Tuesday, August 28, 2007

So, Apparently Terrorism Works- Somebody Alert the Foreign Policy Community!

I severely doubt that Washington is going to be too happy with South Korea right now. The Koreans just made a deal with the Taliban; in exchange for getting 19 hostages back, South Korea is leaving Iraq.

Yep, you read that right. The Taliban, er, won.

Well, kinda. Here's the thing: the South Korean troops were already leaving at the end of the year. The deal is more about any recurring presence by the Koreans; missionaries are out, as is any civilian travel to Afghanistan whatsoever. For all intents and purposes, South Korea has completely withdrawn. And I doubt that that's overly unpopular in Seoul. Sure, South Korea has technically "backed down" and lost prestige and whatnot, but it doesn't appear to matter.

This isn't supposed to happen. This isn't the standard explanation for how countries behave. It is counterintuitive, at least to the right people.

Yep, you read that right too. Welcome to the all singing, all dancing, long-delayed, Foreign Policy Community post!

(Warning: this is a long one, along the lines of the stuff I was putting out in 2002. And like my other long posts of late, it'll probably be quickly ignored. But what the hell. Needs to be said, and nobody else appears to be saying it. Those familiar with this blog will probably recognize a fair bit of what I'm saying here; I've been saying it since 2002.)

First, a bit of background on what's going on, since this all really went down a while ago and you know what bloggers' memories are like. It started with Glenn Greenwald, a journalist/blogger/former lawyer over at Salon. He posted up a piece that responded to this memo from Samantha Powers.
America is plagued by a self-anointed, highly influential, and insular so-called Foreign Policy Community which spans both political parties. They consider themselves Extremely Serious and have a whole litany of decades-old orthodoxies which one must embrace lest one be declared irresponsible, naive and unserious. Most of these orthodoxies are ossified 50-year-old relics from the Cold War, and the rest are designed to place off limits from debate the question of whether the U.S. should continue to act as an imperial force, ruling the world with its superior military power.

Most of the recent "controversies" involving Barack Obama's foreign policy statements -- including his oh-so-shocking statement that it would not make moral or political sense to use tactical nuclear weapons to bomb isolated terrorist camps as well as his willingness to attack Al Qaeda elements inside Pakistan if the Musharraf government refuses (as they did for some time) -- were not "controversial" among the Establishment on the merits. They were "controversial" (and "naive" and "irresponsible") because they breached the protocols and orthodoxies imposed by the Foreign Policy Community governing how we are allowed to talk about these issues.
This kicked off a gigantic brouhaha over the following weeks between Glenn, Daniel Drezner, Atrios, Kevin Drum, Matthew Yglesias, among many others. Hardly an exhaustive list of links on the subject- much of these particular posts concern a defense of the "community" by Gideon Rose. Honestly, though, I'm not going to respond to each and every argument. That would take forever. I'm going to step back instead and try to explain what this is really about.

So. "The Community". Who are they? Well, now that's the question, isn't it? Greenwald has kind of danced around this central issue in my mind, though the term itself is a little misleading. See, what they are is easy: they're experts. Almost to a man (or woman, but it's a pretty male-dominated group), they're people who have spent rather a lot of time learning the knowledge and craft of international relations, international affairs, foreign policy, strategic policy and the like. Many have Doctorates, though many more have Masters' degrees. Almost all have been "in the game" for a while in one way or another. They work at think tanks, "institutes", or in some cases academe, though that last ones a bit tricky, for a reason I'll get to in a sec. How they get there doesn't matter, though: what matters is that it's a community of expertise.

What exactly is this craft that they are experts of? Well, that's a good question too. Glenn didn't really look into this, and a lot of others (Yglesias, Drum, et al) didn't either. International Relations is a deeply odd discipline: it's almost easier to say what an IR expert is not an expert of. It's not economics, at least not quite, because economics crossing national borders works quite a bit differently than that inside. They're not in political science, either; most of the insights of that field require a state apparatus to be effective. Sociology? Hell no.

Nope, it's its own weird little body of knowledge and theory and models and whatnot, thanks to the simple problem that these guys try to wrestle with:

How do you survive in a state of anarchy?

That's what they believe states exist in. There's no real world government exerting control, so states have to try to get by all by their lonesomes. Sure, they can make friends and alliances and whatnot, but there's nobody enforcing it but them. It's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome out there, and we've got to try to make it work. Kind of scary, if you stop to think about it. Most people don't think about it. These guys do.

See why there might be that cult of "expertise" and "seriousness" that Glenn was raging about?

Even worse, there aren't a ton of people who are involved in it. The "community" is pretty small; even smaller if you remove those people who are just looking to make a buck or two from international trade. It's even smaller if you break apart the academics from the practitioners, and it's really the latter that are part of the "community", since the academics often tend to stay out of mainstream foreign policy debates. They're busily trying to build a body of theory that can actually support this relatively young field. They, and some of the practitioners, are trying to turn it into a science.

It's not going well. It's not going well at all. The field is absolutely littered with theories and models that seemed to work well at the time, but came crashing own around everybody's ears. The old liberal belief that trading nations don't fight was contradicted by WWI. Wilsonian liberalism's belief in the power of collective security was torn asunder by WWII, and has been limping along ever since. In the wake of that war arose realism, which remains dominant in many respects, but the realists' insistence that states care for nothing but their (strictly material) national interests was entirely unequipped to explain the end of the Cold War and the peculiar case of Mikhail Gorbachev. Realism has been struggling ever since.

(No, Reagan didn't win the Cold War. Gorbachev decided it was incredibly foolish and called it off. There's a difference.)

The neo-liberals and neo-realists added a patina of formalism, transplanting the orthodox economist's blissful faith in mathematical, rationalist certainty to this troubled field. Neither of them have done that well. Neo-liberalism has sustained a crippling blow with the demise of the Washington Consensus, and the belief that neoliberal, market-led economics can grow an economy to the point where people are too busy getting rich to want to fight seems a little, well, precious these days. South America and Eastern Europe were their playground, and they made kind of a mess of things.

The neo-realists, on the other hand? Their belief that you can break down national security to a particularly complex, but solvable game--thanks to the structure of the international system--has also had some problems of late. There have been a wide variety of models that fit within this particular paradigm, with names like Offensive Realism, Defensive Realism, Offense-Defense Theory, Structural Theory, Hegemonic Stability Theory, Balance-of-Power Theory... but all they really do is rejigger the relative values of the same damned variables within the same damned game. One becomes ascendant over another, temporarily, depending on who gets the most citations in International Security and the other IR journals and which case they're looking at this year vs. last year... but the whole thing still founders upon the rock of the Cold War.

Or, well, it did. Nowadays it struggles with the War on Terror, as these theories do a magnificently poor job of explaining the behavior of the Islamic theocrats, who aren't motivated by maximizing either a) their income or b) their perceived security. While material factors do influence the behavior of terrorists and insurgents, it has a lot more to do with factors that are difficult-to-impossible to operationalize into variables that can be plugged into formal models. Things like perception, belief, values, morals, culture, and identity. These things simply aren't well handled by neo-anything, and they sure as heck ain't derived from the anarchic structure of the international system.

After all, the war on terror has little to do with national borders: it lives in the places where borders break down, or never really meant that much in the first place.

Enter the neo-conservatives, who DID focus on all these things. They do think that morals, and values, and identity matter in international relations- which makes sense, as domestic neo-conservatism tends to be obsessed with these things as well. So do the non "neo" liberals, but there's an important difference: while liberals focus on those things that bring people together, neoconservatives are a more hierarchical bunch, believing that western (read: American) culture and values are clearly and self-evident superior. It's that superiority that grants the United States license to go tearing across half the globe- because in its wake, it will create little Americas everywhere it goes, and those places will be infinitely improved over what had preceded them. After all, America's purity and morality saved the world from Communism, right?

(Well, no. But this is the mindset.)

But, of course, we know what happened there: that whole mindset foundered as well, this time in Iraq. Iraq was a failure. They aren't going to get their little Americas. They never were. They've been rather rudely shown that American's moral superiority is an illusion, too. They're still trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered theory, but it's not happening.

All the other theories are no better off, however.

So, Mr. Glenn Greenwald. You wonder why so many of these "experts" are so quick to attack outsiders? So wedded to their orthodoxy? There's one answer: because there ain't much there. That's the dirty little secret. IR Theory (and by extension IR Praxis, otherwise known as foreign policy) is by and large a shambles. They play at being scientists, scholars, and thinkers, but they're standing on quicksand, and they're shouting as loudly as possible to try to obscure that fact. It doesn't matter which school of thought they belong to; none of them have been able to explain all or even most of the cases out there. But because people like Glenn don't know about the battles, conflicts, triumphs and failures--don't know about the lingo and the jargon and the models and whatnot--they're able to erect this wall of "seriousness" to keep you out.

They're clannish because they spent a lot of time studying a little-understood field.

They're defensive because those studies have borne precious little fruit.

They write things like this:
[E]ven knowledgeable professionals who were opposed to the war generally thought Iraq had dangerous prohibited weapons programs—they just disagreed over how to handle the problem...Professionals, you might say, are the worst people to listen to on foreign policy—except for all the others...
...because they hope to try to exploit the former to keep you from noticing the latter. They say "serious" and "professional" and "naive" and "realistic" and "knowledgeable" because it's the most effective way to deter serious (heh) investigation.

Yes, on one level, they're right. It really is an important field, and there really is a lot of ignorance about it out there, and it really is one where everybody has an opinion that's often based on little more than the sort of "common sense" that is reliable only in being wrong. This is what drives the reaction to the "netroots", I think; the netroots is not using the acceptable theories and models and nomenclature, not engaged with the underlying battles between all these flawed theories, and not agreeing on those assumptions that underlie the (currently dominant) battle between neo-realism and neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism. Most bloggers don't even know what they are. They would be well served by finding out.

But, as far as I've seen, Glenn is right about one thing, and Dr. Gideon Rose is absolutely wrong: there is no reason or justification for deference to these "Professionals".

There's actually every reason to distrust them. Not because of Iraq, or Iran, or Israel, or India. Not because of Bush, or Clinton, or Drezner, or Krauthammer, or Rose, or Wolfowitz. Not because of Abu Gharib, or Gitmo, or the CIA, or the NSA, or the WTO, or anything like that.

It's because the body of knowledge and expertise that they're drawing on isn't actually that impressive. It isn't actually that useful. It certainly isn't that successful at explaining or predicting much of anything. It might be, someday, and it's definitely worth knowing and studying as a way of getting your head around these issues. Everybody who is interested in foreign policy and international affairs should bone up on all these theories. But it isn't worth deferring to their theories and dogmas, at least not yet.

More as I think of it.

Edit: Ok, first thought. The anarchist/socialist left will no doubt pipe up about Prof. Chomsky and his beliefs, and to a great extent the attacks on bloggers are related to the full-court press by the "community" to keep these guys out. They haven't been that much more successful, however; too much Marxist/socialist analysis of foreign policy is wrapped up in the same kind of materialism and economic determinism that sinks neo-realism and -liberalism.

No comments:

Post a Comment