Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Godfather and Foreign Relations

This post is a commentary on The Godfather Doctrine, an essay by John C. Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell, which uses the famous movie to discuss various theme of International Relations. What better way to open a foreign relations blog?

For those too lazy to click over and read the full essay, here is a cliffnotes version: In the godfather, Tom Hagen is out of touch because he has too much faith that everyone will follow the rules, a problem shared by those who follow the foreign relations theory liberal instutionalism (See: many wide eyed liberals. Institutionalism= institution. Get it?) Meanwhile, Sonny is too hot blooded, and believes all problems can be resolved by force, a problem shared by today's neoconservatives (See: Dick Cheney). Only Michael Corleone recognizes that one must deal with others with both carrots and sticks, an idea shared by today's realists. And thus, we begin:
In some ways, the book reminded me of a sermon I heard a priest give as a child. He went on and on about how the world is hostile to Christianity, to much an extent that I suspect he believed Christians were still cowering in the catacombs. The authors of the Godfather Doctrine present realism as a philosophy whose time has come, rather than the dominant school of international relations for the past fifty years.

A primer: Realism emerged after World War II, when it became apparent that one could not count on others to do nice things. Prior to that era, the dominant school was liberal institutionalism, the school of international relations theory promoted by Tom in the Godfather and Woodrow Wilson. The League of Nations was unable to stop World War II because it was build around the idea that all states would turn on an aggressor who broke the peace, through sanctions or even military action. It turns out that this does not work. States are all too willing to let the little guy hang when they have nothing particular at stake – in the Western-dominated League of Nations, this was reflected in the shrug the organization gave to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria at the start of World War II (Not in our backyard!)

In addition, States with the power to ignore the rules only follow them when it is convenient. A liberal institutionalist professor of mine claimed the League of Nations was underrated, because its economic sanctions on Italy would have crippled the Italian economy if given time. Instead, the major powers of the time, France and Britain, took military action. Liberal institutionalists have been prone to moan that institutions would work if only states would follow the rules of the institutions; that they do not goes to the central point of realism.

Realism is based on the premise that states act out of self-interest, rather than out of ideals or morals. Every state seeks, at minimum, survival, and at maximum, world domination. Relations between states are determined by relative military and economic power. More power leads to more security. For example, the US can invade Jamaica tomorrow without batting an eye, because it has laughably more money and guns than Jamaica. It would think hard before invading China, because China has some money and lots of guns. Therefore, China has a good deal of security, because it is scary enough that other nations will think twice before attacking it. We can expect China to try to gain even more security by working to get even more money and guns. (This does not, incidentally, mean that Jamaica is screwed. Since it is unlikely to ever be in a position to have lots of guns, Jamaica’s best option is to ally itself with someone who does, a phenomena known as bandwagoning.)

This is a brilliant concept, no doubt familiar to anyone who has ever held a job or attended junior high school. Certainly, it takes the emotion out of politics (Those dastardly Iranians are the enemy of freedom and democracy!) and replaces it with something more akin to a chess match. (Iran is trying to spread its regional influence by funding Hezbollah and Hamas. Let’s see what we can do to make it so expensive for them that they won’t bother.)

Central to realism is the idea that the international system is an anarchy, in the sense that there is no central authority with enough power to enforce its will on all nations. The city of New York can impose its will on me, for example, because it has a lot more money and guns than I do. If I try to invade City Hall, I will fail. This means that the city has the power to make me do things that I don’t want to do, like alternate side parking and paying taxes. Above the city is the state, which has more money and guns than the city, and therefore can make it do things it doesn’t want to do, such as requiring certain classes in its high schools and tolls on its roads. Above the state is the national government, which has more money and guns than the state, and can therefore make it do things it doesn’t want to do, such as raise its drinking age to 21 and send its national guard to fight in an unpopular war. But above the nation, there no clear authority. There are only other nations, with varying amounts of money and guns. We do have organizations such as the U.N. and the International Criminal Court, but they have very little money and no guns at all.

Realism is not perfect, nor does it always work. Accepting that national interest always trumps morality can be both disastrous and ineffective. Prominent realists have included Henry Kissinger, who bombed the hell out of Hanoi, Laos, and Cambodia because he could "not believe a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn't have a breaking point." If it did, we didn't find it. Meanwhile, we lost the Vietnam War anyway, and the destabilizing bombings helped usher in Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia. More recently, realists have been chided for failing to predict the Cold War. If Eastern European and former Soviet states were motivated entirely by the need for security, they should have stuck with the USSR, which was deeply flawed internally but was doing a swell job of militarily deterring American invasion.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed this essay. I thought its depiction of the neoconservative movement as Sonny was particularly apt. I suspect many neoconservatives are left over Cold War hawks who don’t know what to do with themselves. I’ve thought for some time now that we could do well to replace the term “neoconservative” with “militarist”. Much of the lesson of the book, however, seems to be “make good decisions that are neither too emotional nor too idealistic.” That’s a fine idea, and realism is certainly a better guiding philosophy for good decision making than either of the competitors mentioned here. But it is not a perfect philosophy.

For one thing, it’s terribly unsatisfying. You’ll never go broke assuming the law of the jungle prevails, but you’ll never get anything all that great, at least in a humanist sense. At the risk of sounding like a flaming idealist, you can't take it with you. Continued American supremacy would certainly be nicer than being conquered and enslaved by the natives of BRIC. It would also be nicer than a relatively peaceful existence in which we have to constantly avoid treading in the toes of some new superpower. Certainly, remaining on top provide us far more opportunity for free and prosperous lives than we would otherwise enjoy. However, it is difficult to see what this will do for us, as individuals, beyond garnering us the right to continue purchasing cheap imports that we don't really need. At a certain point, we experience diminishing returns.

Nations are made up of individuals, after all, and individuals have a sense of right and wrong that bears little resemblance to national interest, even if it is often subservient to it. Liberal institutionalists are wrong in expecting this sense to always or even usually trump national interest, but realists are wrong in assuming it never does. (Or that it should be ignored; one of the earliest proponents of realism, Robert Morganthau, held that it would be irresponsible of nations to act like moral individuals.) For example, a group of Western activists were successful in forcing the Brazilian government to stop moving indigenous people off their land to make way for oil drilling. Receiving oil revenue is clearly in the Brazilian national interest, and receiving oil is clearly in the industrialized world’s interest, while the indigenous people concerned had few obvious means of promoting their interest in not being homeless. Yet they won. Activists picketed the Western banks in major cities who gave loans to the oil companies developing the land. To make them go away, the banks attached conditions to the loans they have the oil companies, stipulating that they respect indigenous claims to the land. The little guy can occasionally win, and when he does, it does marvelous things for the soul. At the risk of sounding like a flaming idealist, our power can buy us many things, but it can’t buy us fulfillment. We can do what we can to remain on top, certainly, but too much of a focus on power and strategy will cause us to forget that we are dealing with other human beings like ourselves. Realists may argue that this is unimportant in the broader strategic sense, but we do not live in the broader strategic sense. Constantly choosing strategy over morality has its downfalls. Pleading self interest over all is one matter when dealing with a competitor your own size (“Sorry, USSR! Gotta compete with Sputnik!”) and another when dealing with a far weaker fellow human. (Sorry, child laborer! Gotta have my $8.99 chain store shirt!) We would do well to learn the difference. Kumbaya.