Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Crisis in "realism".

Peter Gowan has an excellent article in the latest New Left Review, which you unfortunately have to have a subscription for in order to read fully. Gowan discusses the growing trend for 'realist' theorists working in IR to take increasingly radical and critical stances about US power. Andrew Bacevich is perhaps the most obvious instance - a moderate conservative who revisited the Beards and William Appleman Williams and found that their analysis of US power was closer to the truth than that of many of his realist confederates (see American Empire, 2002). But of course Mearsheimer and Walt have recently been highly critical of US policy (and even, gasp, Israeli policy), and the topic of Gowan's piece is a new book by Christopher Layne, Peace of Illusions, a paleocon who writes for The American Conservative. Layne, for all the world, sounds like a crude marxist in his analysis, if not his prescriptions.

Realism has a reputation for being right-wing, despite the fame of EH Carr, because it has usually taken an apologetic position on US power during the Cold War. The postwar realists were profoundly influenced by Carl Schmitt and German conservatism more generally. As far as they were concerned, the US was merely engaged in classic 'balance of power' politics, forming strategic alliances and shoring up military power in order to avert the threat of extinction which all states are theoretically vulnerable to (and, in Grotian terms, the killing of states is the most heinous act possible). This thesis, weak though it was, could not survive the collapse of the Russian Empire: the US should, on realist assumptions, have pulled back from its global entanglements. Layne therefore trawls through the diplomatic and historical archives and arrives at the conclusion, shocking for bourgeois doctrinaires but not at all surprising to marxists, that the normal rules of realism don't apply to the US, which has not faced a serious threat of extinction since the 19th Century. Layne uses the material he unearths to show that "Wilson’s 1917 decision to intervene in World War One was motivated neither by security worries nor efforts at ‘off-shore balancing’. Equally, he argues persuasively that the Roosevelt administration was not seriously worried about a German bridgehead being established in Latin America in 1940–41". Rather "Roosevelt’s sole concern was to ensure that the British fleet sailed for Canada in the event of a capitulation. Lend-lease was not the cause of Britain’s failure to do a peace deal with Germany in 1940, but its effect." Moreover: "American strategy was to establish its hegemony over the major industrial powers of Eurasia, once the Second World War had created the conditions there for it to do so. The Cold War was essentially an effect of this American choice to exploit the chaos in Eurasia for a global hegemonic drive." Further: "On the issue of American control over the Middle East, Layne cites a 1944 OSS report arguing that the us would have three vital interests in the region: ‘Oil, Airbases and Future Markets’. The US would therefore have a ‘security problem’ in the region: ‘this means in particular security from our present allies, almost all of whom have fingers in the Moslem pie and who have shown themselves particularly anxious to keep us out.’"

So now we know why the US government did not simply pull back at the end of the Cold War: they weren't engaged in power-balancing. America's empire-building has brought immense costs according to Layne - the usual but not inaccurate mantra of libertarians: "a National Security State with a bloated military–industrial complex; the huge resources devoted to military power could have been better spent on prosperity for the American people. Its expansionist thrust has undermined America’s social institutions, and aided the rise of the imperial presidency and erosion of the powers of Congress. Above all, it has brought involvement in wars which are of little or no importance for the US itself, as a concomitant for taking command of other states’ security interests."

Things become even more interesting when Layne starts to look at the domestic sources of US foreign policy. Even in a realist discourse, in which power is supposedly gazed upon and analysed unsentimentally, this sort of business is usually strictly taboo. Layne asserts that "American elites ‘are the state’. Drawing on Thomas Ferguson’s striking 1984 essay, ‘From Normalcy to New Deal’, on the business coalition that formed around Roosevelt in the 1930s—again, an unusual source, even for a maverick Republican—Layne provides an analysis of the social substance of the American state: ‘at the core . . . were large capital-intensive corporations that looked to overseas markets and outward-looking investment banks’; around this core were assembled ‘the national media, important foundations, the big Wall Street law firms, and organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations’. This capitalist coalition, he argues, has been the driving force of the open-door/global-hegemony strategy for the last six decades and remains in power today." This, Gowan maintains, is an outdated analysis, missing the way in which the capitalist elite has changed with the re-emergence of the rentier class since the 1970s, (see his account in The Global Gamble, 1999). Nevertheless, it comes closer to properly analysing the nature of the modern state than most IR theory does (barring that of some critical marxists). Another crucial point that Layne makes, and Gowan cites, is that America's domestic capitalist regime is extremely fragile. Why should this be so? It is not the hallowed Constitution that is threatened, nor the capitalist class as such - but the very specific mode of rule that they have achieved through anticommunist crusades and the promotion of a robust individualist ideology, one in which the state is primarily a means of servicing the interests of the capitalist class both domestically and globally, a highly dependent relationship at that. A huge segment of the present elite cannot do without the US maintaining the global system on its behalf.

And that's the curious situation we're in: utopians, cosmopolitans, egalitarian theorists and activists - those whom marxists have tended to see as close to their own tradition - are less likely to hit upon the truth about the American Empire than the Hobbesian theorists who have always despised appeals to the brotherhood of man, democratic peace and so on. By the same turn, however, realists are finding it more and more difficult to explain the actions of the American state within the strict terms of their 'balance of power' analysis. The increasing radicalisation of the empire leads them to seek out lobbies - Israel or neocons or secret Trotskyists - but sometimes, like Layne, they notice the existence of the capitalist class.