Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Are Liberals Insensitive?

Nope, not about Canada's Liberal Parties (federal or provincial) but a bit about American folks on the left end of the spectrum and a bit about Liberal IR theory.   The fun part, of course, is that we have multiple meanings of Liberal in contest below.  Sorry.

My problem du jour is that while Dan Drezner wrote a really sharp column about where Obama might be, in terms of his approach to international relations, I think he is being unfair.

Dan quotes Obama:
And what I have to constantly wrestle with is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity.
And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations. In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?
Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can. You make the decisions you think balance all these equities, and you hope that, at the end of your presidency, you can look back and say, I made more right calls than not and that I saved lives where I could, and that America, as best it could in a difficult, dangerous world, was, net, a force for good. (emphasis added by Dan, color added by me)
 Good stuff here, but the next move is a bit problematic.  Dan says:
"First, liberal values do matter to Obama -- they just don't matter as much as other things."

This implies* that costs and benefits and calculations of efficacy, efficiency and likely outcomes are not in a liberal calculus--just values.  Doing right even if it will not work is the right thing to do?  Are good liberals insensitive to the costs of the policies they advocate?  This frustrates me to no end.  It reminds me of a big problem in the simplistic takes on IR theory, where the Realists (Structural, Neo, Neo-Classical, whatever) seem to be the ones that can take costs and benefits into account, and the other approaches not so much. 
* or perhaps I am inferring.  Maybe I am reading too much into Drezner when this disease is more virulent in other places.  But I am going to use Dan as my excuse to rant about this [it is my blog, I can do what I want ;)]
 The old distinction between Realists and Idealists let the former monopolize realistic thinking.  But Realism vs Liberalism should not.  The former is about power and security, the latter is about interests being more complex, and that rational calculations of costs and probabilities of success can and are part of both approaches to International Relations.

That Obama does not engage in a low probability, high cost effort to help the Syrians does not mean that he is not a Liberal (by any of seventeen different definitions).  It just means he is not idealistic.  He is reality-based, unlike much of the previous administration.  But seeing reality does not make one a cold-hearted, principle-ignoring, power/security maximizing realist.  Being a "force for good" is distinct from being focused on maximizing US security.  Liberal IR theory suggests that states have multiple interests and confront challenges as these multiple interests do not always point in the same direction. 

Dan concludes with:
Barack Obama neither an appeaser nor a liberal internationalist.  He's someone who has a clear set of foreign policy preferences and an increasing risk aversion to the use of force as a tool of regime change.
But one can be a liberal internationalist precisely by having a clear set of preferences and an increasing risk aversion to the use of force as a tool of regime change.  Indeed, Liberal IR theory is partly defined by the idea that the utility of military force is in decline (a problem, since it has been in decline for a long time but still remains pretty handy).

Perhaps my problem here is that there are two meanings of Liberal at work here.  That there are left-wing foreign policy preferences and there are Liberal theories of international relations.  BUT in either case, the idea that liberals/Liberals should be insensitive to the costs of the policies they might advocate seems mighty unfair and tilts the game too much into the hands of realists/Realists and everyone else who can then portray their opponents as fuzzy-headed idealists.

To paraphrase my favorite Liberal: "who are you calling fuzzy-headed?"

1 comment:

Philip said...

Perhaps it would be better to say that Realism and Liberalism - in the specific senses used above - are more of a continuum than a dichotomy (and most people are, in practice, somewhere in the middle).