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Tuesday is Moralizing Foreign Policy Hysteria Day at WaPo

December 21, 2010

Today’s Washington Post editorial board had a double dose of unnecessary moral outrage. First up is Anne Applebaum’s piece on Belarus, whose government has viciously cracked down on opposition after a blatantly rigged election designed to continue Lukashenko’s hold on power. This development is certainly nothing to be excited about. But is it worth this kind of title?

In Belarus, a slide toward Eastern aggression

Ah yes, the “authoritarian East” – here Applebaum lumps in autocratic Russia with the appeal of the “Chinese model,” as if there really was some kind of unified anti-democratic bloc and the Beijing and Moscow models of political economy had much to do with each other. The Eastern aggression in question, by the way, is Lukashenko’s refusal to give up power and his treatment of his own people. Does Applebaum mean to imply Lukashenko is committing aggression against his own people? Or that Russia’s influence in Belarus, merely by maintaining itself, is aggression against the west? As Hans Morgenthau pointed out, there is a vast difference between maintaining the status quo of one’s own empire and aggression, at least in systemic implications. The West did not lose Belarus because it never had it to begin with –  the country is right next to Russia and heavily reliant on its economy, of course a pro-Russian autocrat is going to find it relatively easy to stay in power. However, moral crusaders often assume that a country’s refusal to respect human rights will lead it to disrespect other nations sovereignty. Of course, it’s highly unlikely Belarus would ever commit such aggression independently of Russia, which is a great power – and great powers violations of other states sovereignty stem from their ability to intervene, not a simplistic liberal/authoritarian dichotomy. There are non-interventionist authoritarian regimes – Burma, Zimbabwe – and interventionist liberal regimes – the US.

Applebaum’s most ludicrous claim, however, is that the West’s “failure” to turn geostrategically marginal Belarus into a liberalizing regime is evidence of the “decline of the West.” Let’s see – 25 years ago, Germany was divided in two, Poland was part of the Warsaw Pact and Belarus was a member of the USSR. Applebaum would have us believe that because the US, a united Germany, and Poland – a NATO member – have failed to foil a pro-Russian strongman in an independent Belarus (which is under the influence of the dissolved Soviet Union’s rump state, Russia) that the West is in decline. I do not think this is what Oswald Spengler had in mind.

Meanwhile, Michael Gerson would have you believe that if you think the antidote to this kind of unnecessarily apocalyptic rhetoric and threat hyperinflation is some realism and hard-headed thinking, then you are starting the slippery slope towards a new Holocaust. No, really.

So it is appalling to hear Kissinger, an epic life later, telling Nixon on a scratchy recording from March 1, 1973: “Let’s face it: The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. It may be a humanitarian concern.”

Nixon’s response was that such an event would not be worth a nuclear war. Unfortunately, it is true: no prudent statesman could decide a country’s internal atrocities were worth a nuclear war. As a matter of terrible fact, atrocities far worse than the Soviet Union’s treatment of the Jews have recurred frequently throughout history, and statesmen have had to recognize that however tragic and contemptible, they cannot justify policies which might cause a great power crisis or war. Gerson would have you believe only realists think this way: no, all statesmen of all stripes think and act this way, and for good reason. Clinton and Bush did not push human rights in China.

Kissinger, later in that taped conversation, talks about how if India imposed a similar policy on its minorities, few in America would care. This is basically true: even among active proponents of interventionism, there is usually some degree of selectivity in which interventions they would have you care about. No American administration is ever going to apply the doctrine of humanitarianism to its interventions with equal, or even equitable consistency. American interests must always come into play when deciding to push a humanitarian policy – the USSR was too strong to risk crisis or war for its anti-Semitism, and some interventions are too remote from American interests to be worth committing American resources.

Gerson claims the Jackson-Vanik amendment is proof Kissinger and the realists were wrong. Jackson-Vanik was toothless, and if had teeth, it never would have been allowed to pass. Was it a “pivot point” in initiating the Soviet Union’s collapse, as Gerson claims? Hardly. Jackson-Vanik accomplished little until the USSR agreed to begin complying with the Helsinki Accords and the OSCE, which owe their existence to… Henry Kissinger, realism, and détente! Of course, Gerson thinks Reaganism (and here Jackson-Vanik gets credit for being proto-Reaganite) deserves credit for ending the Cold War, not realism. However, ultimately, the Cold War’s end owes far more to the failures of communism and the geopolitical mistakes of the USSR than any US pressure on human rights.

Gerson thinks realism discounts America’s “ideological advantages” in confrontations with evil. However, Gerson also seems to forget that realism and the restraint it provides on the excesses of its ideology are vital to America’s ideological advantage. When the US pursues moral crusades without regards to its limits or interests, it tends to damage, rather than help, America’s ideological prestige. Because whatever the world’s “common interests” in upholding American ideological values like democracy and human rights, there is a much stronger common desire for sovereignty and stability from most nations, regardless of ideological flavor, that abandoning realism imperils.

It is somewhat astonishing to think America suffers from too much hard-headed thinking and realism. Yet this is what Gerson seems to believe about American policy today. His contemporary objection, beyond the historical anecdote about Kissinger? That “in the world beyond good and evil, some may be lightly consigned to the gas chambers.” As if the next holocaust is about to erupt. Of course realism has its moral consequences – but so do all ideologies. Neoconservatism and liberal interventionism lightly consign American and foreign lives to the altar of ideals that all too often evaporate on foreign battlegrounds. Perhaps a day will come when American policy becomes so cold that it really does imperil America’s moral prestige – but for the past decade, thanks in no small part to the administration Gerson served, it has been the refusal to submit to the counsels of realism and humility, not realism itself, that has led to unnecessary wars, suffering, and the erosion of America’s moral standing.

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