The Rebirth of Realism: The Kantian Trap--Utopianism in International Affairs

Since the end of the Cold War, political theorists have been scrambling to define the nature of the new world order.

Since the end of the Cold War, political theorists have been scrambling to define the nature of the new world order. Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, and Joseph Nye, among others, have all made varyingly successful contributions to the ongoing debate.(1) However, even the most insightful efforts have been overly academic, with no serious attempt made to link the nature of this new world to practical policy initiatives.

In this spirit, it is past time to discard a number of academic illusions about the international system. The greatest danger comes from schools of thought that differ in practice but derive their essence from Kantian utopianism. They proclaim that our system of universal values consigns us to an undiscriminating, open-ended foreign policy, even after the debacles of Somalia, Kosovo, and Haiti. Surely the recent October Bosnian elections, where nationalists, many of whom advocate secession from Bosnia proper, easily triumphed over their Western-sponsored moderate foes, must close the curtain regarding the efficacy of such nation-building endeavors.

There are the heirs of Woodrow Wilson, who ignore global power realities in favor of bringing the world to a "natural" state of democratic peace and harmony. They view history in much the same way as Marxists, substituting liberal democracy for the inevitability of a communist utopia. Peace and stability, Wilsonians claim, are not merely desirable but wholly natural; the butchery and rapine perpetrated throughout history are the result of socio-political pathologies that can be remedied just as a doctor can cure a sick patient.

Specifically they believe that the great evils of the world primarily stem from poverty. For instance, the Wilsonian response to the September 11 attacks was to advocate an increase in humanitarian aid in order to alleviate economic destitution and promote education, despite the fact that Osama bin Laden is a multimillionaire and the hijackers themselves, like the Bolshevik and Jacobin leaderships, were well-educated members of the middle class. If the Wilsonian analysis is true, third-world sub-Saharan Africa would be a bastion of terrorism, while the first-world Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof Gang should have been neighborhood watch groups rather than terrorist organizations. (2)

Wilsonians prefer employing diplomatic tactics over using coercive power. By ignoring power realities, they are ill equipped to deal with those who do not respond to gentle pleas. The same failing affects their understanding of international institutions. Since they view the world as inherently interdependent, only by pooling sovereignty through international organizations can problems truly be addressed. As such, multilateral organizations themselves become the guarantor of international order, rather than expressing the collective interests of their membership. They fail to see that the international system itself, dominated by states, promotes the stability that international institutions need to flourish; their success is a symptom of global stability, but not a primary cause.

There is, of course, the more muscular brand of Wilsonianism, which is prepared to use force as a function of multilateral coalitions. However, Wilsonians have no solution to the age-old dilemma of multilateralism: the unequal military capacities of the involved nations and consequently the unequal burdens that they assume. An alliance that grants relatively equal power to all nations involved, but distributes the bearing of burdens to a mere few, is clearly untenable. Furthermore, it demands that the nation with the greatest military capacity, presently the U.S., place its power at the service of the international community. Now, one might even suggest (wrongly) that we have an obligation to do just that for the good of the world. But to believe that all democracies, much less all nations, share universal commonalties that trump national interests in terms of policy-making is to live in a world recognizable only to the cast of Hair.

At the more hawkish, unilateral end of utopianism, are the neoconservatives. They too espouse a philosophy of universal democracy, one that needs to be brought about by force of will and arms. They envision a world remade in America's image by the carrot of economic aid and the stick of military power. They routinely and erroneously compare our capacity for global hegemony with Rome's. This is far from being an abstract mistake.

What neoconservatives fail to recognize are the inherent structural differences between the world we now live in and the one dominated by Rome two millennia ago. The pax Romana was a system that had no need for diplomacy in the modern understanding of the term. Other than the Parthians, there were no other states - only barbarians at the gates. This is hardly the case with America. There remain other legitimate nations, many of whom will conceivably attempt to vie with the U.S. for primacy. As such, there are genuine limits to American power - limits not always recognized by the neoconservatives.

The same neoconservative theorists who see us as the most recent incarnation of Rome forget that it was not a great rival, but a host of lesser powers combined with its own overly peripatetic foreign policy that eroded the very advantages Rome possessed. In their belief in unfettered power, the Romans overextended their sway as they recognized no limits to their capabilities. The same danger awaits the neoconservatives who acknowledge our national interests but misread them.