Bryan Caplan  

Unrealist Foreign Policy

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From Sean McMeekin's The Russian Origins of the First World War:
To assume that Russia really went to war on behalf of Serbia in 1914 is naive.  Great powers do not usually mobilize armies of millions to protect the territory of minor client states.  To take an obvious example from recent history, it beggars the strategic imagination to believe that the United States-led coalition truly fought the First Gulf War to reconstitute the internationally recognized boundaries of Kuwait.  The "New World Order" of universally sanctified borders was a useful rhetorical fig leaf to cover up the sordid-but-necessary business of restoring order and predictability to Persian Gulf oil supplies and deterring further aggression that might disrupt them.

Likewise, Russia's real interests in July 1914 could not possibly have been as ethereal as her public posturing about "Slavic honor and the Serbs."
McMeekin is firmly in the "realist" school of international relations, a position I've previously attacked.  Long story short: Realism isn't just dogmatically unrealistic; it's militantly uncurious.  A few thoughts that immediately occur to me:

1. "Great powers do not usually mobilize armies of millions to protect the territory of minor client states."  Great powers rarely mobilize armies of millions for any reason.  But when great powers fight big wars, they're often trying to protect the territory of minor client states.  If Kuwait doesn't count, how about Korea or Vietnam?  

2. Realists love to claim that there's a true underlying motive for war that only the wise can see.  But without an outright border crossing, such motives are often impotent - especially since World War II.  Would the U.S. have joined the Korean War if a big North Koreans didn't cross the 38th parallel?  Would the U.S. have joined the Vietnam War if the Communists stayed put in North Vietnam? 

3. If you can believe that countries will fight to retain "their own" minor territories, why is it so hard to believe that countries will fight to protect the territory of their minor client states?

4. If the realist theory is really so obvious, what's the point of "fig leaves"?  During the Kuwait War, there were clearly many people who did want to restore Kuwait's borders.  If leaders can mobilize support by appealing to idealism, how can you claim that idealism doesn't have a noticeable effect on the outcome?  And once you grant that many non-elites have idealistic motives, why is it so hard to believe that many elites sincerely share their sentiments?  Do people lose all sense of "nationalist pride" as soon as they take a job at the Foreign Ministry?

5. If the First Gulf War was all about oil, what was the point of indefinite sanctions against Iraq after the end of the war?  (And if the Iraq War was all about oil, why did the U.S. let Iraq remain in OPEC?)

6. The Russian, German, and Austrian monarchies perished as a direct result of World War I - along with millions of their citizens.  If this isn't a good reason to doubt that countries are shrewd promoters of their national interests, what would be?


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Bob Layson writes:

'Real national interests' are merely justifications for politicians who wish to pose as great, hardheaded, far seeing statesmen of world historical importance.

That they truly believe both in the problem, the proposed violent solution and their own greatness is to their intellectual discredit and only compounds their moral bankruptcy.

Ken B writes:

A fabulous post.

PrometheeFeu writes:

Realists only rarely claim the actual existence of real objective national interests. Realism is a largely concerned with creating useful parsimonious theories of IR. It's like neo-classical economics. The homo economicus is obviously not real, but it makes for some very good and very useful theories a lot of the time.

I've read your previous posts on the topic and while I agree that voters do not vote their self-interest or some sort of national interest, it is important to note that leaders also rarely follow the political wishes of the population. How many liberals do you think favor Obama's foreign policies regarding drone strikes for instance?

The bottom line of realist theory is that countries act primarily to survive as independent countries. And the only way to guarantee that is to be militarily powerful. There is a lot of other stuff but consider this from the point of view of the elite. They want to remain powerful. And their power is attached to the power of their country. Is it really that surprising to think that the Obamas and Bushes of this world want to control large armies and vast swaths of territory?

There is also an evolutionary argument. Countries that do not favor their survival as independent countries are unlikely to remain independent countries for long. Eventually, some more power-hungry neighbor will eat them up. This means the countries that do remain in existence are those who for whatever reason build big armies and otherwise favor their survival.

If the realist theory is really so obvious, what's the point of "fig leaves"? During the Kuwait War, there were clearly many people who did want to restore Kuwait's borders. If leaders can mobilize support by appealing to idealism, how can you claim that idealism doesn't have a noticeable effect on the outcome?

That one is easy. As you have mentioned plenty of times, voters are rationally ignorant. It stands to reason that some of their cognitive biases can be exploited through advertising and political rhetoric. That's the point of the fig leaves. You want to win the next election (or at least not annoy your people to the point of revolution in a non-democratic regime) and so you lie on television. Why would any voter care whether you tell the truth or not. Kuwait is far away and anyways there's nothing they can do. Might as well believe the nice man on television who is making you feel like your country is a superhero running around the world righting wrongs and helping the helpless. It sure feels better than thinking about the security of oil routes.

The Russian, German, and Austrian monarchies perished as a direct result of World War I - along with millions of their citizens. If this isn't a good reason to doubt that countries are shrewd promoters of their national interests, what would be?

In war, you have to have a winner and a loser. I'm not familiar with the complete realist explanations for WWI, but the answer to your question is probably that they made a rational bet, rolled the dice and lost. It happens. Modern realist theories also allow for bandwidths of uncertainty and miscalculations.

Overall, realist theory cannot explain everything. But it does seem to explain lots of the great power interactions and especially lots of the military conflicts out there.

Mike W writes:

Compared to what as a blueprint for conducting foreign policy? You probably won't say "idealism"....non-involvement? Your "beautiful bubble" on a national scale?

If the objective of U.S. foreign policy is that peace in the world...which is at least in our own self-interest...is achieved by furthering "universal values, how does the libertarian approach of non-involvement further that objective?

American exceptionalism, viewing itself as a shining city on the hill, has always insisted on representing universal values beyond the traditional dictates of national interest. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/11/opinion/11iht-edkissinger.html?_r=1

And according to Kissinger, the realist approach...in order to avoid "crusades"...is incrementalism.

Realists judge policy by the ability to persevere in the pursuit of an objective in stages, each of which is imperfect by absolute standards but would not be attempted in the absence of absolute values.

So where's the problem?


JVDeLong writes:

Read Japan's Decision for War, the record of its council meetings in 1941. Available via Amazon. It is a fascinating account of the non-rational dimension of policy decisions.

JVDeLong writes:

Read Japan's Decision for War, the record of its council meetings in 1941. Available via Amazon. It is a fascinating account of the non-rational dimension of policy decisions.

djf writes:

"Would the U.S. have joined the Vietnam War if the Communists stayed put in North Vietnam?"

Excuse me, but if the Communists had "stayed put in North Vietnam," what "Vietnam War" would there have been for the U.S. to join?

Ken B writes:

djf:

if the Communists had "stayed put in North Vietnam," what "Vietnam War" would there have been for the U.S. to join?

I think BC is drawing out an inference from the 'realist' claims, which is that if their real reason for the war was unrelated to the border crossing they would have created a figleaf and gone to war anyway. BC is noting that seems implausible in this case.

djf writes:

Ken B:

I think what BC is offering is a ridiculous caricature of realism, and the way he's trying to make his point is still nonsensical.

Bryan Willman writes:

National darwinism colored by human psychology, against the selection pressures of the time.

Whether you call that "realism" or "idealism" or "some-made-up-word-ism" doesn't much matter.

So, to understand the american war in vietnam, we have to grok "why did the US care about vietnam at all anyway?" What counter-factual was hoped for? A strong capitalist democracy like Israel in SE Asia? Communists give up and convert to capitalism? I surely don't know...

Given the decades of manouver between the great powers in Europe between 1870 and 1913, it strains credibility to claim that WWI was about Archduke Ferdinand. The british and the germans engaged in a naval arms race that on GDP terms appears to have rivaled the cold war. That was all in preparation in case an Archduke was assissinated?

About ethnic strife? Maybe. Great powers stirring up trouble abroad to cover weakness at home? Sure. One last chance at a massive resource grab, maybe winner-take-all for really big stakes? Hmmmmm....

Likewise, any explanation of US policy in SW Asia that doesn't place great weight on oil and on the electoral dynamics of American support for Israel is ignoring the elephants in the room.

Any explanation of US policy around modern SE asia that doesn't account for the importance of Japan, Taiwan, and S. Korea being closely tied to the US economy rather than annexed into the PRC is ignoring other elephants.

(There are a lot of elephants in these smallish rooms.)

Jon writes:

JFK ordered the Air Force to commence bombing South Vietnam in January of 1962. Tens of thousands of runs ocurred. Had the North invaded?

The point of the fig leaf is two fold. First you want to mobilize public support. Second, most people aren't total cynics. They can convince themselves of their own benevolent intentions. The Japanese really believed their own claims about how their invasion of China was for benevolent purposes. Same for the Nazi's. At Nuremberg the justices didn't care.

But Iraq may have involved cynicism. Saddam was led to believe the US wouldn't object to his invasion (look into April Glaspie). The US population was lied to aggressively (look into Nurse Nayirah and incuabator babies) and Saddam's repeated efforts to withdraw peacefully were ignored not just by the government, but by a willing press. That war was a sham from start to finish.

And the sanctions are just a mattering of weakening them so that we can do what we want in the future should the situation arise. Here in a state with critical and abundant natural resources. You don't invade strong states obviously, only weak ones.

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