The Conceptual Foundations of International Politics: Commentary and Critique of the Columbia University lecture series at Lecture Three: Stephen Sestanovic

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The Conceptual Foundations: American Foreign Policy: Historical Perspective

Lecturer Stephen Sestanovic

Let us place these reflections in the context of the historical perspective of an ex-diplomat: Henry Kissinger. The work we will be referring to is entitled “Diplomacy”. The book begins with a chapter entitled “The New World Order” but the word “order” has to be metaphorical given that Kissinger agrees with Sestanovic’s diagnosis of the fundamental ambivalence of American Foreign Policy in the twentieth century.

Sestanovic. For example talks of the contradictory character of 6 dualities:

“1. The US possesses the most powerful military as well as the most powerful tradition of civilian control of the military.
2. The US possesses the most Imperial Presidency as well as the most extensive congressional limitations on Presidential power.
3. The US has contributed more than any other country toward establishing a system of international organisation and law and is the most determined to protect itself against unwanted applications of International Law and processes.
4. The US has the most ideas driven policy and is most easily duped by anti-idealistic pragmatic authorities elsewhere.
5. The US is the land most committed to free trade and at the same time heavily influenced by small protectionist lobbies.
6. The US is deeply influenced by business interests and yet most likely to upset them by pursuing other goals.”

These remarks are placed in the context of the classification system proposed by Lisa Anderson in the first lecture but otherwise they seem to lack the cohesion of the more systematic political perspective of Kissinger.

Kissinger does not speak in terms of a classification system of perspectives, of what the US possesses or of business interests. He speaks rather in terms of so-called “universal values” and international politics:

“In the twentieth century, no country has influenced international relations as decisively and at the same time as ambivalently as the US. No society has more firmly insisted on the inadmissibility of intervention in the affairs of other states, or more passionately asserted that its own values were universally applicable. No nation has been more pragmatic in the day-to-day conduct of its diplomacy, or more ideological in the pursuit of its historical moral convictions. No country has been more reluctant to engage itself abroad even while undertaking alliances and commitments of unprecedented reach and scope. The singularities that America has ascribed to itself throughout its history have produced two contradictory attitudes toward foreign policy. The first is that America serves its values best by perfecting democracy at home, thereby acting as a beacon for the rest of mankind: the second, that America’s values impose on it an obligation to crusade for them around the world…..Both schools of thought—of America as beacon and America as a crusader, envision as normal a global international order based on democracy, free commerce, and international law. Since no such system has ever existed, its evocation often appears to other societies as utopian, if not naïve….Thus the two approaches, the isolationist and the missionary, so contradictory on the surface, reflected a common underlying faith: that the US possessed the world’s best system of government and that the rest of mankind could attain peace and prosperity by abandoning traditional diplomacy and adopting America’s reverence for international law and democracy. America’s journey through international politics has been a triumph of faith over experience.”

These two accounts agree on the ambivalence of American Foreign Policy and the ideological attitude toward foreign powers but both accounts also disagree on several points. The first disagreement is over the issue of international law. On this issue we find Kissinger talking in terms of reverence and Sestanovic talking in terms of avoidance/rejection. Kissinger’s reasoning is more scholarly and systematic. The key pairs of terms for Kissinger were: “beacon and crusader” and “reverence and faith”.
But Sestanovic’s account also strives toward a deeper understanding through the use of the Aristotelian term of “pluralism”. Commenting on the 6 dualities he proposed he asks:

“How do we explain these dualities? Together they paint a portrait of a highly pluralistic policy process. Not all participants in policy processes are committed to the same goals.”

The term “pluralism” appears here to be used less systematically and more rhapsodically than the way in which Aristotle would have used it. But Sestanovic approaches a deeper level of understanding of what is happening when he quotes both Keynes and Churchill:

“Keynes:–“There is a long tradition of seeing American Foreign Policy as disorderly, ineffective and even defective…the organs of decision making are so incredibly inefficient that one wonders how a decision is ever reached at all.”
Churchill: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have exhausted all other alternatives.”

This last Churchillian quote could well be the clarion call of pragmatism, that practical doctrine of craftsmanship and politics elevated to a “philosophy” by William James. Indeed the presence of pragmatism in this lecture series is so prevalent that one is surprised that it was not allocated a special genre in Anderson’s classification system. Realism is an epistemological position and could not, therefore, be confused with a practical instrumental position until James transformed pragmatism into an epistemological position. This confusion is therefore possible in American theorizing. Pluralism for Aristotle was also a practical ethical position that appears to have been transformed into an epistemological position in Sestanovic’s lecture.
Sestanovic links this disordered Foreign Policy to the classification system provided by Anderson. American Foreign Policy it is maintained is seen to be sometimes realist and sometimes liberal: the realist, it is claimed, believes that pluralism can never produce a successful foreign policy whilst the liberal believes the opposite. The American people as distinct from its government does not believe in realist political policies, Sestanovic claims. Interesting examples of the position of the people are given. Firstly, the American authorities, in a monumental confusion of epistemology and political reasoning, declared the American shrimp to be a different species of shrimp to shrimps coming from other regions of the world, and for what reason? : to protect the interests of the American shrimp farmer. A second example of the respect for pluralism and preference for liberalism concerns the Irish lobby successfully persuading the government from the course of action of preventing the flow of money to the IRA, a terrorist movement that targeted civilians with bombs.

Let us be clear about what pluralism actually means. Pluralism in Aristotle is connected ethically to the manifold forms of life that people have freely and rationally chosen. The latter term “rational” is important because for Aristotle practical rationality is intimately related to morality and virtue, i.e. what he calls the common good. The choice of the Irish terrorists to target and murder innocent non-combatant civilians in a war against the government would not be “rational” or “ethical” in the Philosophical ethics of Aristotle. Aristotle would also have reacted with bewilderment over the declaration that the American shrimp is a different species of shrimps of other countries. For Aristotle, a form of life is owed respect in direct proportion to its rationality. This is a condition of Aristotelian pluralism. The idea of pluralism referred to by Sestanovic is a different idea altogether.

Kissinger does not discuss the concept of pluralism and he steers well clear of the foreign affairs implications of the above embarrassing events. Wilsonianism which both Kissinger and Sestanovic agree on lies at the foundation of American thinking in the arena of foreign affairs. It is one of the keys to understanding the American understanding of foreign affairs in the twentieth century. Sestanovic argues that Woodrow Wilson is a realist. Kissinger is unclear about where Wilson belongs on the political spectrum-classification system. This is what Kissinger has to say on this issue in the chapter entitled “The New World Order” : (p18)

“..the American peacemakers believed that the Great War had resulted not from intractable geopolitical conflicts but from flawed European practices. In his famous fourteen points, Woodrow Wilson told the Europeans that henceforth the international system should be based not on the balance of power but on ethnic self-determination, that their security should depend not on military alliances but on collective security, and that their diplomacy should no longer be conducted secretly by experts but is the basis of “open agreements openly arrived at.
Clearly, Wilson had come not so much to discuss the ending of a war or the restoration of an international order, as to react to a whole system of international relations as had been practiced for nearly three centuries.”

It is not easy, on the above evidence, to bluntly characterize Wilson as a realist. He appears rather as a pragmatist with an Aristotelian leaning toward a limited form of practical rationality that embraces the virtues of honesty and transparency. What is clear is that we see here, in this event, the USA climbing on to the world stage and preaching global reform. Kissinger, either knowingly or unknowingly, takes up the European response to Wilson’s sermon:

“In fact, both the American and European approaches to foreign policy were the products of their own unique circumstances. America inhabited a nearly empty continent shielded from predatory powers by two vast oceans and with weak countries as neighbours. Since America confronted no power in need of being balanced, it could hardly have occupied itself with the challenges of equilibrium. Europe was thrown into a balance of power politics when its first choice the medieval dream of universal empire collapsed and a host of states of more or less equal strength arose from the ashes of that ancient aspiration. When a group of states so constituted are obliged to deal with one another, there are only two possible outcomes: either one state becomes so strong that it dominates all the others and creates an empire or no state is ever quite powerful enough to achieve that goal. In the latter case, the pretensions of the most aggressive member of the international community are kept in check by a combination of the others: in other words by the operation of a balance of power.”

These words could have been written as a historical or descriptive account of modern political activity. It is important to note, however, that there is another type of political reasoning of a prescriptive or ethical character: that which for example grounds Wilson’s “open agreements openly arrived at”. Sometimes Kissinger writes as if Wilson was holding the torch of American democracy up for the world to see in the hope that the whole world would imitate the American way or form of life. He does not pursue this image but the reader is left with the impression that this was a possible symbol of the “desire for empire” to be achieved by non-military means.

Kissinger has missed one European perspective whose foundations were laid during the Enlightenment, shortly after the birth of the USA, namely the view of a non-military ethical empire of a world ruled by the moral and international law and the teleological idea of a permanent peace guaranteed by a United Nations organisation. It was, of course, Woodrow Wilson who proposed a league of nations in the wake of discussions with a British government official. Was this a strain of Kantianism? If so, then such considerations make it very difficult to accept the classification system of this series of lectures. What is Kissinger missing here? The claim of this lecture is that he is missing the underlying philosophical value in the European Academic tradition of thinking about Politics. The following is Kissinger’s thoughts on the Enlightenment contribution to European civilisation:

“Intellectually the concept of the balance of power reflected the convictions of all the major thinkers of the Enlightenment. In their view, the universe, including the political sphere, operated according to rational principles that balanced each other. Seemingly random acts by reasonable men would, in their totality, tend toward the common good, though the proof of this proposition was elusive in the century of almost conflict that followed the thirty years war.”

Historian and American scholar Henry Kissinger has also missed, as have the lecturers holding the above series of lectures, the Aristotelian concept of Areté(doing the right thing at the right time in the right way) as well as the ethical Cosmopolitanism of Kant. This latter position clearly distinguishes between the balance of power that is the case and the Cosmopolitan world of International law and order that ought to be the case in a world in which the virtues are grounded in the Categorical Imperative. Until what ought to be the case is the case, the world will never be fully rational.

Kissinger, in the above quote, is adopting a perspective of instrumental reasoning in the lives of people and nations. Here so-called enlightened self-interest presumably will be the beacon steering man toward collective security. The key words in the above quote are “seemingly random acts” because on the principle of enlightened self-interest there would never be perpetual peace: politics on this view is an infinitely recurring power game forever in search of equilibriums that will appear and disappear. Power is the most difficult “commodity” or capacity to share. Sharing can only occur if all the actors in the game share egalitarian intentions. If, in this game, the mechanism of the fear of being wronged overrides the powerful urge to do wrong in one’s own self-interest is invoked here in defence of the Kissinger position, we can only say that this is to say the very least, an equilibrium that is a consequence of “wishful thinking”. Passively fearing the consequences of being wronged surely, for the realist, must be a sign of liberal weakness, especially if the only other category of political position is that of constructivism.

The Classical Greek element that is missing in Kissinger and Sestanovic’s positions is the normative concept of Knowledge. In this respect, we should remember the Socratic response to one of the first attempts by Thrasymachus to justify the Politics of Power. How, Socrates asks, would the power hungry rulers know which laws they would need to pass in order to consolidate their position. Once this argument is established most forms of instrumental reasoning related to enlightened self-interest collapse. Perhaps as a consequence, realism as a political attitude also collapses. Anarchy and ambivalence seem then to be the only alternatives if one does not accept that Politics is fundamentally ethical: fundamentally related to the categorical imperative and its humanistic approach to the justification of action.
Humanism and categorical reasoning are certainly not related to the so-called “soft power” of constructivist positions. Humanism is an academic position requiring the courage of a Socrates or a Jesus. Perhaps Humanism is closely related to liberalism of a certain form but it is not similar to the Liberalism of Mill which attempts to use instrumental reasoning to pursue a goal only achievable by the categorical imperative, the goal namely, of happiness.

Let us conclude these reflections with a discussion of the pair of terms “reverence and faith” introduced by Kissinger in the context of the American relation to International Law. The first Puritans to arrive in the New World were, of course, religious and placed their faith in written agreements that could bind them together in their essentially religious communities. Some social contract theorists refer back to this “act of faith”. The agreements, of course, were signed beneath the eyes of God and in the light of this seen to carry the weight of ancient religious covenants. Why, one wonders, in the light of such a history is it so difficult to persuade the USA to agree to subject itself to International Law? Has “enlightened” self-interest secularised both the religious and the ethical elements of living together? Or, does this reveal the true intentions of Wilsonianism, namely to be the law but not to be subject to the law? Kissinger does not discuss these objections because he insists paradoxically that American Foreign Policy is fundamentally ethical. What he means by the term ethical, of course, is neither Aristotelian nor Kantian: neither of these latter positions can be connected to any kind of self-interest. Was it not, in relation to this point that Socrates claimed that the craft of the doctor was primarily for the sake of the patient even to the extent of not being paid for his services (if the patient’s life was at stake)? Is this the position of enlightened self-interest?

Kissinger is aware of the drift of the world toward globalization but he does not see in this phenomenon the seeds of Kantian Cosmopolitanism. Rather, he claims:

“The international system of the twenty-first century will be marked by a seeming contradiction: on the one hand fragmentation, on the other growing globalization. On the level of the relations between states, the new order will be more like the European state system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than the rigid patterns of the Cold War. It will contain at least 6 major powers:–the USA, Europe, China, Japan, Russia, and probably India—as well as a multiplicity of medium-sized and smaller countries. At the same time, international relations have become truly global for the first time. Communications are instantaneous, the world economy operates on all continents simultaneously. A whole set of issues have surfaced that can only be dealt with on a worldwide basis, such as nuclear proliferation, the environment, the population explosion, and economic interdependence.”

According to Kissinger, enlightened self-interest, assisted by the craftsmanship of the statesman, appears to be the only mechanism that we can hope will bring the above process to a satisfactory conclusion. He envisages a new balance of power doctrine in a multi-state world. History can only provide us with analogy and intellectual analysis may or may not be relevant. There is no mention in this chapter(The New World Order) of the role of philosophy and the thoughts of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Kant. Presumably, Kissinger thinks that they only provided us with analogies and irrelevant analysis.
Kant envisaged that it would take ca. 100,000 years for the Cosmopolitan world to actualize. Kantian Commentators have pointed to the incredible growth of freedom since the time of his writings and they have suggested he might have been too pessimistic in his estimation of the time required. The argument in favour of Kant’s prognosis is, of course, the depressing fact that the most prominent political scholars of our time have yet to identify the underlying mechanisms of political change in spite of the fact that these can be found in the pages of historians and in the writings of intellectuals like Aristotle and Kant.