Across the Bay

Friday, December 03, 2004

The Revenge of the Realists!

Michael Young wrote a terrific piece for Reason on realists, Wilsonialists, and neoconservatives. Young notes that he's a recent convert away from Realism, and offers some of his thoughts as to why:

"Yes, there is much experience there [among realists], but in a world where national sovereignty is gradually eroding (even if it won't disappear), where liberty and democracy are increasingly perceived as inalienable, and where American supremacy has demanded a fresh consideration of interstate relations that far surpasses a traditional mechanistic approach to balance of power theory, aren't the realists in danger of becoming a trifle anachronistic—in fact downright old hat?

A second question has to do with the details. Realist reasoning is often circular, where the assumptions prop up a superstructure propping up these assumptions. Scowcroft's phrase caught this well. Here's what he really said: We don't believe that democracy beats in everyone's breast, and because of that we continue to support autocratic regimes, even though such support is sure to suffocate liberal voices and help deny us any proof that democracy beats in everybody's breast.

Young is also more fair when it comes to neoconservatives, which is hardly the fashion these days, and properly places them in the historical context of political thought in a changing world:

"A product of a pre-20th century state system, where social hierarchies were more rigid and mass politics at their beginning, authentic realism is inadequate in our age. Wilsonianism (and, today, neoconservatism) are its contradictions, but also its stepchildren, as they seek to move beyond the management of power to ponder how foreign affairs can also disseminate humanistic values.

Realists (no less than liberals and libertarians one hastens to add) have yet to resolve the question of how to simultaneously advance national interests and liberty. These aims always seem to crash into one other, and perhaps no magic formula exists to avoid this. But such recognition means we can look at the overvalued realists and tell them: "You're just as lost as the rest of us; stop being so conceited."

I would've liked to hear more about Michael's point on national sovereignty, which he said was eroding even when it won't disappear. It would be interesting to see if Thomas Friedman's fascination with globalization is part of what led him to endorse for a while a version of the neocon alternative (before he and Fareed Zakaria ran back to the arms of Realism).

The piece, typically rich with brilliant lines ("as dim as a Soviet light bulb"), is simply a pleasure to read.