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Realist morality and false compromises

April 10, 2011

Henry Kissinger and James Baker published a piece on Friday in support of what they called “pragmatic idealism.” The piece is primarily focused on establishing criteria for the proper use of US national power. To that extent, it is eminently sensible. Because this blog has no editor or word limit, however, it is worth delving into some of their premises and world views.

The underlying contention of their piece is that the US should stand for its moral ideals, but that we must speak, think, and act on these ideals in the context of a world of concrete interests. Employing a rhetorical term more often associated with critics of realism, they call their strategy “pragmatic idealism.” This recalls Charles Krauthammer’s formulation of “democratic realism” or the idea of “democratic realpolitk” which appeared more recently. The rhetorical benefits of such a positioning is obvious, and I can see why American diplomats would want to back away from a term like “realism” in a discussion of moral affairs.

They justify “pragmatic idealism” on the grounds that there is a false choice between realism and idealism. The notion of the “false choice” is more often found in the rhetoric of President Obama, but the way it’s often used obscures the real complexity of the debate. The false choice is made possible only by a false dichotomy, generally between categories of “values” and “interests.”

The implication is that because values and interests are mutually supporting or interlinked, it is impossible to choose between them. This is obviously correct to an extent. Even the most strident realists have moral visions underpinning their definitions of interests, and even the most resolute idealists face the limitations of operating in a world of friction, scarcity, and uncertainty. Yet the idea that there is then a clear way to synthesize values and interests relies on an equally false and monolithic interpretation of what interests and values are.

Even in their piece, Kissinger and Baker play into simplified notions of “interests” and “values,” and act as if the central conflict and resolution comes between those two categories. It is simply asserted that America’s values necessitate the alleviation of suffering abroad, the support and spread of democracy, and human rights. It is simply asserted that America’s interests entail stability and the prevention of terrorism. More interesting, and I think ultimately more important, than the conflict between liberal missionary values and “stability paradigm” interests are the conflicts between values and other values, interests and other interests. In ignoring or avoiding these, Kissinger and Baker ultimately do a great disservice to realism, though their analysis renders the appeal of a “pragmatic idealism” obvious.

Consider, first, that all values are not mutually compatible. At some point, we subordinate certain moral values to others. The decision to undertake military options in Libya without consultation of Congress is one elevating certain morals above others. There is an obvious tension between the morals of popular legitimacy and the US Constitution and Responsibility to Protect and executive-ordered humanitarian intervention. America’s founders and the generations which followed clearly did not agree that the obvious way to protect American morals was to promote them abroad. Anyone who has read John Quincy Adams’s July 4th address while he was Secretary of State sees this clearly. America has moral obligations to uphold its Constitution, and avoid the declarations of war which threaten liberty at home when possible.

The notion that America must intervene abroad to promote its values is the latest turn in this persistent argument. It is, by no means, the obvious policy implication of American morals, just as the American decision not to support foreign democracies was not the obvious moral choice for the first generations of American policymakers. Just as not all interests are mutually reinforcing, not all morals are. The moral obligations to protect foreign lives conflict with the moral obligations of policymakers to protect American lives. The moral obligation to protect American values abroad conflict with the moral obligation to preserve American values at home. Our interests in ensuring stability abroad conflict with our interests in maintaining solvency at home. Our interests in furthering our power in one region conflict with our interests in maintaining our power in another.

It is these conflicts that give foreign policy realism far more moral credentials than either its detractors or many of its proponents are willing to admit. A deep understanding of foreign policy realism is inherently moral, as all prescriptive policy perspectives are. Realism is not just about acknowledging interests, it is about acknowledging, against the arguments of idealists, that at the level of international politics, morality is complex and there is no unity of the Good.

Realism acknowledges that not only do morals matter, but that morals are complex. Idealists believe that to realists, the material ends justify the moral costs of the means. An informed realist would reply that the pursuit of moral ends requires recognizing not just the material costs but the moral costs which follow. Reinhold Niebuhr, Andrew Bacevich, Hans Morgenthau, Walter Lippmann and the writers of the Federalist Papers, or, for that matter, George Washington and John Quincy Adams, were not cartoon neo-realists basing their arguments against moral interventions on purely quantitative measures of military and economic power. They based them on a broader understanding of the moral tensions inherent in government and international politics.

The idea of America as a missionary democracy is merely one thread of the moral debate. Read the Federalist Papers, and note the understanding of moral conflicts and dangers which gave formation to American government itself. Publius was not simply concerned with the conflict between America’s material interests and its moral values, it was concerned about finding a way to manage the moral debates inherent within a pluralistic society. The debate about whether anarchy or tyranny is the greater danger to liberty is a moral one. It is particularly laughable that Kissinger and Baker concede to idealists that American values gravitate towards a missionary foreign policy. A democratic republic exists, in part, to mediate the conflicts in morality that exist within any pluralistic society.

That the authors of the piece believe that the relatively recent invention of humanitarian intervention and human rights is the inevitable outcome of American values betrays a condescending attitude towards democracy itself. Perhaps I am reading into the piece, but I can see a whiff of the old Kissinger’s dismissal for the crusading attitudes of the mob. Indeed, realists have often underestimated the extent of the moral divides within a democratic population to argue that an insulated, foreign policy elite should make the decisions to prevent the ochlocratic American street from dooming the US to irrational humanitarian foreign policies. In fact, a different ranking of moral values produces the non-interventionism or outright isolationism the US has experienced in the past.

Whether the piece’s belief in the inherently crusading nature of American values is a genuine belief or a somewhat cynical perception, it remains that the choices between moral values are what make the obsession with the dichotomy between interests and values a false choice. There is no easy synthesis between interests and values not because they are always incompatible, but because the debate  over what America’s strategic interests and its prevailing values are is yet unresolved. The appeal of positing the “false choice” is obvious, as the President’s constant employment of it demonstrates, but it should not confuse those concerned with American grand strategy into ignoring the complexities within the categories that the “false choice” claims to resolve. Ultimately, it is acknowledging this complexity which gives realism, and realist policy decisions, real moral meaning.

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