Realism, war, and pacifism

Is pacifism the new Realism? Or is Realism the new pacifism? I’ve been toying with both arguments for a while now, including back in June when I made the first of them in connection with the panel discussion I did at USIP on ‘Foreign Policy and the next US administration.’ That was linked to my growing, evidence-based conviction that foreign wars have been become growingly unwinnable.
Okay, so then came the Russian-Georgian War. Russia to a great extent (though not wholly) “won” that war. So if we judge that Georgia is “foreign” for Russia–as by and large I think we must– then they had waged a foreign war and won it.
(Some Russians might perhaps argue that Georgia is not actually foreign for them, and/or that they engaged in the war to save the lives of the Russian citizens– both Ossetians and Russian peacekeeping troops– who were getting badly attacked in Ossetia. Neither is a trivial argument, but on balance I don’t think either of them holds up sufficiently.)
What is much more the case, it seems to me, is that long-distance foreign wars have become very nearly or wholly unwinnable. I argued one part of this when I blogged about ‘The Return of Geography’, a couple of weeks ago.
I would like to note now, though, that some of the most serious and cautious thinking about the Georgia-Russia war– as, earlier about the US invasion of Iraq– has come from pillars of the Realist and “Old” (paleo-)conservative movements in the United States. That, while Obama and many other Democrats have been bending very strongly toward a McCain-like level of pro-Georgian partisanship and anti-Russian outrage over the whole Georgian issue– and while Obama and many other Democrats have been worryingly belligerent in arguing for escalations of US force deployment and use in Afghanistan and also against Pakistan..
In this recent article (PDF, and registration required) in The American Conservative the paleocon former CIA officer Philip Giraldi wrote candidly that,

    The fighting between Georgia and Russia is yet another foreign-policy disaster in which Washington might have encouraged a war where there was no conceivable American interest. It is also, by all accounts, the latest intelligence failure…

(He also wrote that when the Russians invaded, the 130 US military advisers– serving soldiers and DOD-financed contractors– who were in Georgia immediately regrouped to Tbilisi, while the many US-paid Israeli mercenaries working as ‘trainers’ there were evacuated back to their country so rapidly “that they abandoned their classified training manuals.”)
Giraldi’s piece is well worth reading. We should remember, too, the excellent and very constructive role that he and other paleocons have played for some years now in running the Antiwar website and making other contributions to the battle of ideas against neocon militarism.
In that same issue of The American Conservative Pat Buchanan’s take-down (PDF, registration also required) of McCain’s lead foreign-policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann is also worth reading. Scheunemann is the same man who, as a well-paid lobbyist for Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili, has had as one of his primary missions the winning of US support for Saakashvili’s reckless war venture into South Ossetia.
Buchanan doesn’t mince his words when he writes about Scheunemann:

    He is a dual loyalist, a foreign agent whose assignment is to get America committed to spilling the blood of her sons for client regimes who have made this moral mercenary a rich man…
    Scheunemann came close to succeeding. Had he done so, U.S. soldiers and Marines from Idaho would be killing Russians in the Caucasus and dying to protect Scheunemann’s client…
    Now Scheunemann is the neocon agent in place in McCain’s camp. The neocons got their war with Iraq. They are pushing for a war on Iran. And they are now baiting the Russian Bear. Why would McCain seek foreign-policy counsel from the same discredited crowd that has all but destroyed the presidency of George W. Bush?

It is possible to argue that Buchanan and his colleagues at The American Conservative are more paleocon than they are ‘Realist’… and that perhaps their flavor of paleoconservatism comes with more than a dash of isolationism. (Though compared with the bellicose zeal of the neocons and their friends among the liberal hawks, isolationism looks like a distinctly preferable alternative these days.)
So the main place where Washington’s Realists hang out is at, guess where, the Nixon Center. And there, too, there has been some good, solid thinking going on about the Georgia crisis. For example, in this (Word doc) testimony that Center director Paul Saunders delivered to the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe September 10, he shared the following lessons:

    First, the Bush Administration has profoundly over-personalized U.S. relations with Georgia…
    Second, U.S. officials must be much more careful when and how they put American credibility on the line…
    Thirdly, it is now clear that Russia’s commitment to and interests in Georgia and other former Soviet Republics along its southern frontier exceed our own… [Return of Geography, anyone?]
    Fourth, we should learn a powerful lesson about “precedents” and “vetoes”. American officials and others argued vociferously that NATO military action against Serbia without approval of the United Nations Security Council, and American and European recognition of Kosovo’s independence without Serbia’s consent, did not establish a precedent because Kosovo was a unique case. The problem with this is that we are not in charge of what others interpret as a precedent. We decide on our national interests, the best policies to advance them, and the best arguments to explain them. We don’t get to decide how others see what we do or how they decide to respond…
    Finally, we should remember what NATO did right during previous rounds of enlargement: insist that prospective new members resolve internal problems with their ethnic minorities…

Well, there’s a lot more good sense in Saunder’s testimony, as well. And I see that The National Interest, which is the Nixon Center’s flagship publication, has a lot of other good analysis of the Georgia crisis, too.
So what I want to note here, firstly, is that all this good sense from the Realists is pushing clearly toward a much less belligerent and more diplomacy-focused policy toward Russia than either McCain or Obama is currently espousing. Secondly, I’d note that many of these same people were also against the invasion of Iraq, back in the day.
Historically, in this country, the ‘Realists’ have been people who took a big-picture look at the balance of power in world politics and argued for robust– often very belligerent– action by the US government, using all its many levers of power, in order to maximize a version of “the US national interest” that was chauvinistic and was generally dominated by the interests of US corporations, not necessarily the US citizenry.
Looking at the “global balance of power” in the way they did most often meant that they respected the traditional, post-Westphalian view of national sovereignty, which is more or less that whatever a government does inside its own country is its own business and not that of anyone else.
The neocons and their allies among the liberal hawks broke clean away from that view, arguing that the US could and should use all the elements of its national power (including, if necessary, military power) to end dictatorships and to “bring” human rights to populations formerly denied them.
How “rights” could ever meaningfully be “brought” to long-oppressed populations by outsiders, and on the tips of cruise missiles, was a conundrum they never satisfactorily solved.
Personally, having lived for six years in a situation of active war, in Lebanon, I have quite a bit more sympathy with the Westphalian model than most of my colleagues in the western rights movement. I have seen at first hand the degree to which warfare is itself a massive motor for the abuse of the rights of all persons living in its path. The idea that westerners might fairly easily go to war in an effort to improve the rights situation of others is one that could only be dreamed up in salons thousands of miles distant from any actual war zone.
Also, though it is true that, under the Westphalian model, there are high “walls” of sovereignty around each country that protect the ability of dictators to carry on oppressing the subjects trapped behind them, throughout history those walls of sovereignty have also– much more significantly– protected the ability of settled and more liberal-minded populations to progress toward greater democracy, and respect of human rights, without the various despots who were their neighbors having any recognized “right” to intervene to abort their liberal project. Too many of the neocons and liberal hawks have forgotten that aspect of Westphalia’s history.
So personally, I see some things of value in the position of the Realists– historically, and even more so today, when the raw pragmatism and respect for empirical ground truth that underlie their approach has brought them to a situation of extreme caution in their attitude toward war.
So maybe pacifism is becoming the new Realism, as well as the other way around?
I think what my form of Quaker pacifism adds to the traditional Realist way of looking at things, though, is that it adds a commitment to caring about and according equal respect to every one of the world’s people, not just those who happen to be my compatriots, and a commitment to undertaking the kinds of nonviolent mass actions and other nonviolent initiatives that by themselves, without the use of arms, can actually transform political realities towards a greater respect for everyone’s rights.
I like to think that these are very pragmatic, or one could even say ‘Realist’, ways to look at the world, too…

4 thoughts on “Realism, war, and pacifism

  1. seth edenbaum

    Pacifism isn’t a perspective it’s an ideology, and like all ideologies it’s silly. Strategic non-violence on the other hand is a tool, and maybe that best one in most situations, even from the perspective of “realism.”

  2. Johan Van Loon

    “The neocons (…)arguing that the US could and should use all the elements of its national power (including, if necessary, military power) to end dictatorships and to “bring” human rights to populations formerly denied them.”
    I don’t believe we should forget about our democratic ideals and continue to foster respect for human rights and democracy throughout the world. Besides, the existence of multiethnic states will always continue to be a source of conflict and just begs for more ‘nationalist’ solutions.
    I agree with you that military power is very ineffective in achieving all this. Western democracies should invest a lot more in peaceful but very resolute policies of influencing public opinion in those countries (think of Radio Free Europe and the likes).
    Unfortunately Western societies and their political leaders often display a complete lack of internal conviction regarding their own values… Trying to change the world around us should therefore start with education ourselves about our histories and our democratic values…

  3. Bob Spencer

    Yes. I agree with just about all of this. Actually, I haven’t found another comprehensive picture as this.
    While reading, I thought about a well-known professor, Robert Chambers, at Sussex U. in the UK. He wrote a book, Whose Reality Counts?: Putting the First Last: He wrote about the value of consulting grassroots participants in development projects.
    Right now though, as you describe, I suspect that relatively small insulated and isolated very rich interest groups have the major say about whose reality counts.
    Can you imagine the amount of effort that groups and individuals must exert to reduce the influence of those insulated interests?
    How can people of goodwill in the West collaborate with villagers in the developing world to enhance their influence and reduce the influence of the few that act without restraint and in isolation from the real interests of most of us?
    Hummmm, maybe we could start by taking an inventory of our resources and then go from there.
    Bob Spencer

  4. seth edenbaum

    I’ve said this before, but still:
    An obvious example is the response to 9-11; and it takes very little effort to see why.
    When was Al Qaeda at it’s strongest? On 9-11 and for a day or so following.
    When was it at its weakest? About one week later when the vast majority of those who cheered at first began to understand the consequences of that one massively violent act.
    A deft politician calculating in the most Machiavellian terms could have played that understanding to the strategic advantage of the US. A non-violent response, coy and manipulative, would have been the best -most practical- choice, politically and, economically.

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