Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Editor’s Column Fall 2001

Editor’s Column Fall 2001

During my tenure with Orbis I have been blessed with a whole series of excellent managing editors, most recently Steve Winterstein. By the time this issue appears he will have departed after three years during which he never ceased to display keen intelligence, patience, dependability, judgment, attention both to details and big pictures, and not least unflappable good cheer. I expected him to move on someday to a major newspaper or magazine, but true to his generous spirit Steve has chosen to devote his life to young children. This fall he enters the prestigious Bank Street College in New York to take a master’s degree in elementary education. We thank him for all he did for the FPRI and wish him the joy a teacher (or parent) knows whenever young eyes flash with curiosity, new knowledge, or wonder.

Accordingly, we also welcome a new manuscript editor with impressive skills and experience of her own. Trudy J. Kuehner graduated in 1991 from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in history (no favoritism: I was not involved in the search!). She was immediately hired as Assistant Secretary of the University and executive assistant to then-president Sheldon Hackney, and subsequently worked in health care related publishing. Given her proven expertise in editorial and organizational projects and abiding interest in American politics and foreign policy we are delighted that she has chosen to join Orbis and believe authors will very much enjoy working with her.

In These Pages

Have OOTW already become a MEGO? That is, have military “operations other than war” been so much discussed and debated since the end of the Cold War that “my eyes glaze over” upon reading the phrase “humanitarian intervention” on the cover of a policy journal? I feared that might be the case when Orbis agreed to publish a cluster of articles on the subject. Wars, after all, are far more exciting than peacekeeping missions, and in any case the wisdom and modalities of humanitarian intervention had been so belabored by commentators on all sides of the issues it raises it seemed unlikely that anything new and insightful remained to be written. Upon receiving the contributions of our distinguished panelists, however, I realized (happily) that serious analysis of humanitarian intervention has only just begun, is critically important to the United States, NATO, the United Nations, and regional organizations … and is anything but boring.

Former secretary of state and NATO commander Alexander Haig introduces the inquiry into humanitarian intervention that follows in these pages. Adam Garfinkle, the new editor of the National Interest, discusses the diplomacy lurking behind the decisions of states or multilateral organizations to intervene in local ethnic conflicts, and Michael C. Desch describes the political pressures that prompt or discourage intervention. Sam C. Sarkesian assesses the common allegations made about the damage that frequent and long-lasting peacekeeping missions have done to the American military preparedness, and Jacques deLisle (our resident legal eagle) focuses on the many, usually conflicting arguments from international law that have been devised to justify violations of national sovereignty in the name of human rights. Finally, political scientist James Kurth offers a lucid categorization of the disparate phenomena that go under the rubric of humanitarian intervention. What the reader gleans from all the above is an appreciation of how confused, contradictory, and sometimes counter-productive the theory and praxis of international do-gooding have been in the past, and therefore a sound basis for deciding whether and how to pursue “humanitarian” missions in the future.

U.S. policy toward Russia attracted interest again in the wake of the first Bush-Putin summit in June 2001. But irrespective of whatever personal rapport may be established between their leaders, the old Cold War adversaries are bound to be constrained in their bilateral relations by geopolitical and economic structures of long standing. Thus, Rajan Menon advises us not to become too excited or too chagrined over the rhetoric emanating from President Vladimir Putin and look for insight instead in the strategic and financial woes bound to drive the foreign policy of any Russian leader. One of the structures to which Russia will have to adjust is the European Union, which stands between it and the United States. Can Europe function as a bridge between East and West, or must it comprise the third side of an unstable triangle? That is the question Simon Serfaty endeavors to answer. Of course, the answer will depend as much on the Europeans, struggling as they are to persuade the world that they exist as a unitary actor, and Steve Winterstein assesses the hopes and disappointments of postÛCold War Europe in a valedictory review essay.

Rounding out a packed issue, Bruce Berkowitz pronounces on the reforms needed in U.S. intelligence gathering and analysis, Paul Dibb warns of the consequences that an Indonesian crack-up would have for the security of all Southeast Asia, and eminent Japanese historian Frederick Dickinson takes a critical look at the history of modern Japan as written by two generations of American scholars.

Night Thoughts of an I. R. Professor

The “back to normalcy” promise made by President Warren G. Harding in his 1920 presidential campaign meant all things to all men and women, who had just won the right to vote. To some it meant putting an end to the ubiquitous and un-American economic mobilization and government regulation stemming from the Great War. For others it implied putting an end to the flood of “unassimilable” immigrants that began in the 1890s. For others it meant putting an end to the Democrats’ policy of free trade and raising tariff barriers to protect domestic producers. For most it surely meant putting an end to Woodrow Wilson’s promiscuous involvement in world affairs symbolized by his crusade for U.S. membership in the League of Nations. Given its vague and essentially negative tone implying the cessation of whatever trend a voter was against the slogan was such a political hit that Harding used normalcy, normal, and abnormal a half a dozen times in his inaugural address. As the acid-tongued journalist and linguist H. L. Mencken reported: “In all the history of words there have been few records of deliberate inventions that have been so quickly successful. . . . It was thus, for example, with the late Mr. Harding’s normalcy. The truth is that he did not invent it at all, but simply used it ignorantly, or perhaps I should say inadvertently. The word he was fishing for was normality, but somehow he got hold of the rare mathematical term, normalcy, and so stuck it into his inaugural address. The next day all the intellectual snobs of the country were cackling over it but by the end of the week it was in common use, and it retains a certain vogue to this day.”

The most striking observation to be made about Harding’s normalcy, however, is that the various notions of the normal it conjured in the heads of the electorate are in every case the opposite of what most Americans consider normal today. We may pride ourselves on the success of our free enterprise system, but in fact the size and reach of the federal government in 2001 are elephantine compared to what they were under Wilson when income tax returns were filed on a single 5 x 8 postcard. Likewise, liberal immigration policies, global free trade, and U.S. diplomatic and military engagement are all considered normal today however controversial they have become in some quarters.

So what’s in a word? In the case of “normal” the answer is nothing and everything. In the terms of domestic political and cultural debate, the politically correct position today is that the whole concept of normality is exclusive and oppressive, harmful to the self-esteem of those marginalized people deemed “abnormal” and destructive of creativity and diversity. We hear calls for the abolition of all normative standards in academic performance, personal appearance and dress, religious and political belief, and sexual behavior. Norms are bad and in a perfect world would be damned as abnormal. And yet, in terms of international political and cultural debate, the politically correct liberal (and neoconservative) camp talks constantly of norms of behavior to be lived up to or, if necessary, imposed. Thus, China must embrace international norms if it wishes to join the World Trade Organization, India and Pakistan must honor the normative regimes established for nonproliferation of nuclear weapons or else face sanctions, while “rogue” or “failed” states had better reform themselves top to bottom if they wish to escape international ostracism. Democracy, the rule of law, free enterprise, open disclosure, and respect for the human rights of their citizens have become universal norms to which all states are expected to adhere.

Is the contemporary liberal discourse on norms thus rent with contradiction to the extent it worships diversity and multiculturalism and expressive individualism at home but insists on uniformity abroad? No, it is not contradictory, because it is not really sincere in either arena. As we all know, the politically correct leaders in American education, media, government, and the corporate world promote diversity and liberation through rigid codes of speech and behavior that are every bit as restrictive of individualism as the Jim Crow laws, glass ceilings, and ethnic prejudices they mean to combat. In like fashion, the liberal internationalism promoted by the liberal establishment is not nearly so consistent as the global interventionist camp would have us believe. If it were, not just Serbia, Iraq, Somalia, and Haiti, but 90 percent of the nations on earth would be targets of American bombs, sanctions, or both. Indeed, so vast and elastic have international norms on human rights become that virtually every state is in technical violation of them in one way or another. But the United States, NATO, or the United Nations intervene against only a small portion of them, which means that in global affairs enforcement of norms is itself abnormal.

For their part, conservatives and self-styled realists often cling to notions of what’s normal that fly in the face of historical evidence, which is something they claim to respect. Thus, we hear calls for Russia, China, and the United States to become “normal nations” again, by which they mean that those nations ought to jettison their universal, ideological pretensions born of the Cold War and instead just pursue their interests in normal fashion in a normal multipolar system of states. Or they call for Japan and Germany to become normal nations again, by which they mean that those nations ought to jettison their parochial, self-imposed restraint born of World War II and instead assume international military and political responsibilities commensurate with their economic strength. But the implicit norms behind such calls for nations to become normal again are derived from a nineteenth-century model of international relations. What was normal then cannot, by definition, be deemed normal in any era before or since without ignoring or denying the meaning of history itself, which is perpetual change. The world wars, fascism and communism, the Cold War, and serial revolutions in technology, weaponry, and economics have so changed the fundamentals of international relations that national leaders have redefined constantly what is, or ought to be, normal behavior.

The point is made even more strikingly if one peers further back into the past. What, for instance, would a “normal China” look like? Is it characterized by unity or volatile disunity, bold imperialism or contraction and even conquest by foreigners, xenophobia or eager absorption of foreign influences? A case could be made that all those opposite characteristics have been the norm at one time or several over the millennia of Chinese history. What does a “normal Japan” look like? Fiercely cohesive or rent by feudal disorder, economically dynamic or stagnant, militarist and imperialist or disarmed and docile, isolationist or greedy for foreign technology and ideas? We think of today’s Japan as an aberration, but it would not seem so at all to an official of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1867). What would make India a “normal nation”? Heaven knows whether any pattern of behavior can be teased from the history of that crowded and disparate subcontinent. The Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, for that matter Europe? Norms and patterns might be discerned in those regions if one only goes back fifty years or so. But the establishment of nation states in the postcolonial world and the partial transcendence of nation states in the European Union are, from the standpoint of history, wildly dissonant phenomena. Indeed, a “return to normalcy” in those regions could only mean that some Assyrian, Turkish, or Persian empire will rise again in the Middle East and that the European Union will soon go the way of the Holy Roman Empire.

As for the United States we observed at the start that Americans’ notions of what constitutes normal or normative foreign policy have reversed themselves entirely over the past eighty years. So have Americans’ attitudes toward normality elsewhere. Was it normal for Germany to be divided during the Cold War? Yes: Germany has been divided politically throughout most of its history, and everyone agreed that a unified Germany had proven disastrous. And yet all the former victims of German aggression plus the United States acquiesced in German reunification. Is it normal for Korea to be divided? No: Korea has almost always been whole albeit often under some other empire’s suzerainty. And yet all the powers interested in Korea plus the United States dread the uncertainties posed by Korean reunification. In sum, while everyone likes to assert that their preferred models for the organization and behavior of states in the world are normal and, being normal, ought to be the standards for others, no one has even the slightest epistemological basis for that assertion. Norms in the sense of normative concepts can certainly be derived from first principles, be they religious, philosophical, legal, or scientific. But unless all nations agree on first principles (in which case lions lie down with lambs, swords are beat into ploughshares, and righteousness and peace kiss each other), any assertion of what’s normal can only be a conceit.

Is “normal” therefore a meaningless word, a nominative equivalent of the adjective “appropriate” that ought to be purged from the lexicon of international relations? Is there any way in which “normal” may be employed by historians or political scientists seeking to describe real events, or by statesmen seeking to shape real events? I believe the answer is yes, and my belief is based on an analogy from the natural sciences.

It has often been observed that there is nothing new under the sun but new metaphors, and there are precious few of them. But one ready source for political metaphors is science, not only because scientists really do push back frontiers and alter human understanding of reality, but because the scientific method is the only epistemology in which educated people of all cultures and nations must put credence. No wonder then that every breakthrough in science inspires, almost at once, new models of the way societies and states interact. Thus, Newtonian physics made it seem plausible that sovereign states revolved about each other according to the gravity each exerted on the others in a self-stabilizing balance of power system. But the constant warfare of the eighteenth century culminating in the carnage wrought by the French Revolution and Napoleon silenced the “music of the spheres.” So Conservative theorists in the nineteenth century chose a biological metaphor, describing states and societies as organic entities that were nourished by roots deeply embedded in history. Like trees they might grow and change slowly over time, but they could not be torn down and redesigned according to some architect’s notion of perfection without being killed. Unfortunately, some “trees” grew more swiftly than others, and the wars that made Italy and Germany, expanded the Russian and British empires, and above all realized the United States’ manifest destiny uprooted or overshadowed numerous less luxuriant peoples.

By the latter part of the century Darwinian evolutionary theory even made plausible a model of international affairs according to which competition, imperialism, and war among nations and races were not only natural, but the engines of progress since the fittest human beings and societies would survive and weed out or drag forward the unfit. Needless to say, the Great War proved how dysfunctional that theory was. But the same war, by smashing faith in all Victorian verities including reason and progress themselves, made the world receptive to Einsteinian relativity and Freudian psychoanalysis. They were all the cat’s meow in the salons of the 1920s and 1930s, but they were no help at all when applied to foreign affairs. The first seem to imply that since “everything is relative” no one had the right or ability to impose norms on others, while the second seemed to imply that people and nations could not aspire to rationality or morality at all because human behavior was captive to subconscious drives and neuroses. So it was that many Western intellectuals blithely blessed fascism and communism as alternative, and perhaps even preferable, ways to organize society, while others described those ideologies as social diseases or collective psychoses born of defeat, backwardness, or humiliation. Accordingly, nations exhibiting those symptoms had to be quarantined or else given therapy with the result that trendy Western statesmen petted and flattered Mussolini and Stalin, pleaded for tolerance of the Japanese in light of their inferiority complex(!), and appeased the aggrieved Nazis by way of healing German self-esteem. The result was another world war that ended in an Einsteinian bomb and Freudian treatment of shell-shocked survivors but no peace based on the application to human affairs of the wonders of science.

Still, metaphors drawn from science continued to permeate writing about international relations. Monographs, textbooks, articles, and op-eds during the thirty year Cold War almost invariably wrote of revolutions and wars in terms of explosions, the burning out of fuses, hot spots and powder kegs, nuclear reactions, collisions, diseases of transition, products of uneven growth, or bad chemistry. Client states were satellites, Third World countries were laboratories for technocratic experimentation, and the superpower relationship was defined by mathematics on the blackboards of nuclear strategists and arms negotiators. Was the Cold War normal? Perish the thought. But more humbling still is the realization that the Cold War’s peaceful denouement was anything but normal: certainly no one predicted it.

No one, that is, except George Kennan who wrote confidently as early as 1946 that the Soviets had chomped down many more nationalities than they could digest and sooner or later would be forced to disgorge them. In other words, Stalin had, through paranoia and ambition, elevated the Russian empire into an abnormal state that its flawed Communist bureaucracy and limited resources could only sustain for so long. And that is what suggests to me that a concept of the “normal” may be useful after all.

Imagine trying to boil a big pot of water over a campfire. If you don’t have enough wood you will fail: worse, you will expend the little fuel you have for nothing. If on the other hand you throw on lots of wood but don’t pay attention, all the water will boil away and again you have wasted much to accomplish nothing. Better yet, imagine a cloud chamber in a high-energy physics laboratory. To obtain the desired experimental results you must impart gigantic quantities of energy to the particles you wish to excite to a higher state an extremely abnormal state while cooling other fissionable materials down to absolute zero also an extremely abnormal state. Happily, your research team has won a sizeable government grant for the project, the California power grid is fully functioning, and you only need thirty seconds at peak power to complete your tests. But what if you needed to keep those ions and mesons and quarks jumping around like anti-matter or frozen into dead inactivity for weeks or months? Unless your resources were infinite you must sooner or later turn off the switch and permit all the matter to return to its natural state.

The normal condition of every human community from a tribe or ethnic group to society or nation to a regional system of nations to the whole world order is whatever stasis it would fall into absent the application of external force. Every decision to intervene overseas therefore reduces to a calculation of some sort about what the “default outcome” would be if the locals were left to themselves, how good or bad that normal state would be for your country, andif badhow much energy would be required to preserve the country or region in question in an abnormal state. How long, and at what cost, can one keep volatile human matter “on ice” or inert human matter in a state of excitement? Sometimes one can predict with confidence what a region’s normal condition would look like. Europe absent American forces would likely remain very much as it is. The Persian Gulf or the Balkans without NATO’s presence would likely explode. In other cases one can only guess, for instance about where the chips would fall in Southeast Asia if Indonesia blew up. But even in predictable cases what is, or would be, normal for the moment will cease to be normal after a while, so what seems worth a great deal of effort today may prove counterproductive even on our own terms. Conversely, standing aside from a conflict or crisis that seems harmless now may have disastrous secondary effects. But in all cases, external application of refrigeration or heat to preserve an abnormal state must be ceaseless: there can be, by definition, no exit strategy.

That is why the two greatest temptations for the mightiest nation in an era of history are isolationism and global empire: precisely what are not meant by those who talk of nations’ becoming normal again. To intervene overseas in one major arena, at great expense and with no assurance of success or an endpoint, is exhausting enough. To do so in the sure knowledge that one intervention is likely to have spillover or “blowback” effects that require some second intervention and a third is utterly dispiriting. Better to control nothing than have to control everything. But even that is no option because, for a great power, not to intervene is itself a form of intervention. Abstention from influencing events when one has the power to do so automatically favors the stronger party in a local conflict and encourages predators elsewhere as well. Hence the need to punish aggression or human rights abuse anywhere lest it get out of hand everywhere. But even that is no option because, for a great power, to intervene everywhere leads quickly to hegemonic behavior and slowly to enervation, corruption, or bankruptcy.

One may say, well the best way to approach the task of deciding which parts of the world to keep in abnormally tranquil (or just deterred) circumstances is to increase America’s military and economic power and technological edge. That way, it can err on the side of caution by undertaking more rather than fewer responsibilities and be better able to bear the costs. Only such caution has a way of leading to the acquisition of empire in a fit of absence of mind, as in the case of Rome and Great Britain. As a nation’s power waxes, so demonstrably do its interests, and excessive defensiveness can metamorphose into offense. Perhaps that it what one adept democratic imperialist, Benjamin Disraeli, meant when he said, “Next to knowing when to seize an advantage, the most important thing in life is to know when to forego [not “forgo”?] an advantage.” Or, as Merle Haggard put it, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” [not Kenny Rogers?] But whichever choice you make you must be sure to spin it as the “normal” thing to do and not count your money until the dealing’s done.

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