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Realists and Neocons


There are some things to like in Helmut’s discussion of Fukuyama’s NYT piece, in particular his point about the Cold War providing ideological cover for any policy the US wanted to pursue. But Helmut is dead wrong about realists and neocons; they’re not the same. They’re not close to the same.

“Idealism” is a complete backtrack on all that the neocons stand for, which just is standard old Cold War realism in which the most powerful states get to carve up the global pie. The “end of history” thesis suggests that there is a final victor and it is us. That fits the realist paradigm a whole lot better than it does any idealist notion of foreign affairs.

The above isn’t even a fair description of neoconservatism, much less realism. There is nothing, NOTHING, about realism that suggests, implies, or allows for a final victor that gets to carve up the world. Indeed, nothing could be further from realist thought; no realist would EVER suggest that a concept like “the end of history”, unless by history you mean the development of anarchy as the ordering principle of the international system. History never ends for a realist. Moreover, the processes of power described by realists don’t have a moral content; no realist would ever declare that the Melians deserved destruction at the hands of the Athenians or that the Iraqis deserved to be attacked by the Americans.

And this does not apply simply to neorealism. Hans Morgenthau’s fifth principle of power politics states that the moral laws of the universe cannot be identified with the moral aspirations of a given state. There is NO WAY to reconcile this statement with neoconservatism, which clearly identifies the aspirations of the United States with the laws of the universe. The two are completely antithetical.

But it should have been foreseen by Fukuyama as well as by the other neocons. They do, after all, come from the realist school of international relations. This school – perhaps best exemplified for our purposes here by Kissinger – understands the significance of legitimacy in the international sphere. Legitimacy of behavior in the international sphere requires that others, even those who may have something to lose in a given action, view the action as nonetheless right or appropriate or at least understandable.

We’ll set aside for a second the fact that the neocons loathe Henry Kissinger and focus on the misinterpretation of realism. While some realists include concepts like legitimacy within their edifice (I’m thinking Carr, Gilpin, and Walt to the extent that he can be described as a realist) many don’t, and it can hardly be regarded as a centerpiece of realist thought. On the contrary, the concept of legitimacy is highly regarded by liberal internationalists, who deliberately eschew the other aspects of realist thought.

The clearest element of Helmut’s discussion of Fukuyama is that neoconservatives ought not to be regarded as “idealists”. Why not? At one point, Helmut describes Fukuyama as a neocon “ideologue”, and members of the Bush administration as “ideologues”. There is nothing about the concept of “idealist” that suggests that someone must have the right ideas. If the ideas favored by an idealist are bad or destructive, then an idealist can be even worse than a realist, materialist, or rationalist, however you would like to describe the opposite of idealism. Neocons are idealists; they clearly identify an ideological end point, and see ideas as the prime generators of change and transformation. This doesn’t mean that they’re good, and certainly doesn’t mean that they ought to be called realists. Rudyard Kipling was an idealist; he identified the well being of the world with the hegemony of right-thinking white men. Kaiser Wilhelm II was an idealist; he identified the well being of the world with the glory of German civilization. Otto Von Bismarck was a realist; he pursued the interests of his state without larger consideration of whether the German Empire was in some sense carrying out a historical or divine mission. Neocons are very much like the former two examples, and very little like the latter.

The Iraq adventure was almost universally decried as pointless by realists in the academy and in the policy world. Say what you will about these realists; I hardly wish to argue strongly for the positions taken by John Mearsheimer, but at least he got this one right. The Iraq invasion may have been sold partially (but not wholly) in realist terms, but it makes almost no sense from the realist worldview. Whatever neocons may be, they aren’t Henry Kissinger. If they were, then Iraq would remain in the hands of Saddam Hussein. You can dislike both the realist and the neocon understandings of the world (and I dislike both) while recognizing that they are not reconcilable with one another. It does a dramatic disservice to the discussion of either neoconservatism or realism to conflate the two.

does a much better job of parsing Fukuyama’s NYT piece.

UPDATE: As Helmut’s comment just reminded me, even the security justification for the war on Iraq was sold in liberal internationalist, not realist, terms. Realists tend to prefer to rely on deterrence to resolve problems with weapons of mass destruction, and are certainly loathe to represent any state as “rogue” or “outlaw”. Quite the contrary; realists assumed that Saddam Hussein (and Kim Jong-Il, to give another example) was simply pursuing his own interests, and cared little about the threats to international law, international institutions, and international order that Hussein presented. Realist as a whole could also care less about NGOs, and were uncompelled by the logic of Iraqi cooperation with Al Qaeda. Even to the extent that the administration presented Iraq as a threat, it was a threat on liberal internationalist, not realist, terms.

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