Friday, June 25, 2010

Wieseltier and I From April 2009: On "Liberal Realism"

Washington Diarist: In Which We Engage

Is it really possible that in a Democratic administration the championship of human rights and the promotion of democracy will no longer figure conspicuously in the foreign policy of the United States? It is really possible. Oh, the stirring words will be spoken; the stirring words are always spoken. But in the absence of policies one may be forgiven for not being stirred by words. And so far even the language has been wanting in ardor.

Idealism in foreign policy is so 2003. After all, the opposite of everything that George W. Bush believed must be true. He overreached abroad and underreached at home, so we will underreach abroad and overreach at home. Myself, I am for overreaching and overreaching. And so I remain chilled by Hillary Clinton's froideur in Beijing, by her artful impersonation of Brent Scowcroft. "We pretty much know what they are going to say," she offered in defense of her ritualistic syllables about China's persecution of its dissidents. She is right, of course. The regime in Beijing is singularly immune to moral appeals. They do not do ethical critique.

It is also true that they are our creditors, though I do not see their hoard of T-bills invoked to thwart the discussion of our other demands of them. And I hear stranger excuses for the new hard-heartedness: a friend of mine, a smart and fervent liberal, chastised me for my disappointment in Clinton by reminding me sardonically that the Chinese "have only raised a hundred million people out of poverty." Not a word about health and literacy in Cuba, though. I thought that the question of the relation between political progress and economic progress--the priority, philosophical and political, of freedom to development--was long ago settled, and not in favor of early profits.

It appears that we need to recall, in this springtime of liberal realism, a few rudimentary notions about democratization and the cause of human rights. For a start, it does not require us to go to war. Rightly or wrongly, we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq for strategic reasons, for reasons of national security; and the splendid attempt to establish democracies, which may or may not succeed, was a corollary of a strategic analysis of the causes of our insecurity. Democratization, since it proposes to replace one political culture with another, is a policy of destabilization, and so it is an evolutionary enterprise, and takes time, and can be achieved only indigenously, by the people themselves. But often they need help, which, in the real world so beloved of Democrats, means American help. This help can take many forms.

The scandal of Clinton's mildness in Beijing was not that she squandered an opportunity to convert the autocracy to our way of thinking about justice. It was that she scanted the men and women in China (and in Burma too, about which she found time only to speculate on the efficacy of sanctions) who already share our way of thinking about justice. It is one of the central features of our account of justice that it is universal: the sovereignties of nations and the specificities of cultures are (mostly) wonderful, but human rights make us all into cosmopolitans. When the Chinese foreign minister told Clinton that we should "continue to hold human rights dialogues on the basis of equality and mutual respect," he was speaking sinister nonsense.

In this matter China is not our equal, it is our inferior, and we cannot respect them without disrespecting ourselves. What Clinton brought the many victims of Chinese repression was a cup of despair. On what grounds can she justify the demoralization of these valiant people, or their abandonment? (Here Niebuhr will not serve.) Who really believes that the full panoply of Chinese-American relations, our sensible preference for cooperation over conflict, cannot withstand the espousal of our ideals? In China, our values are hardly about to displace our interests; and China has interests, too. Anyway, it is an axiom of Barack Obama's worldview that the moral reputation of the United States is itself a fact of strategic consequence. The wretched of the earth have been waiting for America to rediscover--what? the balance of power?

The renaissance of diplomacy has begun. We will talk with Iran. We will talk with Syria. We will talk with the Taliban, or with some of it. We will talk, sooner or later, with Hamas. If what I think has happened has happened, the Awakening in Iraq has been promoted from a military approach into a geo- political approach. The whole world is now Anbar. It is not hard to see why. The sullen rectitude of Bush and Cheney was going nowhere.

There are urgencies, such as the inexorable uranium of Iran, that will not allow us to leave any means untried. And if we flip Assad, or isolate Haqqani, it will be for the good. We must be in all things empirical: a dogmatic aggregation of all our enemies may blind us to useful complexities. So probe, probe, probe; let the word go forth to the madrassas in Waziristan and Swat and Qum and Gaza that we are all God's children; and never mind that we pretty much know what they are going to say. But sooner or later we will hit the limit of what conscience can bear. There are only so many tyrants and terrorists we can engage before we stain our principles, before the politesse becomes repulsive. Also, the anti-Americanism in the world cannot all be imputed to the recent behavior of the United States. Neither the president's face nor his name will inspire movements and governments to discard their dreams.

I worry that liberal realists are mentally unprepared for certain eventualities. Liberal realism is either a betrayal of liberalism or a betrayal of realism. I wish the administration luck, but I wish it also a fallback plan.

A hawk has settled somewhere in my neighborhood, and the other morning it made its kill in my garden, beneath the nandina bushes festooned with red berries like ornaments for the slaughter. It sat with a lordly calm over its ripped prey, and when I approached for a closer look it flew off, its carrion in its claws, leaving a bloodied mess of pigeon feathers in the otherwise gentrified dirt. What was so fascinating about the savagery was that it made no sense to protest it. Here was realism, and the normativity of power. There was nothing sublime about it. I paused over the unnatural character of goodness. I re-read Mill: "the duty of man is the same in respect to his own nature as in respect to the nature of all other things, namely not to follow but to amend it. " The idea of human rights is a distinction not only of our policy, but also of our species.

Leon Wieseltier


Unusual for me, I mind less this piece as it is more simply written, clearer in its attempt at argument, less frantically convoluted, abstract and interior than Wieseltier’s usual Diarist entries. But, even for minding it less, in the end, I find Wieseltier impaled on a conundrum out of which he cannot reason his way.

He begins by decrying the apparently emerging underemphasis on human rights in Obama’s administration. Wieseltier calls the emerging policy by (what I think is) a neologism: “liberal realism”. He means by that, I think, Scowcroftian (say) realism married to a generally liberal administration. Not trusting “stirring words”, which “are always spoken”, and requiring proof by policies, Wieseltier nevertheless was “chilled” by Hillary Clinton’s “froideur” in Beijing, where her disappointing best, for Wieseltier not nearly good enough, were her “ritualistic syllables about China's persecution of its dissidents.”

So here begin the conundrum and some cracks in the argument. Wieseltier torpedoes stirring words; they are empty without policies. He concedes the correctness of Hillary’s defence of her understatement: “Beijing is singularly immune to moral appeal”. He nevertheless fails her by the rejected criterion of stirring words even while understanding the inefficacy of a more outspken human rights criticism, which is to say, his critique of her is incoherent by his own ground for judgment.

What would Wieseltier have had her do: sound ringing phrases, detached from policy, which help no one and, therefore, gratuitously piss off the Chinese? Why: so he can feel righteous? Wieseltier might call this a cold liberal realism; I’d call it sensible restraint in the actuality of the circumstances.

Wieseltier says, mind you, he likes to overreach at home and abroad. But overreaching in one of its meanings is “To defeat (oneself) by going too far or by doing or trying to gain too much”. That definition feeds the conundrum. Obama’s administration cannot, save to imperil, possibly, American interests, afford to overreach, and cannot, therefore, accommodate what Wieseltier is for. Wieseltier needs to face the impasse between what his (self)righteousness demands and what the real world cannot provide to him. That impasse, the way things are even by his own concession, renders his plea for greater engagement hollow and, finally, self satisfyingly shrill, however nicely worded and clever it seems—that seems, perhaps, and rather, “… windy suspiration of forced breath”. (The previous administration, by the way, gave good lessons on overreaching’s consequences.)

Then Wieseltier presumes to remind us of “a few rudimentary notions about democratization and the cause of human rights” and winds up quite frothy on the issue.

Firstly, though, a glaring contradiction in Wieseltier’s reasoning: one the one hand democratization by Wieseltier's lights “…is an evolutionary enterprise, and takes time, and can be achieved only indigenously, by the people themselves”; on the other hand, though, America's in Iraq and Afghanistan was, incidental to its main aims, “a splendid attempt to establish democracies; and, more on the other hand, democratization is destabilizing “since it proposes to replace one political culture with another.” Here are hands never firmly to grasp each other.

After the contradiction comes the froth bubbling up from the unrealizable overreaching Wieseltier demands in his opening paragraph. If it is so, as I have argued, that a wise counsel of prudence informed what Hillary said and did not say in Beijing, then it is absurd for Wieseltier to get into a lather about the “scandal of her mildness”, and to declaim that that mildness brought to the people of China, and Burma too, only “a cup of despair”. What cupful were they expecting from yet another American dignitary coming to China: the weak tea of stirring words not to be backed up by policy; the o’erbrimming waves of stridency which simply would have spilled over and back onto America? What basis does Wieseltier have for presuming Hillary on her trip demoralized anyone?

America will do nothing in, or about, Darfur. What does anyone expect it to do about China, it having been stipulated that empty gestures are useless at a minimum, and, likely, worse than useless. But Wieseltier is getting off on getting his high dudgeon on. The fact of the matter is that the “wretched of the earth”, Franz Fanon’s phrase, are going to stay wretched for some time to come, with nothing but some slow and prudent and incremental help from America from time to time. As I say, all of this makes Wieseltier’s high sounding plea and high sounding demand as empty as they are high sounding.

And then this: “But sooner or later we will hit the limit of what conscience can bear. There are only so many tyrants and terrorists we can engage before we stain our principles, before the politesse becomes repulsive.” To this I repeat one word: Darfur.

More of the conundrum: Wieseltier lauds the need to speak to Iran: “There are urgencies, such as the inexorable uranium of Iran, that will not allow us to leave any means untried.” But the human rights abuses in Iran are comparable to the human rights abuses in China. America needs to speak to China about many things including perhaps help with Iran, let alone speak with Iran. On what principle ought America be more outspoken against China than Iran, not to mention any number of other unlovely regimes? The outspokenness will surely hamper the speaking; and the conundrum continues through the piece.

Next to finally, noting nature’s savagery, failing to note that goodness is not unnatural, and quoting a snippet from Mill help not at all in the rescue of what is a high soundng demand for international engagement of a certain kind that everywhere implodes for amongst the reasons above set out.

Finally, I know nothing about Wieseltier's personal committments and engagements. But if he is not, given this piece, involved in some human rights work, in some human rights organization, that kind of thing, to some degree, then this piece, so full of foaming rectitude, and that personal uninvolvement in my book would mark him an odious hypocrite, who does not walk as he talks

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