Two Kinds of Realism
Matthew Yglesias revisits a familiar topic: the conflict between neo-conservatism and neo-realism.
Bush in his speech tonight once again recommitted himself to the neoconservative view of foreign policy that promoting democratic change in the Middle East through a policy of confrontation with anti-American autocracies (Syria and Iran, at this point) is the best way to secure long-term peace.
Neocons share the view that democracy is the answer with the Wilsonian idealists. The difference is that the former is more pro-active, especially with regard to the utility of military power in accomplishing regime change.
In the American political context, this view tends to get contrasted with one labeled “realism” and associated loosely with Brent Scowcroft. This view, which I’ll call “Scowcroft-realism,” emphasizes the overwhelming importance of stability to American national security largely because instability risks bringing Islamist governments to power.
True enough, although Scowcroft hardly invented the theory. Indeed, while I think him a reasonable and competent foreign policy practitioner, I’ve never thought of him as a political theorist.
I’ve been noticing through my reading lately that Scowcroft-realism seems to have little relationship with the sort of theoretical neorealist position one sees in academia. The core relevant contention of the neorealist analysis of international relations is that regime type is irrelevant to international relations.
Well, not really. The neorealists contend that state power is the key variable in international relations and that any regime will act in a way to promote its interests, with the sustaining and increasing of national power as the key interest. Neorealists don’t contend that fascist regimes and democracies or Christian regimes and Muslim ones will calculate their interests in precisely the same way, though.
This is, indeed, in tension with the neoconservative view, which espouses a form of democratic peace theory. But it’s equally in tension with Scowcroft-realism, since neorealism would seem to hold that even if Islamists come to power in Egypt (or Pakistan or Iraq or wherever) this will make no difference to American security.
Democratic peace theory doesn’t conflict with neorealism. Most “peace studies” scholars, while politically liberal, would consider themselves neorealists. Indeed, that democracies don’t fight wars with other democracies is almost universally accepted among international relations scholars.
Scowcroft is a bright guy; I can’t imagine that he believes it makes no difference if Egypt went Islamist. No one from Jimmy Carter to Al Haig would dispute that it would be bad for the interests of the United States if that happened. The policy dispute is only about what to do about it.