February 05, 2005

The Uses and Abuses of Theory for Foreign Policy

Ah, so it's finally the weekend and I get to catch up on all that blog reading I didn't have time to do this week. Let's hope that's not a regular habit! Anyhow, I missed this old post by Matthew Yglesias talking about IR theory in the context of Bush's State of the Union address. Were I not sort of a big geek, I would think this stuff very much pedantic. But as it just so happens...

Anyway, something that's frustrated me about political commentary over the past few years has been the tendency to bandy about terms like "idealist" or "realist" or "Wilsonian" to describe the foreign policy visions that various people hold. While it's a perfectly good way to slap a name on various bundles of beliefs, the terms are too often used more for rhetorical effect—ie. to show that "Bush the idealist" is moral in his foreign policy, or to show that "Kerry the realist" is more intellectual—than to produce any substantive analysis. As I've said before, we all have certain ideals and certain senses of limits on what's possible in foreign policy, and these mostly just vary on a spectrum. It's not the biggest deal.

On the other hand, there are IR theories that do describe distinct ways of looking at the world, and quite often policymakers really do see the world through the lens of one theory or the other, even if only unconsciously. Now I don't think that subscribing to a certain IR theory will lead you to any actual policy conclusions. During the Cold War, for instance, "realist" views were used to justify both engagement and containment. And realism alone could not explain (or predict) the fall of the Soviet Union. So this stuff is neither exhaustive nor determinative of action.

Nevertheless, it's interesting to look at the general theories of international relations under which various people are laboring, in order to see why they arrive at the policy prescriptions they do, what assumptions they're using, and what the blindspots are. Ideally, these blindspots could all be wiped away by a "gods-eye" empirical view of the situation, but since we obviously never have such a view, we have to resort to theory. Since I know a bit (a little bit) about IR, I've tried to do a long and somewhat clumsy analysis of Iran—a situation I know a fair bit about—with all this in mind. It's below the fold, so as not to bore anyone. (Keep in mind too that it's well after midnight here, and I'm so not expecting anything earth-shattering to come of this.)

Let's start with an observation: I've read a bunch of policy papers, op-eds, and blogs assessing the Iran situation and it seems that nearly all of them—liberal, moderate, conservative, whatever—are at least seeing the same basic picture. Nearly everyone situates Iran within a realist picture of the Middle East, at least as far as states are concerned (terrorism is a somewhat separate issue). Here I mean "realist" in the IR sense—we all agree that the region tends towards anarchy without a stabilizing influence, that sovereign states act relatively autonomously, that they pursue generally "national" interests, and that national power is an important tool towards that end. We can haggle over a few individual states (was Afghanistan under the Taliban really pursuing national interests?) but the general picture is clear, and almost everyone subscribes to the general realist view when describing Iran.

Now here's where things get tricky. Many Iran "doves"—by which I mean those who favor engagement more heavily—tend to hew closer to the realist line here, seeing Tehran's regime as primarily obsessed with maximizing its own security, secondarily concerned with establishing regional dominance, and only somewhat concerned with ideological issues (the destruction of Israel, the overthrow of Sunni states, preserving the dominance of Qom). Meanwhile, those who are more skeptical towards engagement, like Dan Darling and Michael Ledeen, tend to rank the ideological issues much higher. In other words, they simply have a different conception of national interest.

Those who advocate overthrowing Iran's regime generally fall into two main camps. The first are those who believe that the national interests pursued by Iran have a strong ideological component to them. In that case, the regime itself—and especially the now-dominant Abadgaran movement—is more or less the sole risk posed by Iran. Remove the lunatics, and suddenly you have a regime that values other interests (economic growth, regional stability) relatively more highly than, say, destroying Israel or flouting the United States for its own sake.

The second democracy-promotion camp believes that Iran primarily seeks state power as more commonly defined: deterrence through nuclear weapons, the ability to intimidate and even coerce its neighbors, the economic dominance that is perceived to come with military dominance. On this view, it would be better turning Iran into a democracy on the theory that democracies are simply less likely to go to war. Few people really know why this is, nor can explain why it's always likely to be true. One possibility is that when leaders of two states perceive each other to be similarly handcuffed (by democratic norms), they tend to converge on expectations about how to resolve conflicts. Note that this is old hat as far as realist theory is concerned: a number of scholars have argued that perceptions of other states' intentions is a key predictor of war or peace. I think the theory's a bit facile, but it also seems like the unspoken assumption behind the second democracy-promotion camp.

By the way, you can see who would and would not favor military strikes against Iran. The first camp probably doesn't much care if strikes piss off the Iranian leadership, since they are already wholly hostile to us. They might not favor strikes, though, if it can be shown that a U.S. attack would set back the democracy movement. Some hawks, like Reuel Marc Gerecht, think this is nonsense and the Iranian reformist movement would never rally 'round the mullahs. But it's odd that Gerecht assigns puts such a high emphasis on clerical ideology and such a low emphasis on nationalism. (Perhaps fatally so: Iranians did willingly die by the scores in a war against Iran, even when they disliked Khomeini's regime.) At any rate, it just shows that if you include a lot of intangibles like nationalism or ideology or general "emotions and intentions" in your assessment of a state, it's likely to be very highly colored by bias.

The second democracy-promoting camp, meanwhile, can rather straightforwardly add up the costs and benefits of a strike against Iran. Perhaps a strike will make Tehran feel even more threatened and the leaders will resort to terrorism in Iraq, etc., to increase its own security. Etc. Here we could get into rather complex notions of Offense-Defense Theory, but a) I don't understand it very well, and b) I think it's relatively easy to understand the costs and benefits of attacking Iran without a theory. Yes? No?

Okie doke. So the big question: what do you have to believe in order to favor engagement with Iran? Well, first you have to believe that Iran seeks a very conventional version of state power: deterrence, regional hegemony, etc. Second, you have to believe that the democratic revolution is not likely to happen before Iran goes nuclear, so we need to deal with the nuclear threat first. Note that that second belief depends almost entirely on empirical evidence. I've outlined reasons to believe that Iran will not experience a revolution anytime soon, mostly having to do with the unity of Tehran's security forces. But quibble if it makes you happy! So engagement it is.

Engagement is where we get into all sorts of talk about carrots and sticks. All very technical and tedious. I know nothing about realist theories of engagement, so I'll just endorse Ken Pollack's "Triple-Track Approach" to dealing with Iran.

One interesting thing I've found lately, though, is a tendency towards neo-realist assessments of Iran. George Perkovich kind of argues for something of this sort, essentially saying that a Western bloc (U.S.+Europe+Japan) vs. Iran is an unstable situation. On this view, the relationship needs the active intervention of the other Arab states, perhaps by having them create a regional security alliance, in order to become stable.

Now I've argued along these lines before, so you might say I'm in the neo-realist camp, but it seems to me that structural realism doesn't ever help us figure out what to do in certain foreign policy situations, so I'll pass on the labeling. Interestingly, Perkovich would prefer that the Middle East not balance itself out naturally, with arms races and whatnot, presumably because this will lead to a World War I type of situation. Instead, he'd prefer the US orchestrate a security agreement. He also factors Israel into the equation, noting that while it may be very irrational for Arab leaders to carp about Israel's nuclear arsenal, it's still a genuine obstacle to regional stability, so it needs to be dealt with. In that sense, he's not much of a neo-realist. Oh well.

Anyway, there are two other approaches to Iran not yet discussed. The first is that if we let Iran go nuclear, we can actually increase regional stability—the sort of thing neo-realists like Kenneth Waltz would propose. I've outlined a < a href='http://plumer.blogspot.com/2004_11_01_plumer_archive.html#110162828790670788' target='blank'>possible case for that approach here, but it's not convincing to me. The other is a very liberal view (again, in an IR sense), noting that the only long-term guarantee of reducing the threat from Iran is to make it more interdependent with the rest of the world. So that includes bringing it into the WTO, making it part of a network of security alliances, increasing trade with the United States, promoting the sort of horizontal governmental networks (meetings of int'l finance ministers, etc.) that make the Western world go round. In a sense, this is what Thomas Barnett talks about with his notion of "connectivity". Personally, I have some real problems with connectivity as a security solution, but I'll save that for another post.

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-- Brad Plumer 4:56 AM || ||