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Realpolitik is dead. Long live realpolitik!

February 3, 2011

At Small Wars Journal, Robert J. Bunker has a pair of editorials arguing for democratic revolution, which Bunker later rephrases as democratic realpolitik (recalling Charles Krauthammer’s famous formulation of “democratic realism” during the 1990s). In his first argument, Bunker argues for a new kind of democratic revolutionary spirit:

A golden opportunity is now unfolding in the Islamic World. A series of autocratic states are teetering like dominos due to popular uprisings that seek to embrace democratic principles of governance. This is not the ‘democracy at the tip of the sword’ ushered into Iraq by means of foreign invasion or the misguided attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan but, rather, indigenous revolt of the many who are sick and tired of living in police states ruled by the few. Accepting the status quo means having no future for themselves and their children. Democracy and freedom have a powerful allure and can create their own martyrs in the streets and on the barricades. Even the U.S. governmental accountants should be pleased—how often do you get to spread democracy to other nations so cheaply?

But why should the US support democracy? Being more pragmatic about accomplishing an idealistic goal is not realpolitik, after all, it’s just chastened idealism. How does supporting democracies fit into the broader strategy beyond supporting democracy in and of itself? Bunker explains in his second piece:

What is potentially worse is that competing countries flush with cash and upward economic momentum, such as autocratic China, are positioning themselves to increasingly pick up their own friendly despots. Since our relationship with despots such as Mubarak is solely defined by our aid and those with the House of Saud by our ability to protect it—and of course not interfere with their questionable internal policies—it is inherently fragile and politically ethereal.

If nascent and fledgling democracies attempt to arise and, rather than giving them our helping hand, we turn our back on them or worse crush their efforts by backing the corrupt despots they seek to replace, it would set a dangerous precedent for the future. Those democracies will owe us nothing, potentially harbor very strong feelings of animosity, and ultimately may turn their back upon us in our future times of need. Just deeds often reap future dividends—as an American Army officer serving in France during World War I imparted in his utterance, “La Fayette, we are here!” Hopefully, others across the globe will have good reason to say honorable things about our leaders. Hence, the primacy of democratic governance and its gradual expansion— sought by others on their own and never forced upon them— must now form the basis of U.S. foreign policy.

Starbuck at Wings Over Iraq points out why this analogy is bunk: it was the French monarchy which provided aid to the US, and they did so not out of a sense of enlightened reciprocity, but cold-blooded realpolitik. I would take this criticism even further. Bunker asserts that democratic states will follow patterns of reciprocity, while autocratic states will simply follow the money, and abandon the US as wealthy rivals rise. This last part is true, autocracies will follow money to some extent – but why shouldn’t we expect democratic states to? India stakes out different positions than the US on Burma and Iran, often for economic reasons or reasons of realpolitik. It responds favorably when the US offers material incentives such as trade or a deal on nuclear power.

Do democratic states, as Bunker argues, obey rules of reciprocity? Does US support for revolutions give it leverage it can use to further its national interests? Well, the United States hardly obeyed that rule of reciprocity – don’t look to World War I or II, look at the way the Federalist party treated the revolutionary French regime. Not only did they refuse to support France, leading Jefferson and other Democratic-Republicans to decry them as crypto-monarchists, under Adams, the US went through the Quasi-War with France. Nor is it accurate to characterize the US entry into World War I or II as an act of reciprocity and not calculated political action. After all, did the US decide to go to war in 1940 when Panzers rolled into France? No, it did not, just as it did not when Imperial Germany launched its offensive in the first world war. Using the US as proof of democratic reciprocity gives us too much credit. We went to war in WWI and WWII after Americans started dying and our leaders determined it was politically feasible. So much for America restoring its “moral compass” – it turns out it’s been (by Bunker’s standards) broken the whole time!

Bunker’s thesis is one we’ve heard plenty of times before. Americans have talked about junking realpolitik and the old way of power politics for as long as America has been around. His thesis rests on the idea that if the US inserts itself, albeit sometimes “covertly” into seizing opportunities to turn both autocratic allies and enemies into democracies, it will give the US better allies and make it more secure. However, this leaves a lot to chance – suppose the side we back out loses? How do we know we will not get burned, and why wouldn’t autocrats just turn towards China or another authoritarian state anyway when they know cozying up to the US means getting an ally that wants to rot your regime from within?

Suppose the democratic revolution takes a different turn than we expected? What if we get the Bolsheviks instead of Kerensky, a Second Empire instead of a Republic? The governments we fought in World War II all evolved from nascent democratic systems. Do we even know how to secretly bring about a democracy, let alone ensure the faction that supports us comes into power? I doubt it. Part of the reason the US often prefers to support autocratic elite governments is because they’re simply easier to manage from afar. Democracies rely on elites embracing popular and constitutional institutions, and ensuring these institutions gain their own free-standing legitimacy and operate autonomously. It is possible, if not always easy, to discern the interests and incentives of the usually pre-existing institutions which support autocratic regimes: armies, business elites, or ruling dynasties. It is much simpler to offer carrots and sticks to achieve desired policy changes to institutions already established which can wield power independently.

It is much more difficult to bribe a country into having the rule of law, or a free press. It is even more difficult, once things like fair elections are possible, to ensure the candidate representing the policy positions which the US wants its new democratic partner to embrace wins without tainting the democratic process. Ultimately, if the US wants to preserve its interests in Egypt, it will have to learn to deal with whatever government emerges after Mubarak, whether it is a Jeffersonian democracy on the banks of the Nile, a hard-line Islamist theocracy, or a jingoistic military junta.

Ultimately, the US can only embrace democracy as it embraces autocracy – selectively, with keen attention to local conditions. If Mubarak is on his way out, political realism compels, rather than prohibits, a readiness to work with the side most likely not just to win, but to maintain power. In Egypt, this side is obviously no longer that of Hosni Mubarak. We can dress this strategy up and call it whatever we want, but it is essentially realpolitik. Taking note of local conditions and cutting our losses when authoritarian regimes are falling is a very different strategy from democratic revolution, and it means putting interests ahead of our ideological preferences. Because most of the time, we will not be experiencing or able to predict the “golden opportunities” that make democratic revolution possible, we still need a strategy that balances commitments with power. Once again, if Americans find a willingness to work with whatever regime arises in a state of interest reprehensible, they need to reconsider the commitments which brought them to that state in the first place.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. I usually use the nickname Realpolitik, but that seems rather inappropriate here permalink
    February 4, 2011 2:18 pm

    You are categorically correct. We should be supporting regimes which satisfy three criteria – 1) have power, 2) are willing to use such power, 3) conform to US strategic interests. The government type itself is immaterial, as long as it fulfills the three above criteria. Autocratic (and even despotic) regimes are often better than democracies at doing so. This is because democracies have too many variables to account for when doing power calculations. The change of party in power, rise of diverse and independent economic forces in the country, free press (which is not always US friendly), and the rise of powerful individuals present a statistical nightmare for the poor soul trying to doing the power calculations that realisms demands. Despots are simple – often with constant long term strategy, easily manipulable, with policy objectives that the US can easily accommodated (acquire more power, usually through military might). Despots are better friends to strong democracies than newly emerging revolutionary democracies are.

    What makes realpolitik distasteful to American populace is the inherent tautology of the strategy it compels: act in your own best interest because it is in your interest to do so. To Americans, this is a confusing and unsettling concept. Yet it is precisely what we do, even if we don’t realize it. When we fail to act in our own best interest and instead let our idealistic sentiments cloud our judgement, it ends poorly. Just look at Iran in the ’70s, when Carter thought we shouldn’t be supporting the “despotic” Shah. Now we have the prospect of an unfriendly, nuclear Iran. Regardless of what Egypt becomes, we must make sure that we convince the parties in power that their interests conform to those of the US.

  2. February 5, 2011 6:44 pm

    I agree the U.S. does not know “how to secretly [or openly, for that matter] bring about a democracy,” but it seems to me one could argue that, in the long run, a world with more (genuine) democracies, or even a Middle East with more democracies, would serve U.S. interests, even if one defines them in a somewhat narrow way (e.g., in the Mideast, access to oil, freedom of sea lanes, resolution of Israel-Palestine, etc.).

    • February 8, 2011 1:33 am

      Certainly one could, but if the US does not know how to encourage said democracies, and that they emerge mostly through local processes, that it would be a mistake to make democracy promotion the center of grand strategy in the manner the phrase “democratic realpolitik” implies. In general the US should be prepared to deal with whatever government emerges from local circumstances, and because the point where the US really is the difference between unstable autocracy and stable democracy is rarely seen, is probably better off not getting too tied up in its internal politics until the dust starts to settle.

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