Rice’s Realism

Posted January 2, 2007

Categories: Articles

Every so often the Bush administration rediscovers realism. Last week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a pitch for her own doctrine under the name of “American realism.” She told an audience that “American realism deals with the world as it is but strives to make the world better than it is.” It is amazing that she can stand up in front of audiences and say such things with a straight face. Did the Bush administration deal with Iraq as it was and leave it better off? What about global warming? Relations with Russia? Iran?

Ah, but perhaps those foreign policy snafus were the work of the neocons in the administration, the so-called idealists, the ones who pursued their ideas of democracy promotion and U.S. unilateralism regardless of antiquated notions such as balance of power. According to conventional wisdom, the neocon idealists are out of favor in Washington these days: Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz banished from the war room, John Bolton extracted like a bad tooth from the UN, Dick Cheney hobbled by scandals. In the vacuum created by their absence, Condi has revived the principles that guided her early career as a Sovietologist. Analysts credit Rice’s realism with the reversal of U.S. policy toward North Korea. Under Rice’s guidance, and in direct contradiction of Cheney, Washington sat down to negotiate with Pyongyang and hammered out the February 13 agreement.

That Rice is a realist is not in dispute. Among observers of the Bush administration, she’s been the Great Realist Hope for some time. “As an academic, she says she has melded her realism—the view that great powers act in their own self-interest—with what she calls Bush’s idealism, or what his critics say is his naive belief in a ‘moral’ American foreign policy that can spread democracy throughout the world,” wrote Elisabeth Bumiller in a profile in The New York Times back in 2004.

When she became secretary of state one year later, hopes ran high that realism would calm the idealistic fever dreams of the administration. Howard LaFranchi, writing in The Christian Science Monitor, cited U.S. flexibility in negotiations with Iran, greater cooperation with European allies, and the avoidance of “blunt criticism” of Hezbollah in Lebanon as evidence of a “shift to realism” in the administration under Rice’s tutelage.

But where did all that realism end up? The administration continues to threaten Iran, it backed Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006, and Washington’s missile defense bases in the Czech Republic and Poland have once again roiled transatlantic relations. In the last 19 months of the Bush administration, Rice’s new “American realism” may well end up in the same doctrinal dustbin as earlier versions. Even Rice herself, judging from a recent Newsweek interview, has low expectations.

In any case, the division between realism and idealism is largely academic. After all, almost everyone wants to be a realist. The term has real-world connotations of pragmatism, and who doesn’t want to be known as pragmatic? Even that godfather of crackpot foreign policy, Lyndon Larouche, styles himself a realist. For all their talk of democracy promotion, the neocons too acted in the narrow self-interest of the United States, always mindful of petropolitics, military contracts, and U.S. trade balance. Perhaps it all boils down to power. “Realism” is just a code word for the recognition of limits. The administration official who wakes up in the morning in the full flush of idealism goes to bed a realist after reading the reports of U.S. casualties in Iraq, the revival of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and plummeting U.S. popularity abroad and administration popularity at home.

Law of the Sea

Perhaps it is the influence of Rice’s realism, but the Bush administration has taken a sensible position on the International Law of the Sea convention. So far, 155 countries have ratified the nearly 40-year-old convention, but not the United States. Particularly during the bleak period when Jesse Helms (R-NC) chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the United States was quite unrealistically opposed to the convention on the grounds of sovereignty and market principles. Nevertheless, it’s a win-win piece of international law—for environmentalists who want to preserve marine life, for corporations that want to exploit minerals and oil, for nations that want a dispute resolution mechanism to handle jurisdictional conflicts at sea.

Despite its antipathy toward international institutions and treaties, the Bush administration came out in favor of ratification on May 15. “Now the ball is in Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden’s (D-DE) court,” writes FPIF contributor Don Kraus in Time to Ratify the Law of the Sea. “Biden is planning hearings this summer. However, some Senate staffers are concerned that if a final vote is not held on the treaty before the Senate goes into recess at the beginning of August, the window of opportunity will close because of the partisan pressures of the accelerated 2008 election cycle.”

Another sign of environmental realism might be Bush’s shift on climate change. Just before the recent G8 meeting, the president finally acknowledged the urgency of the problem by proposing a “new global framework” to address greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, Bush’s proposal was for voluntary limits and it undercut the German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s call for cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 50% of their 1990 levels by 2050 and increasing energy efficiency by 50% by 2020.

In any case, as FPIF columnist Walden Bello writes in Climate Change Flap at the G8, neither the Bush nor the Merkel plan is adequate. “A close look at a leaked draft of the G8 declaration reveals that the Merkel-Bush quarrel concerns details not substance,” Bello writes. “The guiding principle of the document’s approach to climate change is to ‘decouple economic growth from energy use.’ In other words, economic growth remains central and sacrosanct, meaning that the G8 will not likely propose any cuts in consumption levels.”

In Iraq

Some administrations are born to realism, some achieve realism, and others have realism thrust upon them.

As FPIF contributor Dan Smith explains, the Iraqi parliament may well vote down an extension of the UN mandate, which provides a cover for the U.S. occupation. In exchange for an extension, the parliament might demand the very timelines for withdrawal that Congress has so far been unwilling to approve. ” There is little doubt that Bush would be unhappy to get that kind of news from Baghdad as it would put to the test his own promise to withdraw U.S. troops should that request be made by the Iraqi government,” Smith writes in Showdown at the Baghdad Corral.

The Democrats are not doing all that much better on the realism front. Congress, under their leadership, has failed to restrict much less stop the Iraq War, done little on global warming, and most recently, made matters worse for Israel-Palestinian relations. As FPIF Middle East editor Stephen Zunes writes in Jerusalem: Endorsing the Right of Occupation, Congress recently commemorated the 40 th anniversary of the Six Day War in 1967 by recognizing Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. “The bipartisan decision to pass a resolution celebrating Israel’s military conquest at a time when there is a growing consensus among Palestinians, Israelis, and the international community that a shared Jerusalem is imperative for a durable peace appears to have been designed to undermine the peace process,” Zunes writes.

Venezuelan Youth

There is much discussion in the U.S. media of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his shutdown of Radio Caracas Television, a network that has not attempted to hide its disdain for the leader. Venezuelan students have been at the forefront of the protests against the shutdown.

This week we have an essay from FPIF contributor James Suggett on the political ferment within the youth movement in Venezuela. He gives a first-hand report on Venezuelan youth street culture festivals that provide young people not only with a chance to listen to good music but also to reclaim public space and connect with the larger social and political transformations in the country.

But there is a diversity of opinion among young people. Suggett quotes one activist who “fears social movements are losing autonomy, and strongly disagrees with the popular belief that Chávez’s presidency is necessary for the survival of the revolution. ‘We cannot elect rebellion.’ he quips. ‘Elected leaders who legislate when, how, where, and why the people will organize ourselves is not a strategy for long-term radical change.’”

Finally, at FPIF this week, you can read Sameer Dossani’s scathing critique of World Bank salaries in Wolfowitz’s Golden Parachute and three final comments—by Robin Hahnel, Michael Foley, and Matt Meyer—in the debate over the future of the U.S. peace movement.

FPIF, June 11, 2007

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