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Monday, January 23, 2006

Foreign Policy Follies

In today's op-ed piece "Rice's Blind Spot" Sebastian Mallaby has some interesting thoughts on foreign policy and nation building.

In "old school" style foreign policy debates you were either a realist, in the Kissinger mold. Or an idealist, which is really what the Reagan policy was built on. Realists, who have dominated our country for most of the last century, believe you deal with great powers, regardless of their ideological bent. In doing so you tolerate those lesser countries that will help you, even if you don't agree with their methods.

Detente with Russia, and the opening of Mao's China, are more recent examples. On the "lesser nation" front, you had countries that helped us with our goals, the Philippines, Iran, South Africa, and others, who had government types we didn't particularly like, but were necessary to deal with the "great powers".

The fall of the Shah of Iran was one warning about how dealing with autocrats, however good the reasons, might not be the best way of doing things, especially if they went away.

Reagan was the opposite thinker, the idealist who believed the powers could be changed. He pushed The Soviet Union to the brink, and gained what he wanted, a collapse of their power. On smaller countries in Central America he helped insurgents who would try and make them friendlier to us.

Now that the foreign policy lesson is over, back to Sebastian. Mr. Mallaby believes the realist view on foreign policy to be outdated, large state powers aren't the major threat, which is fairly correct, but not fully. Anyone who thinks China, now India, and Russia can't be threats is keeping their head in the sand.

He points to the Clinton administration's policies, which included tracking (but not taking when offered) terrorists, and other things.

The importance of other non-state actors, from rebels to environmentalists to bond traders, had become a cliche of globalization commentary; AIDS had been recognized as a security threat. The era of great-power politics was widely thought to have ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rice seemed like a Sovietologist who hadn't quite caught up.
This is only partially true, while each of the above could be looked at in a global way, and do and should have an affect on foreign policy, they are not things to build one around. Clinton himself engaged in nation building in Kosvo, Bosnia, and Somalia, with varying degrees of success. Eliminating AIDS or reducing corruption in markets might get other nations to follow your lead, but it won't ever be the center piece of a successful foreign policy.

He gives Rice credit for catching up to the above, ideal, somewhat.

Rice has caught up with the 1990s consensus that powerful states may pose less of a problem than disintegrating weak ones and that the best hope for peace in the long term is a world of stable democracies. But she's only half-acknowledging the next question: Yes, weak and autocratic states are a problem, but can we do anything about them?
However, he fails to recognize, again in the area of Kosvo, and Bosnia that we did do something about them. In other words, Clinton, who's policy inspired him above, did exactly what he chides Rice for trying, getting weak autocratic states to become plausible democracies.

He looks to Francis Fukuyama for inspiration in the area of nation building, or the inability to perform such a function.

The United States lacks the instruments to transform other societies, Fukuyama argues; to build nations you must first build institutions, and nobody knows how to do that. Conservatives, who have long preached the limits to what government can achieve with domestic social policies, should wake up to government's limits in foreign policy as well.
If this is true, we have a problem, and not just in America, but world wide. Using this logic, it's impossible to transform any government anywhere, because no one knows how to build the things that will be required. (Though the thought of saying "Fukuyama says it's impossible to change countries, so we are withdrawing from the UN, and ending all support of the IMF" does make me giddy.)

I disagree with Mr. Mallaby, we do know how to build the institutions, it's just not as quick as some folks would like. And it isn't something that can be done with a cookie cutter, one size fits all countries.

Sometimes it's even kind of messy to build the institutions of democracy, requiring revolution. In fact, using the above logic, we should still be British colonies, because the founding fathers had no clue to to build the institutions necessary to make us our own country. Yet they accomplished it. It wasn't fast, either. We started our battle for independence in 1776, but didn't ratify our Constitution until 1788 when the 9th State adopted it.

That doesn't mean I think there is no limit to foreign policy. No I think that it can be an effective means of changing governments and transforming nations. But I also believe there is no such thing as a "perfect foreign policy", and there should be no such thing as a static one. What may work well with India may not do anything with Pakistan, good foreign policy deals with each country on it's own merits and problems.

The final paragraph of his piece is actually the most telling, it deals with optimists and pessimists, and the Iraq situation.

It's whether you are an optimist or a pessimist: whether you think that Iraq has gone badly merely because the Bush administration mishandled it, or whether you believe that no amount of skillful management could have achieved stability after three years.
Where he goes wrong in this though is the 3 years time frame, it's not long enough, even in our 24 hour news cycle world. We've been in Bosnia and Kosvo for a decade, they aren't completely transformed but they are much more stable countries than they were in 1990. Eastern Europe is full of democracies, and countries experiencing growing pains as they move that way after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It didn't happen overnight. It didn't even happen in three years, it's taken the better part of the last 17 to get to where they are. Nation building and transformational policy are not overnight events. They take time to accomplish.


Blogger shoprat said...

I think that there is time for reality based politics and a time for idealism, determined partly by the situation of the moment. We fought alongside one of the worst tyrannies in history to defeat one that was more agressive at the time because we really had no choice (Soviet Union during WWII). Now is a time for idealism because the circumstances are different.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

I've seen your comments on other blogs but I've never visited your blog before - maybe because you're a quiet, modest and unassuming chap not a blowhard like most of us bloggers. I'm glad I finally popped in for a visit. I enjoyed this post a lot a swell as your other recent posts.

9:37 PM  
Blogger Crazy Politico said...

Shoprat, I should have used your comment as the post, much more to the point than my long winded diatribe :)

Patrick, Thanks very much for the kind words, I hope you stick around. And don't worry, I do have my blowhard moments occasionally, can't let the other bloggers down.

4:47 AM  

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