The real and the ideal

John Quiggin demands of Daniel Drezner:


Unless “vital national interest” is construed so narrowly as to be equivalent to “self-defence”, this is a direct repudiation of the central founding principle of international law, prohibiting aggressive war as a crime against peace, indeed, the supreme international crime. It’s more extreme than the avowed position of any recent US Administration – even the invasion of Iraq was purportedly justified on the basis of UN resolutions, rather than US self-interest. Yet, reading this and other debates, it seems pretty clear that Drezner’s position is not only generally held in the Foreign Policy Community but is regarded, as he says, as a precondition for serious participation in foreign policy debates in the US.

Dan and I discussed this on Bloggingheads: to what extent is the Netroots enraged because the foreign policy community focuses on what states will do, rather than what they should do?

Many economists (not all) might agree that it would be lovely if we lived in an Edenic utopia in which everyone did the best for society without thought of themselves. But almost all economists recognize that self-interest is a powerful force that must be dealt with, and therefore that economic policy must be designed on the assumption that people will try to maximise their own good, rather than society's. Similarly, foreign policy assumes that states will act in their own interest, and try to design a foreign policy that works within that constraint. The netroots (and many libertarians), who have a more idealistic theoretical model, are outraged. They are particularly outraged because they see that in certain cases, such as Iraq, their prescription would have produced a better outcome.

But of course, that doesn't mean that it necessarily works as a system--that Bill Gates gave billions to charity is not a vindication of communism. Having gotten it so dreadfully wrong on Iraq, I am seduced by the easy by-the-numbers approach posed by a non-interventionist foreign policy. But I wonder what I am not seeing--the wars that don't happen in the Middle East1, or Central Europe, because all the participants know that it would be a foolhardy invitation to US intervention. I take this to be the foriegn policy defense of their position; and it's a pretty compelling one. For the same reason that it's only a good idea to be a pacifist in a nation with a strong police force, it may only be possible to be an idealist when realists are running the show.



1Yes, Israel is certainly a sore point, and our support of Israel makes Arab nations sorer. But Israel is not the only country in the Middle East. If Israel weren't there, the Middle East would still have plenty of conflict . . . Iraq didn't invade Iran, or Kuwait, to protest America's position on Palestine.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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