Back to Realism

I’ve just returned from the UAE, where the Center on International Cooperation, NYU’s Abu Dhabi Institute and Brookings organized a conference on “Emerging Powers, Global Security and the Middle East”. Discussions ranged pretty far and wide but (unsurprisingly) kept coming back to whether or not the U.S. and China are trapped in a cycle of confrontations, and how this will affect the Iran issue this year. Julian Borger of the Guardian was there, and gives an excellent summary of this strand of debate:

The conference was under Chatham House rules, but broadly speaking: the Chinese were furious about the Taiwan arms sale, arguing it had come at a time when relations between the island and mainland China were at their best for years. They warned that Chinese nationalism was slowly awakening and should not be provoked. The current political turmoil in Iran actually serves to harden China’s resistance to sanctions, because it makes them appear more like interference in another country’s affairs – anathema to Beijing.

Others hit back at a rising nation they saw as seeking more global power than responsibility. The westerners urged China to play more of a broader role in the Middle East, beyond its immediate energy needs. India is angry at what it sees as China’s increased assertiveness along their common border. The Gulf Arabs accused China of allowing Iran to get away with its nuclear manoeuvring. Interestingly enough, it was clear at a public function put on as part of the conference, that “ordinary” Arabs, outside the government and think-tanks, were more sympathetic to Tehran’s case.

More broadly, I was struck by the fact that most participants – not only from the US and China, but also from India – were hung up on “old” hard security issues. There was a rough agreement that the Copenhagen climate talks were a mess, but that it should be possible to start making some real progress on climate again soon – although not through the UN framework. By contrast, almost everyone was extremely downbeat about the odds for alleviating classic inter-state competition (be it over Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Sino-Indian border or the Gulf). A number of participants highlighted the need for great power cooperation to handle failing states, but this was overshadowed by talk of big power rivalry – an excellent panel on Afghanistan concluded that the odds for real Sino-US-Indian cooperation there are low.

Given conversations like these, we need to take a long hard look at how we think we advance international cooperation. Good multilateralists like the authors of this blog are very good at saying “transnational threats require transnational responses” and assume that new threats like climate change and pandemic disease can be used to persuade governments to think beyond classic inter-state rivalries. David, Alex and Bruce Jones make a compelling version of this case in their recent paper on Confronting the Long Crisis of Globalization:

In his 1948 classic, Politics Among Nations, Hans Morgenthau exhorted his readers to “assume that statesmen think and act in terms of interest defined as power.” This assumption, he argued, allowed all foreign policy decisions to be placed on a single “intelligible, rational continuum, by and large consistent within itself, regardless of the different motives, preferences, and intellectual and moral qualities of successive statesmen.” While this focus on national interest and the primacy of nation-states had explanatory power in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is outmoded in the post-Cold War context.

Now, David, Alex and Bruce know me well enough to know that I’m unlikely to agree with this. And, yep, I think it’s fallacious. They argue that today’s statesmen are constrained by so many transnational factors (capital flows, etc.) and threats (H1N1, etc.) that a state-centric approach falls apart. And so it should in theory. But in practice, today’s statesmen seem extraordinarily adept at sticking with “national interest”-based thinking – and many are having to struggle with rising nationalist and populist forces at home. Territorial disputes still get people awfully worked up. Military-industrial complexes still follow their own logic. And politicians assume, not wrongly, that there are more votes in these issues than in swine flu.

Oddly, it’s possible to believe all that and still share Alex and David’s concerns about transnational threats. Actually, they terrify me. And we need to completely retool how we respond to them (again, when it comes to the threat-by-threat specifics, I concur with my GD colleagues on what needs doing).  But I’m increasingly convinced that we can only construct our responses to those threats on a traditional, balance of power foundation – which means prioritizing hard security talks, and basing deals on transnational threats on agreements on the global division of influence.

Goddamit, I feel like John Bolton this morning.