Heads in the Sand

That’s by Matt Yglesias (son of Rafael Yglesias) and the subtitle is How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.  Anyone who reads books on foreign policy should buy this book.  Most of all it is a critique of recent practice and a defense of liberal internationalism.  He calls for negotiating with Iran, not digging in deeper in Iraq, and more generally accepting multilateral frameworks for the use of American military power.  I agree with the policy recommendations though I would package them differently.  I view liberal internationalism as a kind of noble lie which will in any case be superseded by American exceptionalism, most of all because of differing European and American experiences in WWII and differing degrees of religiosity.  Rightly or wrongly, Americans are more likely to see menaces abroad and of course America is the only country that can even try to do much about them.  Of course we’ve shown we’re not up to the job, noting that Afghanistan (a just war, I might add, and do note it commanded international support for a while but that turned out not to matter) is probably going even worse than Iraq by standards of long-run viability.  If our interventions are counterproductive then constraints on those interventions are beneficial and in that regard we can embrace internationalism for practical reasons. 

But I can’t have a high opinion of internationalism per se, perhaps because I’ve spent too much time actually working in multilateral institutions.  The incentive is to negotiate at the margin, and eke out a somewhat better deal for one’s nation and carry victories to diplomatic superiors back home, rather than to actually solve the international problem in cooperative fashion.  If there is any good solution to be had, the large number of negotiating parties usually requires America to play von Stackelberg leader (remember Yugoslavia?), noting that our ability to do this has broken down for reasons that go beyond the failures of Bush.  The EU now precommits to a greater role in global decisions and many more countries are wealthy and have global interests.  Media spin means that no one wants to take too many sacrifices.  I think once a Democrat assumes the Presidency it will become clear just how much the old order has broken down, probably forever.  European diplomats were cynical in the first place and don’t forget that the Security Council still has two members whose influence is more or less pure poison.  I can’t imagine what liberal internationalism means, for instance, when it comes to allocating the thawing bits of the Arctic and the associated oil wealth.  What will happen if/when the Russians simply try to grab more than international conventions allow them? 

Note, by the way, that Saddam and Chirac really were gift-giving friends; that’s not just a right-wing fantasy.  At some level American voters understand much of this, albeit in excessively provincial terms, and they simply won’t, in the electoral sense, allow the Democrats to inhabit the old space of internationalism.

In game-theoretic terms I would say the key question is what is the "threat point" America adopts when it offers to join international coalitions.  Whatever Matt’s answer might be (his book is not written in that sort of lingo) that is now the key question, noting that whatever threat point you specify you have to be willing to live with.  One paradox is that the more internationalist your default threat point is, the less effective a country actually will be in leading an international coalition.

In short, I’m all for talk of liberal internationalism as long as we don’t take it too seriously on its own terms.  My prediction is that, doctrinally, Matt will eventually end up somewhere else, even though his practical advice is very sound and very well articulated and doesn’t much need to be changed.  I hereby sentence him to one full month spent working at the United Nations.


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