Foreign Policy, History and Future of Nationalism, Realist Theory

The Inconvenient Truths of International Relations

Nationalist Foreign Relation – A History, Part 4

Indian schoolchildren in a rural classroom

In 1963, the economist Robert Heilbroner wrote The Great Ascent, a prescient analysis of the challenges facing the former European colonies after achieving independence. He began by saying that, if world history is defined as the common story of the majority of mankind, then world history did not exist before 1948. Since then, it has been the story of the struggle of these new nations to cement their national sovereignty and spur economic development after decades of colonial exploitation. With the end of the Cold War, this struggle became the primary motive force in international relations. The apparent achievement of these goals by China and India has only whetted the appetite of other nations to reach the same level of international respect and burgeoning power.

Meanwhile, post-Cold War American foreign policy was based on the Wilsonian liberal vision of spreading democracy, social responsibility and capitalism throughout the world.  A “new world order” under a watchful American eye would eventually erase the differences between nations and their constituent ethnic and religious groups.   The engine powering this new system would be globalization and the Internet.  It would effectively mean, as Thomas Friedman and historian Francis Fukuyama argued, the end of history.

It meant something very different to the newly developing countries.  To them, it appeared to seek their acquiescence to an unprecedented world hegemony.  Far from rejecting history, China, India and other developing nations have clung to and embraced their respective histories. The climate change debate, the COVID-19 pandemic and other security threats take place in the midst of this new nationalism driving the majority of the world’s domestic and foreign policy.   To effectively address transnational  issues, America must accept an approach that respects these nation’s national rights and aspirations while, at the same time,  vigorously defending its own.  

As I mentioned in a previous post in this series, the realist theory of international relations offers the best model for such a policy by recognizing that states are the most important actors in the international system. Whether democratic or authoritarian, they must always be building their economic and military power since it is the only way to survive in an anarchic world.  While non–governmental organizations like the UN, multinational corporations and social and environmental groups can have an impact, achievement of their goals will always be subject to at least the acquiescence of nation–states.    A sustainable American foreign policy would recognize these realities and focus on goals that could be supported by affected states without compromising our own fundamental goals of national and economic security.  The Trump Administration’s new National Security Strategy is a welcome and important step in this direction (see this post).  

I began this series by noting that how the COVID-19 pandemic has driven nations to restrict exports of medical supplies to protect their own people from the disease.  Like the US and the rest of the world, the developing nations find themselves scrambling for the kind of equipment they formerly manufactured themselves.   They only recently began opening up their economies after fostering local manufacturing of critical products through high tariffs and otherwise protecting infant industries.   This new reminder of their past dependence will not soon be forgotten. 

In the climate change arena, a realist approach would accept that the Asia-Pacific nations can never agree to any reductions in their carbon emissions that will interfere with their economic development.   To developing countries, the demand to reduce the use of coal smacks of a new form of colonialism designed to prevent them from achieving economic independence.  They have been building one new coal plant per month to provide the energy necessary to grow their economies and satisfy their people’s needs. 

The Paris climate agreement essentially recognized this fact by allowing participants to comply by stating their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) of carbon reductions, which are only voluntary in nature.  China’s INDC allows it to avoid seriously limiting its emissions until 2030.  This modest contribution by the world’s largest carbon emitter, coupled with the general lack of transparency of most developing countries’ economies, means even these commitments will be conveniently difficult to verify, much less enforce.   

Since the Asia Pacific region alone now accounts for nearly half of the world’s carbon emissions, this means it will be impossible to avoid the 2-5 degree Celsius increase in world temperature originally targeted in the Kyoto accord without damage to the U.S. and developed countries’ economies that would be domestically unacceptable.   Adaptation, as well as carbon reduction, must become an integral part of our response to climate change.  The only alternative is imposing tariffs and trade sanctions on China, India and other developing countries to immediately force them off the path of ever-increasing carbon emissions.

In the end, the majority of the world’s nations understand that utopian ideals will not save them from a determined foe or domestic threat.  Their history has taught them otherwise and made them the ultimate realists.  The sooner Americans understand this, the sooner we will be able to make sustainable progress on the climate change and other national security goals.  

Continue reading “The Inconvenient Truths of International Relations”
Foreign Policy, History and Future of Nationalism, Realist Theory

America – The Great Balancer

Nationalist Foreign Relations – A History, Part 5

This is the final installment of the series “Nationalist Foreign Policy – A History”. Please click on the menu item above to see previous installments.

Theodore Roosevelt coined his famous maxim when Great Britain still dominated the world through its mastery of the seas and colonial empire.   At the same time, Roosevelt had the foresight to recognize the world was becoming increasingly multipolar with the United States, Germany and Japan becoming regional hegemons in the Western Hemisphere, Europe and Asia respectively.  Both adroit diplomacy and a newly invigorated navy and armed forces would be necessary to preserve America’s national security and way of life in the coming new world  order.

Today America fills the role of a great world power watching its influence wane in an increasingly multipolar and nationalistic world.  This new world order consists not only of regional hegemons like China, but also non-state actors as diverse as multinational corporations, international non-profit advocacy groups and terrorist organizations. This proliferation of powerful actors and the variety of weapons available to them multiplies both the risk of conflict and the arenas in which conflict can occur. Wars can now be fought in outer space, cyberspace and the trade and migration spaces. The US cannot waste its advantages in soft, hard and economic power if it expects to remain secure and a beacon of freedom in this newly competitive world.

“Speaking softly” in such a world should be based on a policy of realism and restraint that respects other nations’ cultures and interests and vigorously defends our own only when it is directly in danger.  The Center for Strategic and International Studies’s recent paper “Getting to Less” surveys the various theories for achieving this, two of which stand out – offshore balancing and command the commons.  As further described in this article by Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, offshore balancing relies on local powers in a region to keep the peace with America intervening only if they are incapable of opposing a potential hegemon.  For example, while it is in our direct national security interest to prevent Russian hegemony in Europe, our commitment to NATO can be scaled back since Western Europe has the capacity to defend itself against Russian aggression. We would intervene only to counterbalance against any temporary Russian advantages, echoing TR’s balancing intervention in the Moroccan crisis. Realist offshore balancing would also call for military withdrawal from the Middle East, though we would watch in “splendid isolation” in case any nation like Iran was achieving hegemony. 

Meanwhile, the “big stick” of a realist foreign policy would be the “command the commons” approach, in which the US would defend itself and project power through dominance of the air, space, cyberspace and seas. Preserving the dollar as the world’s reserve currency would also help continue American hegemony in the commons of international finance. While America already is a great power in these arenas, we will need more investment in our Air Force, space program and cyberdefense capabilities to maintain it. Finally, Roosevelt’s beloved navy would need to be expanded to the 350-ship size that has been discussed for years.

We also must remove important domestic barriers to a realistic and restrained strategy.  American globalists have essentially privatized trade and immigration policy for their benefit and thus removed two important levers for responding peacefully to international conflict. This makes armed conflict more likely. Our lax immigration laws also make us vulnerable to the use of mass migration as a weapon (cf. Syria and Venezuela) and multilateral trade agreements prevent us from hardening our economy from trade disruptions and dumping.  The federal government should reclaim power over these policies and return them for use in the national security toolbox.

While our military and economic power is formidable, America’s soft power of freedom and democracy has always been our most effective form of international influence.  America’s mere existence is a threat to regimes like China and Russia and we must remain strong to deter their attacks. However, for America to be strong, the American people must be strong.  Dealing with our serious social and economic challenges by guaranteeing them a “square deal” in their lives would be the most effective way to assure our long-term security.

As a veteran himself, Roosevelt was proud that no American soldier or sailor died during his presidency.  He achieved this with a policy where diplomacy was primary and military intervention a rarity.  In today’s nationalist world, a modern Rooseveltian foreign policy would draw on our historic respect for diversity to develop a policy of respect for the similar diversity of nations and confine conflict, both peaceful and military, to serious dangers to our national security and way of life.  Multilateral organizations would be an important means, but not an end, in this strategy.  A sustained commitment to such a realistic and restrained strategy would preserve our independence and freedom in the 21st century while maintaining America as a beacon of freedom and hope for the rest of the world.