Readings in the Age of Empire

Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World
Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman
Pantheon, 2006
199 pp.

George W. Bush still has more than two years to serve as president, but it isn’t too early to proclaim his foreign policy to be a failure. America no longer is seen as unbeatable; its moral authority has largely dissipated. What has been termed resolute will at home is seen as foolhardy arrogance abroad. U.S. friends have grown distant, while China and Russia are resisting American initiatives. The finest military on earth is being wrecked in pursuit of secondary goals.

The war in Iraq has lost the international goodwill generated by 9/11 and emboldened terrorists the world over. Iran and North Korea are moving ever closer to becoming nuclear weapons states. Washington’s supposed democratic crusade is widely seen as both inept and hypocritical. After the war in Lebanon, Israel is even more distant from peace, further sullying America’s reputation in the Muslim world.

Yet alternative foreign policy visions seem in short supply. The traditional conservative movement is dead. The short list of Republican presidential candidates is dominated by unthinking hawks who mimic George W. Bush’s recklessness. By and large conservative pundits want to bomb more countries and kill more people. The American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation have adopted liberal Wilsonianism to guide their policy advice.

The Left is little better. While the fecklessness of the Bush administration continues to amaze, the Republicans are different in degree rather than kind from the Clinton administration. After all, it was a Democratic president who took America into a Balkan war in which the U.S. had no stake and which ended up validating ethnic cleansing by America’s allies – all in the name of humanitarianism.

Today, the Left objects more to the Bush administration’s dishonesty and incompetence than to its objectives. Most leading Democrats backed the Iraq war; most liberal analysts implicitly support the neoconservative agenda, having advocated the bombing of Kosovo and invasion of Iraq, and proposing to occupy Darfur. Yet it is promiscuous intervention that is bringing America to ruin.

In short, at the moment when U.S. foreign policy is in crisis, indeed, in greater disarray than any time since the Vietnam War and perhaps World War II, there is no effective political opposition or philosophical alternative. In terms of foreign policy, Washington is bankrupt.

Ethical Realism offers a glimmer of hope. Concise and informative, the book carves an alternative path out of Washington’s foreign policy wilderness. The authors are Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation and John Hulsman, formerly of the Heritage Foundation. Both writers have lost jobs because of their policy independence. Most recently, Hulsman, who initially supported the Iraq war, was fired by Heritage – which has abandoned Thomas Jefferson for Woodrow Wilson – for writing this book. An organization that was skeptical of President Bill Clinton’s misguided joy ride in the Balkans now cheerfully promotes nation-building on the Euphrates.

What makes the Lieven-Hulsman collaboration particularly interesting is that the authors come at foreign policy from opposite ends of the policy spectrum. As they explain:

“We are two foreign policy thinkers from what are usually taken to be opposite camps who have come together in frustration at the current states in the American foreign policy debate, and the very dangerous courses being pursued by the Bush administration and supported by leading Democrats. Our cooperation is one sign of the bankruptcy of the traditional party divisions as a way of understanding the real policy differences and alternatives facing America today. We hope that it will encourage others to break out of their tribal straitjackets and to draw up radically new approaches that will challenge both party establishments and serve the vital interests of Americans and their allies.”

The animating force behind Ethical Realism is what the authors see as the veritable collapse of American foreign policy. In its drive to assert U.S. primacy, the Bush administration actually has weakened America and reduced its global influence. Judging consequences alone would lead one to question the patriotism of President Bush and his neoconservative allies. But the blame is bipartisan. Most Democratic paladins routinely regurgitate the administration’s goals, simply promising to run the world competently, and with UN approval. Even many on the Left would have supported the Iraq war had it been advanced by one of their own.

Explain Lieven and Hulsman:

“What has failed in Iraq has been not just the strategy of the administration of George W. Bush, but a whole way of looking at the world. This consists of the beliefs that America is both so powerful and so obviously good that it has the ability to spread democracy throughout the world; that if necessary, this can be achieved through war; that this mission can also be made to advance particular U.S. national interests; and that this combination will naturally be supported by good people all over the world, irrespective of their own political traditions, national allegiances, and national interests.”

This philosophy has failed, and failed disastrously.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that American foreign policy was tested and found wanting. Vietnam, too, taught America a painful lesson about the limits of military power. But the stakes today are higher, argue Lieven and Hulsman: “Despite the illusions of that time, Indochina was never really very important to the United States, to its leadership in the world, or to the world economy.” The Middle East is very different.

Moreover, the ability of Vietnam or Iraq to hurt the U.S. was very limited. Not so al-Qaeda and allied groups. And in the authors’ view, developing a serious response to the terrorist threat requires a new balance of realism and morality.

The point is not that neoconservatives and liberal hawks don’t appeal to both sentiments. But, write Lieven and Hulsman, “Their answers, however, go much too far in the contradictory directions of both hard-line realism and utopian morality – or rather, as we shall argue, pseudo-realism and pseudo-morality.” As a result, the promiscuous interventionists have failed, and failed dramatically.

Nor can they excuse their conduct by arguing that they meant well. Note the authors:

“Neither in statecraft nor in common sense can good intentions be a valid excuse if accompanied by gross recklessness, carelessness, and indifference to the range of possible consequences. Such actions fail the test not only of general ethics, but also of the sworn moral commitment of state servants and elected officials to defend the interests of their peoples, and not simply to pursue at all costs their own ideas of morality – another central point in realist ethics.”

Although American elections usually turn on domestic policy, there have been times when much depended on the choice in foreign policy directions. Lieven and Hulsman point to “the Truman-Eisenhower moment.” Although the two men were, shall we say, not close, their policies were largely consistent.

In brief, centrist Democrats like Harry Truman had to fend off naive accommodationists like former Vice President Henry Wallace. Centrist Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower had to restrain hard-liners advocating preventive war and the “rollback” of communism.

The result was a shared policy of containment, attempting to restrain the Soviet Union through means short of war. American policy recognized the importance of limits. Eisenhower, for instance, worried about the economic impact of high military spending, as well as the power of the “military-industrial complex.”

Moreover, note Lieven and Hulsman: “The former supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II also knew – as few civilian politicians could and as the neoconservatives and the Bush administration certainly do not – the human costs of war.” There were pessimists at the time, conservative pundits like James Burnham of National Review, who thought that without preventive war the free world would likely lose. But the caution of containment laid the basis of ultimate victory.

The foreign policy constellation today tracks that of the Truman-Eisenhower era. There’s a small, woozy Left, which seems prepared to make common cause with jihadists whose fondest dream is beheading godless hedonists. More ominous is the coalition of liberal hawks and aggressive neoconservatives – which now directs U.S. foreign policy.

Just as the philosophies match, so do the mistakes. One of the most important is an inability to distinguish among potential adversaries (then Chinese and Russians, now Shi’ites and Sunnis, Hamas and Hezbollah, and more). Another is the failure to recognize and reflect upon reality, especially after being proved wrong. Write Lieven and Hulsman:

“From the fact that Burnham went on writing for a generation after publishing this proven and catastrophically dangerous nonsense, and that [Norman] Podhoretz [past editor of Commentary magazine] is still advancing apocalyptic versions of international affairs twenty-six years after writing in 1980 that the United States faced the likelihood of a choice between imminent subjugation by Moscow and war, we can say two other things about this tradition: that it is incapable of learning, and that it is without shame.”

The modern analog of containment, propose the authors, is “ethical realism.” They suggest providing the traditional doctrine of realism, which emphasizes advancement of state interests, with a moral overlay. They explain:

“Ethical realism is tough enough to provide a basis for the harsh actions that the United States may well need to take in the future to defend itself, its values, and its allies. But unlike some strands of ‘classical’ realism, it is not cynical, indifferent to the long-term interests of humanity, or attracted to ruthlessness for its own sake.”

Lieven and Hulsman manage a difficult feat – they provide a sophisticated foreign policy analysis in easily understandable prose. Given the catastrophe that American foreign policy has become, Ethical Realism is obviously a book for the community of policymakers and analysts who dominate the making of U.S. foreign policy. But given the fact that many of these people are responsible for creating the current mess, interested citizens also should read the book. For only with increased popular involvement, and particularly the willingness of informed voters to make foreign policy an election concern, is policy likely to change.

The most obvious basis of “ethical realism” is, well, realism. This philosophy recognizes that even nations with evil governments have legitimate interests, and “compromise” is not a dirty word. As the authors put it: “In the ethical realist view, therefore, international relations are and always will be neither a simple struggle of undifferentiated ‘good guys’ against ‘bad guys,’ nor some kind of predestined process leading to the permanent liberal capitalist nirvana of Fukuyama’s imagining.”

There are several essential preconditions to a philosophy of ethical realism, preconditions completely lacking in the philosophy of neoconservative imperialism, which dominates administration policy. One is prudence. “For obvious reasons, prudence applies especially to the launching of military operations,” they write, prudence that was sadly lacking at almost every stage of the Iraq disaster.

Another requirement is “national humility, and the tolerance and patience that stem from it.” That, of course, is entirely absent from those who believe in global social engineering, that Washington has been anointed to transform the entire world.

Also important factor is a willingness to study and learn, to acknowledge what the president and his supporters do not, that the world is filled with nuance. The failure to do so, the authors warn, “continually lays the U.S. establishment open to manipulation by the likes of Iraqi opportunist and neoconservative darling Ahmed Chalabi for their own political ends.”

Moreover, ethical realism depends on responsibility, the belief that consequences matter. For this administration, of course, there is no accountability: those most responsible for the disaster remain in office or have been rewarded and sometimes promoted. Yet, write Lieven and Hulsman, “neither in statecraft nor in common sense can good intentions be a valid excuse if – as in the decision to go to war in Iraq – they are accompanied by gross recklessness, carelessness, and indifference to the range of possible consequences.”

Finally, the authors cite patriotism, in contrast to mindless, destructive nationalism. This means that Americans must be willing to reason and cooperate with patriots from other nations. Lieven and Hulsman explain: a patriot “does not expect that [public servants of other states] will ignore their loyalty to their country and instead identify with American interests just because the United States claims to represent the ideals of world Democratism, or with Soviet interest (in the past) because the Soviet Union claimed to represent world Communism.”

It’s worth reflecting on Lieven’s and Hulsman’s argument. America, no less than its citizens, should exhibit prudence and humility, study the world, accept responsibility for its actions, and exhibit real patriotism.

This is a powerful argument, and in today’s political climate – where dissent is tagged as defeatism and treason – a courageous one. America is not entitled to rule the world just because we believe we are wonderful, sweet, public-spirited, selfless, and all-around good guys. It should not surprise us that other nations aren’t going to let us do so. So maybe we shouldn’t try to do so. Even Washington should live by standards that sometimes limit our conduct.

Contrary to the claims of neoconservative empire-builders, embodying these values will not prevent the U.S. from being influential. But that influence will come from far more than military power, which is why they write about promoting “the great capitalist peace.” Argue Lieven and Hulsman:

“[T]he influence of the American system on the world is something that should be seen as greater and more important than raw power. This system comes in two parts. The first is America’s own example as a state and society, embodying liberal democracy, the rule of law, a successful market economy that distributes its benefits widely in its population, and, more broadly, ‘the American way of life.’ The second part of the system has been America’s role in crafting an international market system that on the whole – and it is on the whole that such great historical factors must in the end be judged – has served humanity well.”

Obviously, even well-developed and well-enunciated principles are not self-applying. So Lieven and Hulsman look at the most important issues – the Mideast, China and Russia, Third World development. “The first step is for the United States to abandon its attempt to be dominant everywhere,” they write. “Instead, it should seek to retain global leadership by remaining the only great power that is present everywhere, and therefore has an important say in what happens everywhere – a very different matter.”

They emphasize the importance of increased foreign aid, an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, a mix of engagement and multilateral pressure on Iran, and recognition of the valid interests of China and Russia. For Iraq, where the administration’s most far-reaching goals are hopeless fantasies, they suggest a regional concert dedicated to containing the incipient civil war.

In the main, their solutions are measured and thoughtful, though occasionally in error. For instance, the record of foreign aid for development (in contrast to some forms of humanitarian assistance and military support in some circumstances) is woeful. Indeed, it is beyond bad. There is no reason to believe that massive new transfers as part of massive new programs will increase growth rates in poor states.

The authors also want to maintain America’s implicit security guarantee for Taiwan. The latter is an attractive friend, but its de facto independence is not obviously worth a confrontation with nuclear-armed China. It’s one thing to provide Taipei with the means to defend itself. It’s quite another to defend the Taiwanese.

Still, these are minor quibbles. Ethical Realism is a refreshing read, an insightful analysis that simultaneously critiques the mess that passes for American foreign policy today and offers a solid alternative. The book deserves wide attention and careful study. As the authors argue, the stakes are high. Here, truly, failure is not an option; otherwise the fools who have mismanaged the affairs of the world’s greatest power will plunge America into additional conflicts at even higher costs than the Iraqi imbroglio.

But as Lieven and Hulsman note, the importance of developing a responsible and realistic foreign policy is not just negative, to avoid disaster. It is positive. They conclude their book: “Ethical realism and the Great Capitalist Peace are not just strategies for staving off American decline. They form a blueprint for America to live up to its glorious national promise.”

This is a message that must be widely heard and understood by Americans. And they must act on it. Otherwise, Washington seems bound not just to repeat, but to multiply, its recent grievous errors.