How to Toughen Up Human-Rights Activists and Liberal Interventionists

Why "waffling" on foreign policy is okay

Foreign Affairs managing editor Jonathan Tepperman confesses in the New York Times on Friday that he finds that in the realm of international affairs he finds the arguments from both "human rights and democracy advocates" as well as "hard-boiled foreign policy realists" frustrating and difficult to sort through. He says that in both cases, "smart people with total conviction" are putting forward compelling arguments. In the end, he considers whether the problem is that the "positions appeal to different parts of the body, heart vs. head."

Let me get my own sentiments out of the way first. I like Jonathan Tepperman and feel that Foreign Affairs is lucky to have someone as editorially and intellectually creative as he is. That said (here comes the hard-boiled realism), he makes the mistake that many human rights-tilting foreign policy analysts today who have grown too distant from the Cold War make: he suggests realism is not about the heart as well as the head. 

The challenge, from my perspective, is how to smarten up human rights advocates and interventionists who tend not to think about the head but rather react rashly and impulsively without thinking through the costs and benefits. Ted Koppel gives this some historical flourish in his excellent Wall Street Journal piece this week, "America's Chronic Overreaction to Terrorism."

As I have written previously, the late Richard Holbrooke was a significant exception to the playbook-absent liberal interventionists who dominate that faction of the foreign policy establishment. Holbrooke thought in terms of costs and benefits and was willing to negotiate with some of the world's most abhorrent, immoral characters if it moved American interests forward and served to promote global justice.

Although my friends at the realist-home base, The Center for the National Interest (previously the Nixon Center), tend to cringe when I refer to Holbrooke as a successful Nixonian-like foreign policy progressive, the fact is that his example shows that he was one of the few human rights advocates on the scene who played to both head and heart. He was a realistic human rights advocate who ruthlessly focused on results and achieved them, and the world was better for it. 

Realists, in contrast, want to square away national interests first and foremost and make sure that America's stock of power is not eroded by crusades and endeavors that distract from core interests. That said, they believe America serves a great global good in shaping the international system in ways that serve both its own interests and those of its liberal, mostly (but not always) democratic allies -- and that when America has the stock of power on hand to do so, it can help mitigate great humanitarian crises around the world in a way that both serves others and keeps American power intact and growing.

Realists don't believe, however, that even a superpower (less super than decades ago) like the United States can easily influence the deep internal dynamics and behavior of other countries -- nor should the U.S. attempt to do so. They feel that this kind of intervention inside other nations can just as easily generate blowback, or a perception of either bullying or impotency about the U.S., for objectives that were never really in reach anyway or worth the gamble.

In other words, the starting error that many human rights and liberal interventionist analysts make is that their aspirations for foreign policy were never attainable, or to say it less charitably, not solvent.

For example, Tepperman opens his essay suggesting that Obama's foreign policy weakness is responsible for all sorts of "bads" in the domestic scenes of other countries. He writes:

In just the last few weeks, the Russian government has used a show trial to silence a prominent activist, Egypt's junta has massacred protesters, Turkey has cracked down on peaceful dissent, and the rulers of Cambodia and Zimbabwe have stolen elections -- again.

In each case, the Obama administration has done little more than mutter objections under its breath.

Bad stuff has been happening inside other countries for a very long time -- even when U.S. power was its zenith after World War II and during the toughest spots during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Elections were stolen then. Genocides happened. Tyrants manhandled their citizens. Show trials occurred not only in the USSR, but also in places like Cuba, Argentina, Chile, and more.

Tepperman is mistaken, I think, to suggest that any of these cases reflects a weak foreign policy posture of the United States in general, and of the Obama administration during this period in time. 

Had he instead suggested that the inability of President Obama to get Germany's Angela Merkel to do what he wanted at the 2009 London G-20 Summit; or the difficulty the administration has in getting the U.S.-military dependent Japan to ratchet down its nationalistic, China-antagonizing rhetoric; or Obama's inability to get Israel's Netanyahu to stop building Middle-East-peace-wrecking settlements on Occupied Territories; or the president's inability to (as of yet) move or seduce Iran on to a normalization track that comes without nuclear weapons capacity; or that Saudi Arabia has shifted away from its general foreign affairs docility to more active engagement in the MENA region based on its calculation of U.S. weakness and strategic contraction; he would have been on target, as these are better measures of America's declining foreign policy effectiveness and strength.

Unfortunately, Tepperman sees American vacillation and lack of resolve as the reason for its ineffectiveness and perceived weakness -- even if he and I could agree on what measures reflect American power in the world.  

The realist answer to Tepperman's concern about declining U.S. power, and the right one in my view, is that America's national security decline is a function of (1) the mismanagement of its foreign policy resources and equities in the past -- i.e., too many "wars of choice" and the ascension of global policy crusades untethered by realistic cost and benefit calculations, (2) the relative rise in both economic and military power of other global stakeholders (America is still great and greater than the rest but not GREAT like in days of old), and (3) an absence of coherent strategy -- that could include waffling, duplicity, pugnaciousness, and earnest involvement in wrestling through foreign policy challenges. 

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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