“Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World” by Anatol Lieven & John Hulsman
Pantheon Books, 2006, 200 pp.
Ethical Realism was published during the second half of George W. Bush’s presidency and is a stocktaking of the president’s foreign policy achievements. Written by two experienced policy analysts from different political camps, the book presents a hefty critique of the dominant foreign policy views in Washington without being simply the usual tirade of inter-party skirmishing. Anatol Lieven is a former journalist and Professor at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. John Hulsman is a Senior Research Fellow at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies and was a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation when the book was written.
Reading the book with ten years of hindsight is an ambivalent experience. Many of their arguments seem somewhat redundant because much time is spent making points which most everyone today would agree with (e.g. the Iraq War was a bad idea). On the one hand, this demonstrates the strength of Lieven & Hulsman’s arguments that most readers would agree with them today. Yet it also makes the book of limited interest, since history has settled the argument to which it was a contribution.
Washington got it all wrong
Right from the outset, Lieven & Hulsman single out the targets of their polemic piece. They are…
“the beliefs that America is both so powerful and so obviously good that it has the ability to spread democracy throughout the world; that if necessary, this can be achieved through war; that this mission can also be made to advance particular U.S. national interests; and that this combination will naturally be supported by good people all over the world, irrespective of their own political traditions, national allegiances, and national interests.” (p. xi)
The authors blast Washington policy-makers for being too confident in America’s ability to shape the world and easily spread democracy in the Middle East. They also argue that a lack of realism is evident among both parties and that mistakes such as the Iraq War had its cause in a broad malfunctioning of the foreign policy establishment in general, and not only on the Republican side.
The paragraph cited above encapsulates some of that which is great and what is frustrating about Ethical Realism. Yes, there is an important argument to be made against the above beliefs which are both arrogant and ignorant. But the position of the opponent, as portrayed here, is clearly exaggerated and many of the points made in the book are fundamentally strawman arguments, painting the opponent as far less competent than is actually the case. This frustrating fact persists throughout Ethical Realism.
Rediscovering ethics in foreign policy
Lieven & Hulsman propose two linked approaches to foreign policy which they label “ethical realism” and “the Great Capitalist Peace”, inspired by their political heroes (Truman and Eisenhower) and their intellectual heroes (Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan).
Ethical realism harkens back to some of the early expressions of the theoretical tradition of Realism, before it became limited to structural analysis (in neorealism), and it rejects the frequent cynicism inherent in much classical realism. It is essentially virtue-based and argues for a foreign policy of “prudence, patriotism, responsibility, study, humility, and ‘a decent respect’ of the views and interests of other nations” (p. 53). It posits many important considerations for policy-making and repeatedly demonstrates how the Bush administration has violated these principles, e.g. by neglecting to understand the countries they invaded and by engaging in unrealistic and overly optimistic policy endeavors.
As should be quite apparent, ethical realism is not a clear-cut framework for problem-solving and decision-making. It merely presents some values which hardly anyone can disagree with. Despite the claims of the authors, to me, ethical realism seems of limited use at the national strategic level even if it may contain some useful principles and virtues for a policy-maker in his or her personal development.
Spreading capitalism and making friends
The other pillar of the argument revolves around the spread of capitalism. The US should abandon its aggressive efforts to spread democracy and instead focus on embedding more and more states into a capitalist world economy. In the short term, this will make states less prone to conflict with the US and each other as they profit more from trading and cooperating (basically an interdependence argument), and it may in the long run help foster new democracies, as democratic rights tend to follow economic growth in the middle class.
This strategy seems both intuitively sound and the authors do well not to overstate the causal relationship between growth and democracy. Nonetheless, they do never tackle the obvious weakness of the liberal argument: even within a global capitalist framework, some states may wish to attain greater privileges corresponding to their size and power (China and Russia comes to mind). What should the US due to handle such challenges from revisionist powers who pursues interests that cannot all be reconciled with those of the US. This point is never really addressed, and makes the authors’ belief in the redeeming powers of capitalism seem naïve.
International relations from Heaven
One of the things I enjoyed about the book, is the attempted reintroduction of Christian philosophy and ethics into international relations theory. Since the writings of the early 20th century realists, much scholarly work has been put into secularizing the realist tradition. This is a good thing, because it has enabled the use of the tradition across religious and, to some extent, cultural divides by leaving out problematic assumptions about human nature etc.
Nonetheless, Ethical Realism reminds its readers of the Christian roots of much (though not all) of the realist tradition, including a moral commitment to be good stewards of the earth and a recognition of man’s sinful nature. I would like to see more work put into re-fusing the world of ethics with that of political science. It makes for more normative theories and less analytical cynicism and could spark some interesting discussion both among academic groups and in religious communities.
Valid points, but not an evergreen
As noted repeatedly, the overall argument and criticism of Ethical Realism is hard to dispute today, even if some of the authors’ prescriptions for US policy around the world may seem off point. In 2006, the book would have been a strong and necessary voice in a foreign policy establishment gone nuts.
Unfortunately, the book does not have great relevance beyond its contemporary discussion. It’s theoretical framework, ethical realism and the Great Capitalist Peace, are too shallow to be properly employed as theories and wound up being a summary of virtues which everyone can agree to. Further, Ethical Realism is packed with strawman arguments and oversimplifications, idealizations of the past and whining over the present, Bush-bashing on every single page (it can actually get old…), and subjective estimations of the opinions of other scholars based almost entirely on the degree to which they agree with the authors. Finally, Lieven & Hulsman simply waste too much time ridiculing their opponents when they should have been providing answers to many points that can be raised against their own argument.
The two main reasons to pick up Ethical Realism today is to either get a better understanding of the foreign policy debate in America anno 2006 or for a basic introduction to the works of Niebuhr and Morgenthau. For the latter, I would recommend skipping everything but chapter three.
Reviewed by Nikolaj K. Andersen