    April 3rd, 2011 at 17:28 | #22

    To me, realism is a prfoundly conservative, right-facing approach to IR. Taking about it in terms of marxist class struggle doesn’t make sense.

    You can be the world’s most idealistic hippy and recognise that states are governed by the naked self-interest of their ruling classes – does that make you a “realist”? You can be an outright fascist and still sincerely believe that your own state’s violence is governed by a noble idealism. Does that make you not a “realist”?

    “Realism” is a meaningless shibboleth of the content-free academic discipline that is “International Relations theory”.

  23. April 3rd, 2011 at 19:25 | #23

    Thanks @jquiggin but I’m still slightly confused if you’re talking about ‘realism’ in the sense of the IR theoretical approach or in more generalised fashion. While I suspect the former, I’m still confused by what you mean as a ‘left-wing realist’. Do you mean someone who believes in egalitarianism while also believing that states in international relations inherently attempt to ‘survive’ in an anarchic world order? I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just curious as to your thought behind such use of words.

    jquiggin :
    @Darragh
    It’s true that leftists who accept the realist view I’ve described don’t usually wear the realist label.
    But, in the context of the current Libyan crisis, I’d impute realism to anyone who says that the reason for US intervention is to secure access to oil supplies, whether or not they think this a good thing (most right wing realists) or a bad thing (most left wing realists).
    A further complication is that some rightwing realists oppose the intervention either because they think it won’t work or because they think it really is motivated by humanitarian concerns and is therefore inappropriate.

  24. April 3rd, 2011 at 19:29 | #24

    @jquiggin
    I might suggest a great article on human security, power and agency that does throw a lot of what we’re talking about here (intervention, R2P) into a good perspective:

    McCormack, Tara. 2008. ‘Power and Agency in the Human Security Framework’. Cambridge Review of International Affairs 21(1): 113-128.

  25. April 3rd, 2011 at 19:33 | #25

    @gerard In both cases, no – those situations do not make you an ‘realist’ in an IR sense.

    I suspect that you’re getting your definition of ‘realism’ in IR confused with its more general definition. Political realism in IR is not oriented necessarily to a particular point on the political spectrum (though, as I said before, I tend to see it as more associated with conservative viewpoints).

  26. Gerard
    April 3rd, 2011 at 23:23 | #26

    I studied IR at uni and it was a waste of time and hecs debt. Our text was kegley and wittkopf which seems to be the standard. At its so-called “theoretical” core is a false dichotomy between “realism” and “idealism” that confuses the positive and the normative, dresses up trivial observations and tautologies as grand insights, contrives artificial “schools of thought” centered around essentially meaningless debates, and basically obfuscates the study of the actually existing world system in a swamp of pretentious psedo-intellectual drivel. I’m not saying there’s nothing there at all, but as a discipline it is great at confusing the map for the terrain

  27. Alan
    April 4th, 2011 at 01:26 | #27

    Perhaps McMahon’s heir would be more accurate. Same inability to speak in anything but clichés, same inability to set out any large goals, same inability to address any new ideas, even a similar vocal quirk.

  28. April 4th, 2011 at 10:49 | #28

    @Gerard

    Gerard :I studied IR at uni and it was a waste of time and hecs debt. Our text was kegley and wittkopf which seems to be the standard. At its so-called “theoretical” core is a false dichotomy between “realism” and “idealism” that confuses the positive and the normative, dresses up trivial observations and tautologies as grand insights, contrives artificial “schools of thought” centered around essentially meaningless debates, and basically obfuscates the study of the actually existing world system in a swamp of pretentious psedo-intellectual drivel. I’m not saying there’s nothing there at all, but as a discipline it is great at confusing the map for the terrain

    I sympathise with your criticism to a certain extent, however, I think you’re expecting too much of IR theory. If your do not have faith in existing theory, how would you personally describe the behaviour of actors within the international system today? How would you make it less confusing?

    The approaches are just simply a raneg of different lenses in which to see things with. I’ve never used that text, nor read it, but have you considered the critical approaches to IR theory? I.e Critical theory?

    Although, Gerard, I think your comment seems to suffer from the exact same problems on which you criticise IR theory. Talk about verbosity!

  29. Freelander
    April 4th, 2011 at 12:12 | #29

    @Darragh

    Very interesting. I managed to understand exactly what Gerard said without too much effort. Doesn’t appear that you have if you think his critique suffers from exactly the ‘same problems [he] criticise[s] IR theory’ for. Don’t know where you get your verbose from either.

  30. April 4th, 2011 at 12:36 | #30

    Freelander :@Darragh
    Very interesting. I managed to understand exactly what Gerard said without too much effort. Doesn’t appear that you have if you think his critique suffers from exactly the ‘same problems [he] criticise[s] IR theory’ for. Don’t know where you get your verbose from either.

    Freelander – Oh, I understood perfectly. I’m simply pointing out that the language used by Gerard to criticises IR theory (i.e “obfuscates the study of the actually existing world system in a swamp of pretentious psedo-intellectual drivel”) is arguably itself ‘a swamp of pretentious pseudo-intellectual drivel’.

  31. April 4th, 2011 at 12:44 | #31

    @Freelander @Gerard

    Conscious that my comments may seem like badly formed trolling. Don’t actually intend that, so I retract any statements that may cause offense! I’ll blame Monday.

  32. Freelander
    April 4th, 2011 at 14:06 | #32

    Darragh :

    Freelander – Oh, I understood perfectly. I’m simply pointing out that the language used by Gerard to criticises IR theory (i.e “obfuscates the study of the actually existing world system in a swamp of pretentious psedo-intellectual drivel”) is arguably itself ‘a swamp of pretentious pseudo-intellectual drivel’.

    But it’s not; so you don’t.

    But in case you have more to say… I will give my response to that now….

    Whatever…

  33. gerard
    April 4th, 2011 at 21:03 | #33

    If your do not have faith in existing theory, how would you personally describe the behaviour of actors within the international system today? How would you make it less confusing?

    Thing is, I don’t see much need for “theory” at all. The international system is a system of more-or-less powerful interests all acting to maintain and further their power by various means. That’s trivial but it’s about as general a “theory” as you really need. Beyond that the only really useful thing is to study the system’s history, and that of the specific interests and institutions that compose it. Most of the fancy textbook “debates” that are the focus of IR “theory” are just diversions from this.

  34. April 5th, 2011 at 15:15 | #34

    gerard :

    Thing is, I don’t see much need for “theory” at all. The international system is a system of more-or-less powerful interests all acting to maintain and further their power by various means. That’s trivial but it’s about as general a “theory” as you really need. Beyond that the only really useful thing is to study the system’s history, and that of the specific interests and institutions that compose it. Most of the fancy textbook “debates” that are the focus of IR “theory” are just diversions from this.

    Hrm, interesting. It sounds almost like what you’re saying ascribes to ‘realism’, substituting powerful ‘interests’ for ‘states’. Though I also gather elements of constructivism – that the actions and interests of actors in IR are determined by social and historical circumstances.

    On reflection, I don’t necessarily disagree with you. However, I see the various theories in IR as more tools rather than discourses that describe every single facet of how actors in the international system interact at all times throughout history. Theory, for me, is useful sometimes and other times, not so.

  35. gerard
    April 5th, 2011 at 19:29 | #35

    I don’t know why one trivial observation gets called ‘realism’ and another equally trivial observation gets called ‘constructivism’. I mean, on what planet would actions and interests not depend on circumstances? Can anyone seriously argue that all interests at work in the system are “states”? The IR discipline focuses more on these labels then they do on what’s actually happening in the world.

  36. Freelander
    April 5th, 2011 at 19:39 | #36

    @gerard

    I think I can see what you mean by “obfuscates the study of the actually existing world system in a swamp of pretentious psedo-intellectual drivel”. The IR expert seems to be providing examples.

    ” Hrm, interesting. It sounds almost like what you’re saying ascribes to ‘realism’, substituting powerful ‘interests’ for ‘states’. Though I also gather elements of constructivism – that the actions and interests of actors in IR are determined by social and historical circumstances.

    On reflection, I don’t necessarily disagree with you. However, I see the various theories in IR as more tools rather than discourses that describe every single facet of how actors in the international system interact at all times throughout history. Theory, for me, is useful sometimes and other times, not so. ”

    Motherhood statements, that superficially, at least, appear to be saying something, but, on more than cursory examination, are found to say nothing at all.

  37. Freelander
    April 5th, 2011 at 19:41 | #37

    Like much that goes under the rubric, management theory.

  38. Alice
    April 5th, 2011 at 21:21 | #38

    @Freelander
    Yes Freelander we now have a bunch of managers in Government and all they have done under the aforementioned zombie policies is shave down the people who actually do the work (and now they have lost their skill base) or privatise the job so that private managers can manage it, and then all they have to do is manage the private managers.

    The job fails and then the private managers consult their manager lawyers and sue us for contingent liabilities they managed in at the start of the private contract!.

    End result? The job doesnt get done. Taxpayers pay more at every level for all these managers to fail and as a result the budget isnt big enough for an extra bus to Bondi Beach.

  39. Alice
    April 5th, 2011 at 21:23 | #39

    oops above.. wrong thread – sorry belongs in sandpit.

  40. April 6th, 2011 at 12:47 | #40

    *sigh* You’re making it difficult for me.

    @gerard
    I’m saying that there are many other IR points of view that don’t focus on states, that accurately describe the pattern you seem to be talking about – historical circumstances. I’m not saying that I’m a zealous adherent to IR theory nor someone who thinks existing theories describe everything, but simply that these theories can be useful in explaining certain aspects of IR.

    @Freelander
    I note that you seem content to simply criticise yet offer no insight into your own opinion on ‘how IR works’. At least when Gerard replies, he (or she) adds something insightful to the conversation.

  41. Freelander
    April 6th, 2011 at 14:09 | #41

    @Darragh

    Looks like you have been busy accumulating HECS debt for no discernible benefit. Sorry if you don’t recognize that. My opinion is already above, on the matter of the thread and on the apparent value of IR theory as evidenced by comments in this thread.

    True, I agree my comments in ##36-37 are not particularly insightful. That said, they contain insights that seems to have eluded you for many years.

    If your ‘contribution’ is an example of the value of IR theory then, as I have indicated, I would have to support Gerald’s assessment.

    Nevertheless, I would not be surprised if there were some nuggets, somewhere, amongst the evident dross. Unfortunately, none were on display here.

    But anyway, I probably should have simply provided the optimal comment I had originally intended…

    Whatever…

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