Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Limits of Power and the Limits of Realism

Stephen Walt issues a report card on the Obama Administration's foreign policy--basically going 0 for 4 on Iran, Iraq, Israel and Ifghanistan (ok, Afghanistan, but it ruins the alliteration).  His post demonstrates two things: that Walt has an amazing talent for creating arguments that attract a lot of flak and the fact that he sometimes is a poor realist.  I really do find Walt's ability to say stuff that gets heaps and heaps of attention to be amazing.  Especially when he commits significant errors/omissions/sins.

This leads to the second part: classic realist thinking a la Morgenthau focuses on the limits of power--that one must be prudent in the deployment of the resources of a country as getting others to do what they would otherwise not do (the classic definition of power) is not easy at all.  Expecting significant victories in the relations with these four countries is pretty, dare I say it, unrealistic.  It is not realistic in the sense that these are likely outcomes and it is not Realistic in the sense that the US has deployable power. 

Why this oversight?  Mostly because Realists tend to downplay domestic politics.  Of the four countries, three have had elections that are the defining events of the past year and the fourth has a domestic political situation that produces behavior that is unfortunate to say the least.  Let's take them in turn and consider if the US could have changed things much:
  • Iraq: The US is getting out while the getting is good.  Walt has no problem with that.  But that the surge (which was Bush's, not to mention the war itself) did not produce a strategic victory.  Why?  Because Iraqi domestic politics is not something that the US can easily twist to its liking.  And this is a country where the US had more than a hundred thousand troops and spent a trillion dollars or so.  Because outside power may have its limits in shaping electoral outcomes.  Oops.
  • Iran: The Iranians are actually in somewhat of a corner, having lost much authority and legitimacy with their election.  But again, it was their election, driven by domestic dynamics and the lack of real change (still the power rests in the theocrats, etc) is not something that can be blamed on Obama or any other outside.
  • Afghanistan: The biggest event of the year was the election and Karzai's efforts to undermine any effort to develop institutions rather than personal power.   Again, heaps of troops and dollars, but with few choices, there was little the US could do.  
  • Israel:  No election, but coalition politics in that country limit how much outsiders can do to influence the situation.
Drezner points out that Obama has been successful with other great powers (ones that Realists tend to care more about)--Russia and China.  One difference between these two countries and the others is that their leaders are less constrained by domestic politics.  Another is that changes in relations with them and in the situations require less drastic moves and less ugly choices.  It is easier to get someone to move an inch than a mile.  Making progress in Iraq or Afghanistan is far harder than improving relations with the Chinese or Russians.

I don't think that the Obama Administration has made all of the right moves, but given its own domestic constraints (a hostile opposition party that will sees any Presidential success to be a bad idea, budget deficits, a difficult economy, the protectionism of his own party), the President has not had heaps of freedom of action either. 

So, to be realistic, we need to take seriously domestic politics and the constraints it imposes.  We cannot expect the domestic politics of other countries to be easy to manipulate (or irrelevant), so we should try to avoid creating situations where we have to hope that we can.  And for the IR theorists out there, it probably is not a mundane or irrelevant question about which matters more/first--domestic politics or international constraints.

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