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Issue No. 98 (October 1, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

“Ethical Realism”:
The foreign policy we need now

We don’t have to choose between interventionism and neo-isolationism.

In fact, our long-term interests will suffer if our foreign policy is dominated either by classical realism (one-eyed selfishness) or by starry-eyed altruism (spreading “democracy” or providing “foreign aid” as fast and as far as we can).

For the U.S. to survive and flourish -- and help the rest of the world survive and flourish -- our next foreign policy “must combine elements of both traditional pragmatism and morality.”

That is the core message of a just-published book by two young foreign policy analysts, Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World (Pantheon, 2006).

It is not another abstract foreign policy tome, full of pious platitudes about The Road Ahead.

It is a passionately written manifesto. It articulates a coherent and full-fledged alternative to Kissingeresque realism and Wilsonian idealism. It couldn’t be more specific about how to deal with Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Russia, China.

Best of all, it explains how the U.S. can contribute mightily to a world that works for everyone.

The messengers

Lieven and Hulsman are not outsiders throwing rocks at The System. For years, Lieven had been an up-and-coming foreign policy analyst at the mainstream but left-leaning Carnegie Endowment in Washington DC; Hulsman was his counterpart at the powerful right-wing Heritage Foundation down the street.

But their consciences got the better of their careerist ambitions.

Journalist and author James Traub recently revealed that “Hulsman has said Heritage fired him soon after the book project [entailing collaboration with a well-known Carnegie lefty] was announced" (see Traub, "Old World Order," New York Times, 12 November 2006).

Lieven has not publicly spoken about his leave-taking from Carnegie. But his connection with it is not mentioned in his book bio, or in the Acknowledgements, and there is a telling reference on p. 101 to grandiose American-style-democracy-spreading fantasies “shared not just by neoconservatives and liberal hawks, but by . . . majorities in establishment think tanks like the Carnegie Endowment.”

“[Anatol and I] had real world consequences to consider,” Hulsman says (“Beyond the Neocons,” Open Democracy, 21 September 2006). “Nevertheless, we were determined to write our book. . . .

“At one particularly low point, we soberly assessed what might happen to us. I replied instinctively, with the words that end our Declaration of Independence: ‘We pledge our lives, our fortune, and our sacred honor.’ We grinned weakly at each other and left; we have repeated the vow at the end of countless other conversations. . . .

“Anatol and I, along with many, many of our friends, have decided to play a more active role, in line with what we think public-policy intellectuals owe their society. . . . [W]e must risk all that we have for the ideas we believe in. It is past time talking, now is the time to act politically.”

Today Hulsman is advising and freelancing, and Lieven is at the New America Foundation, Washington’s first radical-centrist think tank. And their book is selling well.

Radical-centrist perspective

The first third of the book clears the ground for ethical realism by going back to certain Truman-Eisenhower-era thinkers -- especially the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the political scientist Hans Morgenthau, and the diplomat George Kennan.

I was especially delighted to see that the authors included a theologian, and they quote him -- most relevantly -- as follows:

It is possible for both individuals and groups [including nations] to relate concern for the other with interest and concern for the self. There are endless varieties of creativity in community; for neither the individual nor the community can realize itself except in relation to, and in encounter with, other individuals and groups.

Much of ethical realism follows from Niebuhr’s solidaridist but anti-totalitarian philosophy. For example, the insistence on combining the idealistic and the practical (as was done in the 1940s in the Marshall Plan), and the refusal to divide the world into clear areas of black and white, good and evil.

According to the authors, it was (most) Republicans’ and (most) Democrats’ insistence on seeing the world in terms of Good vs. Evil that led to our quagmire in Iraq (as well as Vietnam). Neocons and “liberal hawks” may speak loftily about America’s mission to spread democracy around the world, but behind their soaring rhetoric is the dangerously messianic notion that we are the font of all good.

In real life, say the authors, we can be more good than bad; but only if we act in accordance with ethical realist principles.

Ethical-realist principles

The second third of the book spells out those principles, as follows:

Prudence. Don’t aim for utopia (as David Korten does in The Great Turning, reviewed HERE); aim for “mere” decency instead.  For example, be a good steward of what you’ve been given. Or, for example, if you insist on invading Iraq, have a Plan B in case things don’t turn out according to Plan A!

Humility. Be tolerant, be patient, and remember that no nation (America included) is ever absolutely good. That's harder than you might assume. For example, a well-meaning John Edwards-Jack Kemp task force report in March 2006 on the decline in U.S.-Russian relations was full of criticism of Russia, but included “not one suggestion that any U.S. action toward Russia over the past 15 years has been in any way wrong or harmful.”

Study. Play close attention to the needs and wants of other peoples. “You need not just intelligence and hard work but also a sympathetic and creative imagination.”

Responsibility. Having good intentions is not enough! “One must weigh the likely consequences [of U.S. actions] and, perhaps most important, judge what actions are truly necessary” to achieve U.S. goals. And one must ask whether U.S. “vital interests” are engaged before undertaking major commitments.

Patriotism. Some political extremists long for an idealized past, others for an ideal future. “Both tendencies have shared an indifference or even hostility to their country, and countrymen, as these actually exist.” Patriots are attached to a country and its people as they actually exist. Such patriotism “is not only a spur to duty, service, honesty, and self-sacrifice but can also be a force for an international ‘community of reason.’”

Having been through the “transformational” (aka post-New-Left, aka New Age) political movements of the 1970s and 1980s, the first thing that struck me about Lieven and Hulsman’s five principles is how similar they are to principles that were expressed by transformational thinkers like Fritjof Capra, Marilyn Ferguson, Willis Harman, Hazel Henderson, Theodore Roszak, E.F. Schumacher, and the young Mark Satin (we might have called them “appropriateness,” “spirituality,” “compassion,” “maturity,” and “community,” respectively).

Of course, those principles never caught on in Washington DC; but having them expressed by a new generation of highly qualified “insider” change agents, in a less precious language, for mainstream policy analysts and other mainstream political operatives, may make all the difference.

The second thing that struck me is that many of those principles boil down to one overriding virtue -- seeing the world as others see it; putting yourself in the skins of other peoples. Lieven and Hulsman mince no words on this point. “The number [of policy analysts in Washington DC] who are actually capable of placing themselves in the skins of most Russians can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” they say in a typical passage.

And they’re not just talking about neocons. For example, they accuse New Republic editor-at-large Peter Beinart of “an indifference verging on autism toward the views of the Muslim world.” If political writers and policymakers fail to listen to (let alone learn from) the voices of other peoples, the authors say, then we’ll never be able to build a better and more secure world.

Prosperity first, democracy later

In conjunction with the five ethical-realist principles, Lieven and Hulsman proffer the notion of the “Great Capitalist Peace.”

That ill-advised phrase, a sign that the authors are still firmly rooted in Washington DC, doesn’t mean what some activists might take it to mean: American hegemony exercised not so much by our government as by our corporations.

Instead, it’s meant to point to an alternative to American hegemony. Instead of spreading American-style democracy around the world (with little consultation with the presumed beneficiaries), we should work with other nations around the world to lay the groundwork for successful economic development all over the world.

That will assuredly include preserving the market system everywhere in some form (“the world in general benefit[s] from the overall prosperity that an increase in free trade brings”). It will also necessarily include helping other nations establish the rule of law, a “reasonably independent and efficient” court system and police, a “law-abiding, honest, and rational bureaucracy,” labor rights, and free speech.

Do all this, the authors believe, and indigenous forms of democracy (some bearing little formal resemblance to ours) will eventually arise all over the world.

Again, the authors’ approach finds parallels in earlier political movements. For example, one could argue that the social justice movement’s venerable cry, “No justice, no peace,” is a crude formulation of Lieven and Hulsman’s position.

Real-world applications

The final third of the book applies ethical-realist principles to various hot spots around the world. It is only here that you can see how eminently usable the ethical-realist perspective is.

Middle East peace? Can’t happen without a “regional concert, sponsored by the U.S., the EU, and the other major world powers” -- in part because such a concert would permit the U.S. to take a step back from its current self-defeating strategy of “unilateral regional hegemony.”

Iran? In the short term, freeze Iranian nuclear capabilities well short of weaponization. In the long term, “integrate Iran into the Great Capitalist Peace in a way that will make Iranians see the possession of nuclear weapons as just as irrelevant to their real national needs as do Brazilians."

China? “Americans must recognize that domination of East Asia is now impossible. China is already simply too strong. . . . The Chinese must recognize, however, that it is equally impossible for them to replace American domination with their own unilateral hegemony.” Quite apart from America’s presence in the region, Japan and Vietnam are significant players there. It isn’t only the U.S. that needs to see the world from the perspective of the Other!

Three big concerns

Ethical Realism is the most significant radical-middle foreign policy book of our time.  And it is wonderfully written. The authors -- no doubt partly out of frustration -- come across as feelingful human beings, as well as quick and brilliant (I met Lieven at the New America Foundation function summarized HERE, and he is in fact quick and brilliant -- a bit obnoxious, too; he patted his paunch and pronounced that that was his "radical middle"). It is important to break down the various cultural and human barriers between Beltway policy analysts and the American people, and this book does more than its fair share of that.

I do have three concerns:

-- I think we should consider using “humanitarian military intervention” to stop genocide and mass murder in places like Darfur and the Congo, even when it’s not in the U.S.’s so-called “vital interests” to do so. Sometimes Ethics 101 must be allowed to trump carefully calibrated “ethical realism.” See my argument HERE, and see Samantha Power’s magnificent book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (2002).

-- Regional concerts may work well at certain times and places, but in the long run we’re going to have to strengthen international institutions in order to survive as One Family. Amitai Etzioni makes that argument in a book reviewed HERE, and the New America Foundation's  Robert Wright makes it in a recent article in the New York Times.

-- The authors say repeatedly that we should stop splitting the world into Good and Evil. I agree!  But they offer no clue as to HOW most of us might stop doing this. Surely jawboning by policy analysts -- or even by elected officials -- won’t carry most of us to that benign psychological space.

The transformational movements of the 1970s and 1980s, for all their flaws, did seriously try to address this issue, but even well-written books like Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980) and Willis Harman’s Global Mind Change (1988) are probably too wedded to their time and subculture to be of much use to the current generation of ethical-realist policy analysts.

Possibly the best place for such analysts to begin is with Robert Karen’s essay “Terror and Forgiveness” (chap. 27 in Danielle Knafo, ed., Living with Terror, Working with Terror: A Clinician’s Handbook, 2005). Karen, whose book The Forgiving Self was reviewed by us HERE, is a prominent New York psychiatrist, and his essay wrestles admirably with the question of how we can learn to keep our frustrations and rage from causing us to see the world as "split into good and evil.” (Hint: Developing a “secure self” might help.)

Those are three big concerns. Still, any book that can put such concerns forthrightly on the table deserves to win Radical Middle Newsletter’s Political Book Award for 2006 (see HERE). May the authors -- now free of their partisan think-tanks -- find a home in many Congressional offices on both sides of the aisle. And in a couple of social change organizations as well.



For a brief introduction to the concept of ethical realism, see Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, "Ethical Realism," The Huffington Post, November 3, 2006.  For a barbed and fascinating exchange between Lieven and a founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, see "On Might, Ethics and Realism," The National Interest, November 30, 2006.

A couple of months before Ethical Realism was published, Robert Wright (author of Nonzero, reviewed HERE) articulated a strategy called "progressive realism."  See Wright, "An American Foreign Policy That Both Realists and Idealists Should Fall in Love With," New York Times, July 16, 2006.

In November 2001, I articulated a strategy called "visionary realism."  See Mark Satin, "Tough on Terrorism AND Tough on the Causes of Terrorism: Our Only Hope," Radical Middle Newsletter, November 2001, second sub-head down ("visionary realism insists on the need for a two-track strategy -- one track unapologetically aimed at destroying the networks that attacked us, the other track aimed at changing the conditions that make terrorism seem rational or attractive or admirable to many").


Although I deeply admire all the books we've discussed from the year 2006, the 2006 Radical Middle Political Book Award -- the 27th annual book award we've given out (going all the way back to Renewal and New Options newsletters) -- goes to Lieven and Hulsman's Ethical Realism, reviewed above.



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