April 20, 2006

 Realism II: Palmerston meets St Anselm

What is the mindset that could lead Mearsheimer and Walt to such a strange view of the political struggle? Jacob Levy spots the clue, tucked away in footnote 1 to the less-read academic version of the paper:

Indeed, the mere existence of the Lobby suggests that unconditional support for Israel is not in the American national interest. If it was, one would not need an organized special interest group to bring it about.
Read this twice. The national interest to the authors is an objective fact, floating Platonically above the mire of politics. It only needs elucidation by impartial experts in international relations for the ordinary voter or congressman to grasp it. This strange view is I think the professional ideology of diplomats, who quote with approval Lord Palmerston:
Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.
Pam did not, I'm sure, reach this view by burning the midnight oil over Rousseau and Hegel. I think he simply learnt it from observing Canning, Talleyrand and Metternich, who inherited it from their predecessors under the ancien régime, going back to Richelieu, Oxenstierna, de Witt and beyond. For all of these statesmen, the guardian of the national interest was the king, not the people.

My thesis: the theory of the objective national interest is wrong in general, and specifically incompatible with democracy.

To prove this, we treat foreign policy as a problem in resource allocation. A state has a finite toolbox of diplomatic measures: pacts, promises, threats, subsidies, arms sales, UN votes, cashing favours due, and propaganda. We'll treat war as a backup, not a first-line instrument. There are three goods you can produce with such diplomacy: security, prosperity, and honour. The first two are obvious: but why honour? Isn't that romantic sentimentality? No. A state must be credible - its threats and promises, political and financial, must be believed; and you earn credibility by consistently following through on your undertakings, even when it's not independently in your interest. If you reduce honour in ultra-realist syle to a means towards prosperity and security, you must go through strange contortions to account for the behaviour of states on say international law and debts. You can't account at all for the actions of Josef Beck's Polish government in the summer of 1939, and of Churchill and de Gaulle a year later. So true realism requires including honour, in a narrow or broad sense, as a fundamental objective.

In some cases, all three pull in the same direction: take the Marshall Plan. Often they conflict, and the Middle East and Israel is just such a case. Suppose America has 3 units of policy to allocate to the three objectives, and you can either allocate them in a pro-Arab or a pro-Israel way. A plausible allocation, starting with 1 for each objective, would be:
* prosperity: Israel 0, Arabs 1 (because of oil)
* security: Israel 0.5, Arabs 0.5 (for a stable peace deal, the US has to push for concessions by both sides)
* honour: Israel 1, Arabs 0 (because of the promise to prevent the destruction of Israel and massacres of Jews).

You can argue about the details. Perhaps there's also an obligation of honour to the Palestinians flowing from UN resolutions voted by the US, and from the Geneva Convention on occupied territories. Perhaps that's so, but the Palestinians have nullified the obligation by supporting terrorism. Perhaps that's true but Israel has cancelled that by its oppression in the occupied territories. I only claim that my figure reflects a common American view, though it's not shared by Europeans who have not given a parallel security guarantee to Israel.

If you add up these numbers, Israel and Arabs each get 1.5, and policy is neutral. But that only holds on the assumption that the objectives are of equal weight. If you make honour the prime objective, or downweight the security objective on the grounds that peace isn't attainable anyway, or the prosperity objective on the grounds that the Arabs have to sell their oil regardless, US policy should be pro-Israel. Isn't this exactly what the pro-Israel coalition in the US has succeeded in doing? There is no Palmerstonian argument to say this is wrong. In fact debate and the push-and-shove of electoral politics are the only way such questions can ever be settled in a democracy.

There is one narrower sense in which the national interest is objective. Our toy model of foreign policy is a production function: inputs of measures are put together in the diplomatic factory to generate varying amounts of the three outputs. Without weighting these at all, we can define a Pareto optimum as a point where you can't get more of any output without giving up some of another, within the resources available. (It's easy enough to adapt the defnition to variable resource baskets, but this doesn't add anything to our argument.) A Pareto-optimal policy configuration is said to be efficient. A Pareto-sub-optimal configuration is said to be inefficient, or in technical jargon stupid. It is quite objectively in the national interest to select only efficient policy sets (which one you choose depends on the relative values of the objectives) and conversely to avoid stupid ones.

The second Gulf War is a clear instance of a stupid policy: it has consumed large policy resources, and many lives, for no gain whatever in US prosperity, security, or honour - in fact considerable loss.. It seems likely that the current US policy of unconditional support of Israel is also stupid in this sense; it doesn't even benefit Israel, since the US has ceased to appear a plausible intermediary to Arabs, or a loyal friend to Israel - the kind that tells you credibly when you're wrong.

The multiple-objectives insight was reached, long before the economists, by Anselm of Aosta and Canterbury, fastest gun in the West - the Latin West circa 1100 CE. One of those blinkered schoolmen arguing how many angels can dance on the point of a pin, right? He explains, with the inhuman clarity of a Bach fugue, how the good angels can be both free agents and sinless (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

In On the Fall of the Devil (De casu diaboli) Anselm extends his account of freedom and sin by discussing the first sin of the angels. In order for the angels to have the power to preserve rectitude of will for its own sake, they had to have both a will for justice and a will for happiness. If God had given them only a will for happiness, they would have been necessitated to will whatever they thought would make them happy. Their willing of happiness would have had its ultimate origin in God and not in the angels themselves. So they would not have had the power for self-initiated action, which means that they would not have had free choice. The same thing would have been true, mutatis mutandis, if God had given them only the will for justice.

Since God gave them both wills, however, they had the power for self-initiated action. Whether they chose to subject their wills for happiness to the demands of justice or to ignore the demands of justice in the interest of happiness, that choice had its ultimate origin in the angels; it was not received from God. The rebel angels chose to abandon justice in an attempt to gain happiness for themselves, whereas the good angels chose to persevere in justice even if it meant less happiness. God punished the rebel angels by taking away their happiness; he rewarded the good angels by granting them all the happiness they could possibly want. For this reason, the good angels are no longer able to sin. Since there is no further happiness left for them to will, their will for happiness can no longer entice them to overstep the bounds of justice. Thus Anselm finally explains what it is that perfects free choice so that it becomes unable to sin.

As for angels, so for humans and states: we are free to choose, and responsible for the consequences.

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