Contradictions in Terms: Making Sense of Journalism's Foreign Policy Taxonomy

 Foreign policy makes for strange bedfellows these days.

 Foreign policy makes for strange bedfellows these days. The Iraq war revealed (or augmented, depending on your interpretation) several rifts-between old allies, within ideological movements, and even within the Bush Administration. To take but one example, only a few years ago Tony Blair and Gerhardt Schroeder were poster boys for the so-called Third Way. On Iraq they couldn't have been further apart. Blair is much closer politically to Bill Clinton than to George W. Bush, of course, but even out of office Clinton has never come close to being as hawkish as either Blair or Bush. What accounts for this?  

One looks to journalists and pundits to explain such phenomena, but thus far, many have offered nothing but more confusion. A prime example is Newsweek editor Michael Hirsh's new book At War with Ourselves: Why America is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World. At times Hirsh suggests that the new dividing line is between "unilateralists" and "multilateralists"; at other times, "realists" (or "exceptionalists") and "idealists" (or "Wilsonians"); at still other times, Hirsh describes the two camps as subscribing to doctrines of either "hard power" or "soft power"; and frequently he refers to the combatants as simply the "right" and the "left." Additionally, people like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz are alternately described by Hirsh as "neoconservatives" and "hegemonists." Colin Powell is occasionally a "moderate" (which, of course, merely begs the question: a moderate what?). And so on. 

All of these terms are painfully familiar to anyone who attempts to follow the foreign policy debate in the mainstream press. In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," Orwell observed, "The present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and [. . .] one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end." The same is true today. Journalists would do us all a tremendous favor by being more careful and consistent in assigning their labels. Getting the terminology right would help us determine which of the labels are of primary as opposed to secondary importance, and thus those that are helpful rather than unhelpful in understanding the new foreign policy disputes and alliances.  

In the first place, it is quite simply inaccurate to use terms such as "unilateralist," "realist," and "right-wing" (or "multilateralist," "idealist," and "left-wing") interchangeably. The debate is far more complicated than that.  

It makes no sense, for example, to define people as "unilateralists" or "multilateralists." These words describe strategies: do you need allies in this situation, or should you go it alone? Most thinking people will at least want to preserve their option to do either as circumstances dictate. Likewise, "hard power" and "soft power" merely describe tactical tools and implements of foreign policy that may be used for different ends and in tandem with opposing strategies. Militaries are "hard power" implements; diplomacy and international organizations are tools of "soft power." During the Iraq debate, the question of whether "hard" or "soft" power should be used was at the core of a vehement disagreement, but in the case of North Korea, all sides seem to agree that "soft power" is the most feasible course. Disputes about such issues are reflections of differing attitudes, strategies, and tactics, perhaps, but not fundamentally differing objectives. 

By contrast, the terms "realist" and "idealist" are meaningful precisely because they give us a sense of the purposes and ends that people want to achieve in foreign policy: "realists" generally want stability and security for their nation's interests, "idealists" generally want to do some good in the world, in some cases, even if it's not strictly in their nation's interests.  

The terms "left" and "right" are meaningful only to a lesser extent, because, although they might give us a rough idea of how an individual thinks generally, and perhaps how he or she might view certain implements of foreign policy-such as the military or the United Nations-knowing these kinds of things are not as important as knowing what the individual's ultimate aims are. To the extent that we can know an individual's aims, the terms "realist" and "idealist" are simply more descriptive and therefore better than "left" and "right." In addition, "left" and "right" are particularly unhelpful terms today because ideological divisions do not fall as neatly into the binary oppositions of the Cold War as we might like.  

Realists and idealists may be either unilateralists or multilateralists, depending on the circumstances. Likewise, those on the left may be idealistic multilateralists (think of Kofi Annan) or unilateral realists (Ken Pollack). A unilateral realist of the left like Pollack, moreover, probably shares more in common with a unilateral realist of the right (Dick Cheney) and a multilateral realist of the right (Colin Powell) than they share with each other, but not as much with a unilateral idealist of the left (Christopher Hitchens) or a unilateral idealist of the right (Paul Wolfowitz), both of whom may be quite happy in each other's company.