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