Tag Archives: theory

Thinking Carefully about U.S. Power

Another reason to read the NYT: where else will you get a full half-page, above-the-fold analysis citing top scholars on the underlying reasons why Syria is a such a strategic, military and diplomatic conundrum:

It is an urgent problem that has consumed foreign policy discussions for the last few years. But much more is involved than the fate of a single country in the Middle East. Underlying the Syria issue is a set of questions that have animated every major debate over foreign policy for a century: What is America’s role in the world, what are its obligations, and what happens if it falls short of meeting them?
One strain of thought holds that America has a mission to champion democracy and human rights, granting it a unique role in the world, along with special powers and obligations. But that idea has always been controversial, with skeptics arguing it is an alluring myth — and a potentially dangerous notion.
via NYT

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The Disadvantages of Peace (According to Michael Desch)

Thanks to Professor Walt, we get this interesting peace on academic research by Michael Desch in International Organization in 1996 on why giving peace a chance may not work.

Don’t get me wrong: I think peace is wonderful, and I wish more politicians talked about it openly and did more to further it. But prolonged periods of peace may also have a downside: They allow divisions within different societies to grow and deepen.But prolonged periods of peace may also have a downside: They allow divisions within different societies to grow and deepen. Even worse, they may eventually drive the world back toward war.

Source: The Case Against Peace | Foreign Policy

Over the last two decades, Walt sees this idea as better than other IR standards such as the “end of history” or “clash of civilizations”.

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Reading for Realism

And now this from (realist) thinker Stephen M. Walt, identifying a major gap in how we look at the world–the lack of a smart realist writing in the opinion pages of the three top U.S. newspapers. (Realism being a major field of international relations theory.)

At the New York Times, the list of columnists regularly writing on foreign affairs includes one neoconservative (David Brooks) and several well-known liberal internationalists (Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, and Roger Cohen). Ross Douthat is a more traditional conservative, but he rarely writes on foreign affairs and is certainly not a realist. Despite certain differences among them, all of these writers are eloquent defenders of U.S. interventionism all around the globe for all sorts of reasons. The Washington Post employs four hard-line neoconservatives—editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan, and Jackson Diehl–and used to feature William Kristol as well. Its regular columnists also include former Bush administration speechwriters Marc Thiessen and Michael Gerson and far-right blogger Jennifer Rubin, along with the more centrist  David Ignatius and the increasingly bellicose Richard Cohen. Needless to say, none of these writers is a realist and all of them strongly support an activist U.S. foreign policy. As James Carden and Jacob Heilbrunn observed in The National Interest last year, Hiatt has in effect “turned the paper into a megaphone for unrepentant warrior intellectuals,” and now leads “the most reckless editorial page in America.”

Source: What Would a Realist World Have Looked Like? | Foreign Policy

So who should they hire? Walt helpfully provides human resources with this list (and I’d add him to the list, as well):

Paul Pillar, Chas Freeman Jr., Robert Blackwill, Steve Clemons, Michael Desch, Steve Chapman, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, Andrew Bacevich, or Daniel Larison

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Neocons Back the Empire

Everybody loves the trailer. (Yes, that trailer.) But over at the Weekly Standard, Jonathan Last’s “The Case for the Empire” reads like a college magazine cover story–offering a soon-to-be-overshared argument for why Darth Vader and the Emperor were ultimately in the intergalactic public interest. Wow.

In all of the time we spend observing the Rebel Alliance, we never hear of their governing strategy or their plans for a post-Imperial universe. All we see are plots and fighting. Their victory over the Empire doesn’t liberate the galaxy–it turns the galaxy into Somalia writ large: dominated by local warlords who are answerable to no one.Which makes the rebels–Lucas’s heroes–an unimpressive crew of anarchic royals who wreck the galaxy so that Princess Leia can have her tiara back.

Source: The Case for the Empire | The Weekly Standard

And in another universe far, far away (on Twitter) Bill Kristol has unleashed his own forces–promoting the theory to much acclaim (and retwittering.)

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I didn’t realize that there was a long tradition of defending the Empire. Go figure. It even has its own poster tradition a la Cliff Chiang. (More fun for the Beltway, I guess.)

But beyond just a frame-by-frame review, this is a delicious discussion thread for adults/international relations wonks (not just geeks and nerds). Join forces with the the debate, because it’s on:

So I’ll take the nostalgia—though Bill Kristol’s crackpot take on the Empire might help define nostalgia’s limits. Folks, the Empire was not a liberal meritocracy, it was a galactic police state that blew up planets to quell rebellion. This is the kind of damage Lucas did with his prequel films, and the reason fans cheered when Disney bought the rights to the Star Wars franchise for billions. The Star Wars prequels essayed the fall of the Old Republic and the decline of the Jedi Order as plot dressing for its supposed grand arc: the rise of Darth Vader and the Emperor. They existed to justify his original stories, which needed no justification, and even though they portrayed the Republic as being bogged down by bureaucracy, they also paralleled the Empire’s emergence with Hitler’s sweep to power, with the Clone Wars functioning as a kind of Reichstag fire.

Source: How Original Can The Force Awakens Be? | The Atlantic

Next up? Dan Drezner at WaPo who argues that “the Rebel Alliance’s victory in the Battle of Endor was a catastrophic success” leading to failed nation building efforts–as seen in the new trailer.


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James MacGregor Burns on Transformational Leadership

This book left an impression on me in grad school because it made the case that leadership was ethical and a positive force.  As noted in Bruce Weber’s recent NYT obit:

“That people can be lifted into their better selves,” he wrote at the end of “Leadership,” “is the secret of transforming leadership and the moral and practical theme of this work.”

Burns was a biographer, political scientist, and Pulitzer Prize-winner whose 1978 book, Leadership, is a biggie in the field. International relations is concerned with power.  MacGregor wrote that “power is different. Power manipulates people as they are; leadership as they could be.” He got to the crux of the issue, looking at the examples of presidential leadership:

The nature of leadership was his fundamental theme throughout his career. In his biographies of Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, among others, and in his works of political theory — including “Leadership,” a seminal 1978 work melding historical analysis and contemporary observation that became a foundation text for an academic discipline — Mr. Burns focused on parsing the relationship between the personalities of the powerful and the historical events they helped engender.

via James MacGregor Burns, Scholar of Presidents and Leadership, Dies at 95 – NYTimes.com.

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Henry Kissinger, Comic Book Villain

A great vignette via @zachbeauchamp at Vox:

In this 1976 issue of the aptly titled Supervillain Team-Up, the Fantastic Four are battling arch-nemesis Dr. Doom. After fighting an army of robots and even the brainwashed superhero Namor, the heroes break into Doom’s castle in Latveria (a fictional European country he runs). They’re about to lay down one of those traditional super-hero smackdowns, but the Four are stopped by an enemy they can’t fight with fists — Henry Kissinger:


via That time Henry Kissinger was a literal comic book villain – Vox.


A 5-Minute International Relations Degree (You Wish)

So if you’re ruing the day that you got a finance degree and didn’t take any courses that were actually interesting, I offer here the Five Minute University program in International Relations. It consists of five basic concepts that teach you all you really need to know about the fascinating world of international affairs. Unless you are a very slow reader, this shouldn’t take more than five minutes.

via How to Get a B.A. in International Relations in 5 Minutes.

Thanks to Professor Walt for this useful intro to anarchy, balance of power, comparative advantage, misperception/miscalculation, and social construction.  He also suggests the next level of understanding:

deterrence and coercion, institutions, selection effects, democratic peace theory, international finance, and a number of other key ideas. A good working knowledge of international history would surely help as well, plus a lot of detailed expertise in specific policy areas.

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Theory Primer: “Offensive” or “Political Realism”


Time to break our your Mearsheimer and Morgenthau.  As  Stephen Walt says, “paraphrasing Trotsky: You may not be interested in power politics, but power politics is interested in you.”

In the years ahead, the United States will need to relearn Power Politics 101, a subject at which it used to excel. In a world of renewed great-power competition, U.S. leaders have to play hardball with friends and foes alike, to ensure that rivals respect American power and allies do not take advantage of it. Presidents and their advisors will have to set clear priorities and stick to them, instead of being blown off course by each new crisis or upheaval, or letting foreign policy be guided by individual officials’ whims or fixations (case in point: Kerry and the Middle East). And they are going to have to do a much better job of explaining why and where the United States is engaged overseas, both to reassure allies and to retain the support of a population that increasingly questions the benefits of an expansive U.S. role.

via The Bad Old Days Are Back.

Here is a reading list for the current era (in case you forgot your Intro to International Politics course):

  • Robert Kaplan on Mearsheimer’s “appeal to historical precedent” and aims at “the historic precedent of lesser evil rather than that of absolute good.”
  • This type of realism hasn’t been very popular of late.(See “Is Anybody Still a Realist” by Jeffrey Legro and Andrew Moravcsik in International Security, Fall 1999.)
  • In fact, as Daniel W. Drezner notes in a great  multi-part series in FP.com, “realism might not be the most popular paradigm among IR scholars” but still gets a “healthy fraction of academics” and some attention in IR courses.
  • Another of the main proponents of realism (“realist constructivism”) and the author of the “Clash of Civilizations,” Samuel Huntington.
  • What are the implications of offensive realism on diplomacy and international organizations?  Not much.  (See Mearsheimer’s “The False Promises of International Institutions” in International Security 19:3
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What is realpolitik, really?

What do we mean when we say realpolitik, a term whose brand is ripe for a historical reinvention through careful understanding.  A number of things can be leaned in an enlightening essay by John Bew, namely that it doesn’t come from Machiavelli but rather via a German thinker in 1853.

According to the now newly remembered father of realpolitik:

Realpolitik was about the art of politics in the post-Enlightenment world. He wrote in an age of mass ideological awakening, economic transformation, social upheaval and international rivalry. The job of statesmen was not to remain studiously aloof from these forces but rather to manage and mediate them. For Rochau, too, patriotism and nationalism were not delusions and distractions from raison d’état but one of its most effective tools. A shared sense of national purpose was a “natural conciliatory force” between conflicting parties within a state. This was why “human judgement has been very firm regarding the view that it is the utmost sacrilege to question the national spirit (Nationalgeist), the last and most valuable guarantee of the natural order of society.” Any policies designed to break this spirit, or ignore it, “thereby descend to the lowest ranks of despicability.”

The implications for us today are everywhere, as the term is used synonymously with realism or power politics:

As periodically happens when the world becomes a more challenging place, a slew of new books on Niccolò Machiavelli have appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, including offerings by Jonathan Powell (Tony Blair’s former chief of staff) and Philip Bobbitt. Last December, in a review of four recent books on the Florentine statesman in the Atlantic, Michael Ignatieff announced the coming of the latest “Machiavellian moment” (a phrase introduced by the historian J. G. A. Pocock in 1975). By that he meant “an instance when public necessity requires actions that private ethics and religious values might condemn as unjust and immoral.” Other familiar heroes of realpolitik—such as Lord Castlereagh and Count Metternich (the focus of Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored) and Otto von Bismarck and George F. Kennan—are also enjoying a return to prestige.

This time around, realpolitik also has some new friends and unlikely advocates. The most liberal president to inhabit the White House in many years has been as realist as any of his predecessors in the conduct of foreign affairs, with a zero-sum security policy in which “interests” are paramount. Last May, the German weekly Der Spiegel ran an article declaring that President Obama was the heir to “Kissinger’s realpolitik,” quoting National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn to the effect that he “may even start speaking about foreign affairs with a German accent.” “Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” said Obama’s then chief of staff Rahm Emanuel in April 2010. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41 . . . you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”

via The Real Origins of Realpolitik | The National Interest.

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Flashback on the Neocon Approach

All views should be welcomed.  Even so, I’m not sure this viewpoint is really missed.

Now, to you or me, this reads like Israel adapting to reality and trying to maintain its influence over the evolving geopolitical arrangements in the Middle East.  To neoconservatives, however, this is Israel in retreat.  They\’ve given up on fighting the interim deal!  Their threat to launch a military strike against Iran has been exposed as empty rhetoric!!  Why should Iran ever take Netanyahu seriously again? 

The key things to realize about the neoconservative worldview is that:

1)  Reputation and the image of strength are everything;

2)  Countries bandwagon to the strong states and eschew the weak states.

3)  Even the slightest concession in the present weakens one\’s reputation and strength for the future; so

4)  Any concession in a present negotiation ineluctably leads to unconditional surrender in the future.

via Daniel W. Drezner | FOREIGN POLICY.