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A Brief Comment on the Drezner-Saunders Debate

May 8, 2012

Recently, Dan Drezner criticized a post by the Center for the National Interest’s Paul Saunders. Saunders asserted that the Obama administration had failed to demonstrate realism because of its mishandling of the Chen Guangcheng case and inconsistencies in its behavior over the Middle East. Drezner wrote a brief criticism, and Saunders fired back.

There’s merit to the point that the U.S. isn’t pursuing a fully realist policy – and it isn’t – because liberal internationalist ideas do hold strong sway in some quarters of the administration. However, the policies which Saunders criticizes have largely been policies that realists would support.

The Chen Guangcheng example is kind of baffling. Based on what we know from reporting (and we may not know the real story for a long time, if we ever do), the reason Chen couldn’t simply be taken to the U.S. is that he requested to stay in China. Chen’s indecision is not a reflection of the administration’s highest level policymaking frameworks.. Was the administration wrong to try to assure his protection if he stayed in China? Sure, but Chen didn’t ask to leave for the United States until it was too late. The U.S. couldn’t exactly forcibly extradite Chen from China if even he hadn’t decided to leave the country yet. In any case, the specifics of an embassy imbroglio an IR theory determination does not make. Claiming the initial actions of embassy staff are evidence of the President’s entire China policy at the level of the White House isn’t a particularly strong argument.

The irony of the situation is that the administration is trying to do exactly what it would if it was adhering to Saunders’s version of realism – mitigating damage to the U.S.-China relationship without harming American values or undermining American credibility.

Of course, Drezner is correct to point out that a truly realist American foreign policy would not conceive of American values in such a way, and if anything he isn’t hard enough on the claims that credibility matters so much to a realist foreign policy. Saunders insists:

First, it is nonsense to claim, as Drezner does, that realists “don’t give a flying fig about promoting ‘American values’ overseas.” This caricature of realism and realists is routinely peddled by their critics but has little basis in fact. Realists understand well that perceptions are important in shaping international power and influence and, as a result, that policies disconnected from our values diminish the United States and weaken its ability to lead. Moreover, they recognize that such policies are not politically sustainable in America and are therefore impractical and—wait for it!—unrealistic. Ivory-tower academics with no responsibility for formulating or executing policy may think otherwise, but I expect that few involved in actual foreign-policy decisions would agree. The real question, which Drezner ignores, is not whether to advance our values, but how to advance our interests and values most effectively.

The first argument, that perceptions are important in shaping international power, is true in a sense. But it has really nothing to do with connecting our values to our policies. Realists generally choose to shape perceptions by dropping pretensions to morally grandiose visions that stake our influence or credibility on bringing the rest of the world into ideological conformity with the U.S. Realists recognize that our values might not impress other governments. Indeed, policies that seem disconnected from our values, like non-intervention in other countries’ internal affairs, may be the most agreeable to foreign states. But of course, realists do morally justify their decisions – but they do it not by blindly accepting the narrative that the only policies which reflect American values require liberal intervention  or democracy promotion, but by accentuating the values in American politics that have been articulated, say, by Washington, Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams rather than Wilson, Roosevelt or Reagan. Realists recognize that foolish or impractical policies of value promotion do far more damage to its international standards than its failure to be sufficiently liberal overseas, at least in the eyes of foreign powers which very often do not care about or actively oppose the kinds of American values under discussion here.

The second issue is that American politics supposedly demands the promotion of American values is more difficult. I’m not sure if Drezner was being humble or simply forgot, but in any case he should have cited his own excellent work on the subject. In his questioning of public opinion’s hostility to realism, Drezner aggregates a variety of useful research:

Sam McFarland and Melissa Matthews come to a similar conclusion about American attitudes towards human rights promotion. They find that Americans give strong support for abstract human rights principles—but when asked to rank order policy priorities, human rights came in 12th out of 15 possibilities. They conclude that,“although most Americans express agreement with the ideals of human rights, a willingness to commit American resources to promote and defend human rights is much weaker.” In other words, while Americans aspire for liberal policy ends, realist considerations of national interest trump those aspirations.

Saunders dismiss Drezner’s assertion that values don’t matter all that much to realist foreign policy by asserting that “Ivory tower academics” hold the belief that values don’t matter. But Drezner’s research strongly suggests that “folk realism” is pervasive in the American public. The problem, of course, is that it’s actually political and intellectual elites among whom liberal internationalist viewpoints are most popular, and it’s pressure from rival political elites that motivates the realist sense of persecution. Thus, realist eggheads at say, the University of Chicago may, on many issues, have more in common with the foreign policy views of the man in Peoria than do Beltway liberal interventionists (or Ivory Tower academics of an anti-realist persuasion).

Recent public opinion polling supports this trend. Most Americans oppose the idea that America has a responsibility to even “do something” about the situation in Syria, as they did in Libya (and Bosnia, at the time). As for the implications for the Chen case, I suspect that most Americans do not rank his protection as a particularly high priority of American foreign policy, or care about whatever damage critics of its handling continually insist has been done to America’s moral reputation.

If few involved in actual policy decision making agree with Drezner’s conception of realism, it’s because policymakers are under far more direct pressure from political elites and rival policymakers who are more likely to hold non-realist views, just as realist academics feel they are under significant pressure from rival academics and non-realist policymakers. This entire problem is partially exacerbated by realism’s associations with anti-democratic elite theories of politics that reject the influence of the common man, but that’s another story.

Saunders objection here is also confusing:

Second, Drezer’s argument that the Obama administration is “realist” because it is getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan to concentrate on China entirely misses the point. The fact that the administration has decided to “refocus energy” on Asia, as he writes, rather than continuing long wars in the Middle East demonstrates no more than a degree of pragmatism. But pragmatism is only pragmatism when it does not serve a clear strategic goal that neither the administration nor Drezner have been able to articulate—and his description of the administration’s policy in Asia as “its ‘strategic pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’ or whatever they’re calling it this week” only reinforces this.

The withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan do serve a clear strategic goal – ending the massive drain of those wars on the American economy for no strategic gain, and giving the U.S. the ability to reconfigure its force structure on assets that do appear to be useful for the future threat environment. What would not serve a clear strategic goal would be to keep a massive force presence in Iraq or Afghanistan for fear of appearing as if we’re leaving too hastily, and in search of interests that local political and military conditions fundamentally won’t permit us to achieve. While the branding of the Asia pivot ought to be criticized, the realist criticism of the administration’s approach to the Middle East and Central Asia would be not that it’s withdrawn too quickly and aimlessly, but that it hasn’t been faithful enough to realist principles of retrenchment.

Drezner also could have pointed out that in the original article, Saunders’s criticism of the administration’s broader Middle East policy has some issues by realist standards:

In Egypt, Libya and Syria, the lack of a strategic framework integrating U.S. interests and values has produced glaring inconsistencies that undermine America’s political and moral credibility with friends and foes alike. While realists tend to be skeptical of the use of force without a clear benefit to vital U.S. interests, it is difficult to justify intervening in Libya but not Syria. It similarly undermines U.S. leadership when Washington helps to remove its long-term ally Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt but is more restrained in dealing with the considerably less friendly Bashar al-Assad.

Daniel Larison rightly pointed out the flaws with this case:

The unwillingness to plunge into another unnecessary war may be inconsistent with the decision to attack Libya, but that is the sort of inconsistency that should please most realists and most Americans.

It’s also not really accurate that the U.S. has been “more restrained” in its dealings with the Syrian regime than it has been with the Egyptian regime. I don’t recall any U.S. efforts at the U.N. to have the Egyptian government condemned or sanctioned.

Additionally, the notion that American foreign policy should be built around promoting its credibility is, to most realists, hogwash. As Patrick Porter noted, Hans Morgenthau argued that credibility was too often the rallying cry for pursuing an impossible enterprise to the point of diminishing marginal returns. Realists accept inconsistency as an inevitable part of foreign policy, especially moral inconsistency – and recognize the only way to reduce moral inconsistency is to be less sweeping in our moral claims and commitments about events outside our control. Ultimately, a policy based on moral consistency is far more important to liberal internationalist conceptions of power which need countries to buy in to American international order, but to a realist, morally inconsistent treatment of countries is entirely to be expected, because realists do not like to make large amounts of universalist claims.

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