Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Religion of Liberal Hegemony is Overdue For This Kind of Apostasy—and a Reformation, Too

I just finished listening to an outstanding book that I hope will be widely read: The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy. It’s a study of what the author, Harvard Kennedy School professor Stephen Walt, calls liberal hegemony, a foreign policy worldview Walt persuasively argues has been disastrous for America and for the world. As the jacket puts it: “Since the end of the Cold War, Republicans and Democrats alike have tried to use U.S. power to spread democracy, open markets, and other liberal values into every nook and cranny of the planet. This strategy was doomed to fail, but its proponents in the foreign policy elite were never held accountable and kept repeating the same mistakes."

As I listened to the book, I found myself thinking that liberal hegemony might be best understood as a kind of secular religion. It has its own priests (whose views often differ from those of lay people); its own orthodoxies (and apostates); its own catechisms. I’ve read studies of how, when a cult believes the world will end on X day and the event doesn’t happen, the cult doesn’t abandon its belief but instead rationalizes the inconsistency, and the psychology there is also reminiscent of liberal hegemony’s refusal to reconsider dogma and resistance to contrary evidence (and even common sense).

All of which is doubly interesting when you consider the way many Americans have been trained to cherry pick religiously inspired violence as the only violence worthy of condemnation. “They kill in the name of Islam, what other religion does that?”…that kind of thing. But the psychology of religion manifests itself more broadly than is immediately obvious, and certainly more people have been killed in the name of liberal hegemony than in the name of other, more obvious gods.

I couldn’t help smiling when in the acknowledgments Walt mentions the paradox of his own establishment credentials: researcher at the Center for Naval Analyses; member of the Council on Foreign Relations; guest scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Brookings Institution; faculty member at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, the University of Chicago, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government…being a proponent of some of Noam Chomsky’s views on education, I thought, “My God, how can someone have a CV like that and still be so insightful?”

I’ve come across two reviews of the book that I think deserve mention.

First was this one, from the Guardian. Overall it was positive, but the writer seemed to be doing the thing where he was afraid of seeming too effusive, so he invented a couple of mild criticisms at the end that were neither warranted nor even coherent. First was chiding Walt for “discounting the possibility that Iran harbors ambitions as a regional hegemon.” Of course Iran would like to be a hegemon—who wouldn’t? I confess that given the opportunity, I myself would probably opt for some sort of personal neighborhood hegemony—it would be a great way to get people to obey the speed limit, talk more softly on their cellphones, and clean up after their dogs. The point of offshore balancing, Walt’s proposed alternative to liberal hegemony, is that it’s a response to the given of hegemonic ambitions. In other words, to paraphrase Madison on “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” if countries (including Iran) didn’t seek hegemony, offshore balancing would be largely pointless. Discount hegemonic ambitions? On the contrary, the existence of those ambitions is what offshore balancing is built on.

The second quibble in the review was that in 2010, Walt looked at Libya as a U.S. policy success. Now, I don’t know anyone beyond John Bolton who would claim that Gaddafi giving up his quest for nuclear weapons as a result of diplomacy was a bad thing. And if it hadn’t been for the excesses of liberal hegemony and a spasm of “R2P" rationalizations, we might not have gone to war (oops, “intervened”) in Libya in 2011 and turned the country into the failed state it remains today. So criticizing anyone for praising the way the United States handled Gaddafi in 2010 is bizarre.

The other review was from the New York Times, by a writer named Jacob Heilbrunn. Overall it was another mostly positive review, but Heilbrunn said some unintentionally fascinating things, including a few that demonstrated liberal hegemony is more a faith-based belief system than it is a rational policy. Here are the parts I found most interesting—and telling:

Some of [Walt's] vexation is personal. He reports that the advertisement he signed [in 2002] attacking the invasion of Iraq has disappeared into the foreign policy memory hole: “In the 16-plus years since the ad was printed,” Walt observes, “none of its signatories have been asked to serve in government or advise a presidential campaign.”

The was an important substantive point—the people who have been consistently wrong have been promoted; the people who have been consistently right have been ignored. Is that even remotely disputable? And even if it were, Walt provides a mountain of evidence to back up his argument. The mention of that letter was only a small bit of it. Walt also had a lot to say about journalists and others who’ve been consistently wrong, and how they keep failing up. That’s a critical substantive point; to try to dismiss it as nothing but personal disappointment is just weird. Especially because even if it were motivated by personal disappointment—and again, it didn’t strike me that way at all—Walt's substantive point would still stand, and still be important.

Why would someone argue like this? My instant take is that Heilbrunn is projecting—that he’s the kind of guy for whom such a point would have been motivated by sour grapes, and he assumes everyone else must be like that, too. And while if Heilbrunn were here, he might argue, “Hey Barry, you’re doing the same thing I did, psychoanalyzing,” I would respond, “Fair enough, Jacob, but your attempt at psychoanalysis was illogical and incoherent and obscured an important substantive point, while I’m doing it to try to understand why someone would say something obviously illogical, incoherent, and obscuring.”

Which probably explains why I don’t get invited to any of the good parties. :D


Walt’s own zest for intellectual combat, though, can lead him into rhetorical overkill. “Instead of being a disciplined body of professionals constrained by a well-informed public and forced by necessity to set priorities and hold themselves accountable,” Walt writes, “today’s foreign policy elite is a dysfunctional caste of privileged insiders who are frequently disdainful of alternative perspectives and insulated both professionally and personally from the consequences of the policies they promote.”

Wait, why is that rhetorical overkill? Walt provides a ton of evidence in support. If Heilbrunn disagrees, of course that’s fine, but he can’t just dismiss the argument without also addressing the evidence!

Walt points to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Atlantic Council and the Center for New American Security, among others, as constituting a kind of interlocking directorate that fosters groupthink and consists of mandarins intolerant of dissenting views. But Walt’s depiction of these organizations misses the mark. There’s plenty of debate in Washington; whether it amounts to much is another question.

That was for me the most fascinating paragraph in the review. It’s like the saying, “If we’re not supposed to eat animals, why are they made of meat?”

It’s as though Heilbrunn is so deep in a box that he can’t see, even when someone shows him what’s going on with a flashlight. Because sure, there’s plenty of debate. Just like there’s plenty of debate between the Democratic and Republican wings of the party on how much more we should spend on the military—should we spend a lot more, or a really lot more? But that’s a very narrow permissible band of meaningful debate. And the only way someone could miss that is by implicitly buying in to the notion of what’s permissible, and treating anything else as unworthy of consideration. Which is exactly Walt's point about groupthink and intolerance of dissent.

Or to put it another way: to go back to my view of liberal hegemony as a secular religion, sure, there’s plenty of debate among rabbis over the meaning of this or that portion of the Talmud, and within the Vatican about the proper understanding of the Holy Trinity or whatever. But wander into one of those debates and suggest that God doesn’t exist? You’ll get the same kind of intolerant reaction I expect you’d get showing up at, say, the Council on Foreign Relations and saying, “I think America and the world would be better off if America didn’t lead, if we stopped thinking of ourselves as exceptional, if we focused less on National Greatness and more on just being good, and if we cut the military (sorry, the “defense”) budget by 50% and invested the savings in domestic infrastructure.” If you were lucky, you’d simply be dismissed as unserious, which is Blob nomenclature for what formal religions prefer to call “heretical.”

Not that the offshore balancing Walt proposes in lieu of liberal hegemony goes remotely that far—but you get the idea.

In truth, any president who announced such a strategy would immediately initiate a free-for-all around the globe as local potentates tested Washington’s resolve.

But Walt address this assumption—and it is an assumption, or, as I think it’s better understood, a core tenet of the Liberal Hegemony faith. Again, it’s fine if Heilbrunn disagrees, but to do so meaningfully he needs to engage Walt's point that it *is* an assumption, with no empirical evidence behind it (and in fact lots of evidence of the contrary).

Walt also makes the easy assumption that America can remain a pre-eminent power, but the mounting national debt and Trump’s steady conversion of the country into what amounts to a rogue state could lead to a very different outcome. Soon Americans may discover that the only thing more vexing than exercising dominance is forfeiting it.

This was mostly incoherent, but it also wandered beyond incoherence into a weird realm of deafness to what Walt is actually arguing, which is the opposite. Liberal hegemony isn’t just unnecessary and counterproductive; it’s also ruinously expensive. Continuing to pursue it is what causes increased debt. Walt didn’t assume anything—he cautioned that if America wants to remain solvent, we need a way to get more realistic about what commitments are worth investing in and paying for.

Or to put it another way, of course "America can remain a pre-eminent power”—Walt provides a ton of examples and evidence of all our natural advantages (oceans east and west, friendly neighbors north and south, abundant natural resources, etc). We just have to stop doing the galactically stupid stuff, and we ought to be fine. It’s like a person of normal health can remain generally healthy—if he just stops the binge drinking and gets a little sleep. That’s not an assumption, it’s a description of reality—and sound advice from a good doctor.

But advice from all the good doctors in the world won’t make a bit of difference if the patient is determined not to hear. If the patient wants to get well, a good first step would be to heed the wisdom in this book.

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