A Matter of National Interest
Where have you heard this before: “…a debate between Realists and Ideologues…”? That is the standard dichotomy offered by many analyses of International Relations, commonly summarized as the debate between ‘what we should do because we are able to’ vs. ‘what we should do because of what we believe’. The first group of policy-thinkers is labeled Realists, or Neorealists, or practitioners of Realpolitik; the second is labeled… well, they aren’t one group so the labels that pretty much summarize “Unrealists” are often specific to what branch of principled thought they are derived from.
Modern Realists deal in quantifiable concepts. To that way of thinking, issues like Human Nature (Hobbesian competition) have become entirely secondary (or even discountable) when compared to measures of Gain and Loss and conditions imposed by Structural Limitations. The key to that last matter is that, since Westphalia, Nation-States are peer-equals in legitimacy, but almost never peer-equals in capabilities. The equal legitimacy makes for a natural state of competition, an “anarchy of sovereignties”, where third parties in any contest can at best be arbitrators. In the case of one Nation greatly exceeding others in capability, the condition of an implicit Hegemony can arise, but then other structural factors come into play. The modern version of this line of thought called “Neorealism” instead develops most of its world-view by a ranking system of comparative capabilities, and a focus on how many centers of real power exist in the world. Such language as “Living in a Unipolar World” that was bandied about after the fall of the Soviet Union is an example of such thought: At that time, it was believed by Realists that there was only one Great Power remaining in the world, and it possessed for at least a brief moment functional Hegemony in many ways. “Bipolar Worlds” have two centers of power, two Superpowers, and each leads a cluster of allies and dependent States. The much acclaimed “Multipolar World” may imply three or more Great Powers, each with lesser adherents, or may simply be a nice way of speaking of that “anarchy” that is so basic to this thinking approach.
Oh, one last little issue to bring up: Modern Realist thought, having dispensed with unquantifiable matters like Human Nature, has no use for such ideas as “Evil” or the much-harder-to-define “Good” as those terms apply to sovereign Nations. Realists deal in capabilities, and if a regime has the capability to successfully engage in acts moralists would find reprehensible, what matters is that the capability exists and how it affects rival Nations, not some abstract ethical judgment of said capability. States are States; Capabilities are Capabilities; and that is all that factors into the equation.
The answer, at least in several of the Modern Realist schools of thought, to constraining the capabilities of any (and indeed all) States is the Supra-national Structure. In plain terms, this means the creation of something *more* sovereign than a Nation-State. Both the Integrationist movement that guides the European Union’s ongoing (re-)formation and the Internationalist thought that seeks to place the United Nations above any single Nation in the structure of the world are efforts to define the limits on the said-to-be harmful tendencies of sovereign competition. Now, to be clear, not all Modern Realists believe that a Supra-national Structure is desirable, but that some proponents of Supra-national Structures believe such are needed to limit sovereignty will come into play shortly hereafter.
The “Unrealists”, or everyone else theorizing about International Relations, are driven by arguments based on something other than raw power politics. But what they base their arguments upon can be, to say the least, rather widely divergent concepts. “Idealists”, and their related thinkers in “Liberalism” and “Neoliberalism”, are all believers in the International application of what they consider just and moral governance of a Nation. This has gone through periods where the noblest goal of a Nation’s foreign policy is to export the cultural values of said Nation, but to no great surprise it seems that cultural values spread far better by example than by imposition. The Modern Liberalism now seeks “shared” or “accepted” cultural values as the basis for the formation of international structures. Morality has some, but limited, application in such efforts but the more arguable Ethics that apply to social and economic matters have found traction. Running in rough parallel to Liberalism, but with a much greater dependence on economic matters, come the various “Marxist” and “Dependency” theorists and their views on the purpose of State sovereignty. Further still are those thinkers who begin to divorce the role of sovereignty from its dominant place in the definition of National goals and activities: The students of Fernand Braudel see the world as systems into which Nation-States fit as one of, but not the only, elements of power; Functionalists see the interrelationship between elements of power to be one of greatest sum gain; and there are other such analyses. What those all share is that none of them are as per se theories of International Relations, but are extremely insightful models of the effect of International Relations, and so are often cited in contribution to Modern Liberal or Modern(?) Marxist thought.
Where push comes to shove, in all of the above mentioned views of International Relations thinking, is still at the point of formulating National Policy. For all the Modern Realist moves to form international power-bloc(s); for all the Modern Liberal efforts to place a Supra-national enforcer of Ethical standards for all Nations; for all the Marxist true-believers (and let us throw in all the other “One True Way” thinkers like Theocrats as well) who see the goal as bringing into being a World State; the tools for creating a world made in the image they seek are mostly in the hands of States. There are some very influential Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) out there and most of those that have an agenda would *like very much* to supersede the sovereign authority of Nations, but for now they can not.
…and should not.
Policy, in anything but an Autocracy, is determined by process. In most any modern Nation-State, that process includes accountability for the direction of National Power. That accountability is to the Constitution and the courts of the land. In a democracy, whether Parliamentary or Indirectly Representative, that also means accountability to the electorate. The only way to assure such accountability is to restrict the setting of policy for the use of National Power to those officials *only* to those duly empowered by the Constitution and derived law. Not the agents of what are functionally private organizations and certainly not to extra-national organizations that are given diplomatic stature by their place in some remote extremity of the United Nations bureaucracy.
Advising a government on policy –one’s own government first, preferably—is certainly a laudable method of influencing policy. Indeed, it is necessary as many of the finest thinkers on International Relations are in academic, organizational, or research employment outside the ranks of government service. Asking their advice or listening to their offered arguments should be a priority for those entrusted to set the basis of policy, and likewise government officials need be willing to win support by making the case for policy before those who specialize in understanding the conditions said policy is expected to apply to. But spare us all from the non-sovereign actor…
There used to be so-called “adventurers” who took desired national policy as their justification for private actions… that would be why the United States has a Neutrality Act (1794, 1817, and 1838) on the law books.
There used to be “international activists” who thought it best to take sovereign right into their own hands to implement their goals regarding one Country by organizing in a second Country and raiding the possessions of a third Country from there… one example of that would be the Fenian Brotherhood in the U.S. in the years after the Civil War. Their activities had to be stopped by force to prevent a wider war.
So let it be said that no matter which basis is claimed, whether a Realpolitik dream of the exercise of National power for some zero-sum result or a Liberal Idealist hoping for a borderless (Stateless, even) world in which to make society moral by one’s definition, or some variant of Economically-driven self-purpose (selfish or equalitarian, it matters not) that will remake the world in the image of what one sees as “beneficial” (to some one)…
When acting as a private citizen:
…don’t presume sovereignty.
…don’t presume to waive away any Nation’s sovereignty.
…and if one really believes in Open Society, then explain the benefits and risks openly where the policy-makers who accept your arguments can be held accountable.
That is because *your* interests, Mr. George Soros, may well not be the National Interests.
…of any Nation.
The following items are Wiki-p entries, provided for general information only.
International Relations Theory, index
The U.S. Neutrality Act of 1794 et al, overview only
The Fenian Brotherhood
Open Society Institute, one of many parts of the Soros Foundations network