Hume on the futility of realpolitik

It turns out that studying the reign of Edward I allowed Hume to forsee the history of Bush the Lesser:

That neglect, almost total, of truth and justice, which sovereign states discover in their transactions with each other, is an evil universal and inveterate; is one great source of the misery to which the human race is continually exposed; and it may be doubted whether, in many instances, it be found in the end to contribute to the interests of those princes themselves, who thus sacrifice their integrity to their politics.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

12 thoughts on “Hume on the futility of realpolitik”

  1. Prof. Kleiman —

    Get with the program — liberals no longer criticize conservatives for realpolitik, but for the departing from it. The current right-thinking is that George W. Bush was a wild-eyed idealist pursuing truth and justice, and now, as a good liberal, you're supposed to pick up the Scowcroftian "He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch" mantle:

    …Barack Obama's election as U.S. president delighted many people, especially the self-described foreign-policy "realists" who accused his predecessor, George W. Bush, of denying reality in favor of dangerous idealism. Obama has praised the realpolitik of Bush's father, George H.W. Bush. And a White House official recently told the Wall Street Journal, "[Obama] has really kind of clicked with that old-school, end-of-the-Cold-War wise-men generation." The elder Bush's national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, called Obama's election a rejection of the younger Bush "in favor of realism."…

    Of course, I could be wrong and "Bush the Lesser" could refer to George H.W. Bush, in which case you're really out of touch with the left.

  2. Horseball, if your only evidence for what liberals (are supposed to) think is an article written by Paul Wolfowitz, you're coming to the debate unarmed.

  3. Vance-

    How about E.J. Dionne?:

    "…What's most striking about Obama's approach to foreign policy is that he is less an idealist than a realist who would advance American interests by diplomacy, by improving the country's image abroad, and by using military force prudently and cautiously.

    This sounds a lot like the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush, and it makes perfect sense that Obama has had conversations with the senior Bush's closest foreign-policy adviser, Brent Scowcroft. Obama has drawn counsel from many in Scowcroft's circle; Gates was deputy national-security adviser under Scowcroft…."

    Or this guy:

    "…Barack Obama’s reaction to the mass protests and violence in Iran shows he is following through on his pledge to be more like George H.W. Bush rather than his son, George W. Bush. Obama has admired the father’s realism and has criticized the idealistic neo-conservatism of the son…"

    Or this one:

    "…The relationship between the president-elect and the Republican heavyweight suggests that Mr. Scowcroft's views, which place a premium on an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, might hold sway in the Obama White House…."

    Or the notorious neoconservative outlet, the New York Times:

    "…It may be the imperative of building a global order for the 21st century that accounts for the strikingly realist cast to the Obama administration’s conduct of foreign affairs. Both the president and his chief aides have steered clear of the language of democracy. In China in March, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said bluntly that America’s concern about human rights “can’t interfere” with progress on the global economy, climate change and other issues…."

    Welcome to the Kissingerian fold, my Obamaniacs! Isn't it exciting and uplifting?

  4. Vance – you any kin to Samuel Augustus Maverick? -, Horseball is right that there's been a stylized argument between realists & neoconservatives. Either Kleiman is strangely unaware of this, or he's aware of it, & still finds it possible to both disapprove of Bush's conduct of foreign policy and approve of the passage from Hume. A lot of people will do the latter, & I don't see anything particularly casuistic about it.

  5. Yes, that's more like evidence that the Obama administration and mainstream liberals are tending towards "realism" in the international-relations sense. I take Kleiman's posting of this quotation to mean, "So much the worse for them!" To the extent, Horseball, that you're aiming at "Obamaniacs", you've come to the wrong place. And I hope we're all clear that there are more options in foreign policy than those represented by the two Bush administrations.

    (And yes, K, that Maverick was my great-great-grandfather.)

  6. "Realpolitik" and "realism" aren't the same idea. Hume was writing about the frank aggression of a Bismarck (or, in his case, Edward I), not the caution of a Scowcroft.

    As it happens, I'm hostile both to the disconnection from reality of Wilsonian idealism and to the cynicism that often hides under the name of "realism" in foreign policy: the sort of unrealistic "realism" that saw wisdom in making friends with Batista and de Klerk the Shah and the ISI and the House of Saud, earning us the hatred of their victims and their victims' descendents. And I'm even more hostile to the neo-cons, who use idealist language to cloak an imperialist agenda, and who think that support for torture makes them manly.

    Insofar as foreign-policy discourse is caught in the idealist-realist polarity, and insofar as Bush-Cheney imperialism wore idealist clothing, it's natural for people to think of Obama as moving back toward the realist tradition. No doubt Scowcroft is happy to have a President who hasn't parted company with consensus reality.

    But insofar as Obama's foreign policy looks like Nixon's, I reserve the right to criticize it, Kool-aid drinker though I am. Those of us on the reality-based side of the argument try to keep our loyalty this side of idolatry.

  7. Interesting point, Horseballs. (sorry, I couldn't resist! 🙁 )

    It seems to me there is still a rather large difference between the Kissinger/Kirkpatrick model and the sort that some liberals embrace. With the former, you would favor propping up this or that regime for reasons of both economic and political principle – namely to defend against foreseen anti-imperialism or communism. Support for vicious, undemocratic brutality was justified by the greater threat of where these leftist movements were imagined to lead. Yet there was always a good deal of sympathy for the plutocratic regimes. Not only were they acting as proxies for western interests that stood to lose substantial investments, but their very existence was in large part a natural extension of the capitalist narrative: that in markets there are winners and losers, and pity he who ends up on the losing side.

    Yet with modern liberal realism, concerned as it is inherently in the progressive concept of social justice, it seems you have less an apology for the propping of regimes’ right to exist, and more a pragmatic, short-term avoidance of instability so as to increase not only future democracy and economic prosperity but social equality. When undemocratic Afghanistan is given aid to go after the Taliban or Al Queda, no apologies are made for the paradigm – within the logic of liberalism it is certainly illegitimate. What’s more, it is hard to compare the brutality of the Taliban & Al Queda with the Sandinistas or most other communist revolutionaries (although you could draw reasonable comparisons between the Taliban and Latin American Death Squads). Going further, Hamid Karzai – or even Gen. Musharaff are hardly Samoza or Pinochet.

  8. I take Mark's use of the word "Obamaniac" back there as ironic — like the "Right Wing Nut House" blog, which is defiantly rightwing, but doesn't sincerely seem to think of itself as nuts. Reading the posts here, I see an old-school ('60s/'70s) liberal sensibility, thus a supporter of Obama in the context of the last race, but not to the extent of identifying with him, or leaving him uncriticized.

  9. Prof. Kleiman-

    I don't know if there is a distinction between Realpolitik and realism in the way they're used in the media. My understanding of the etymology of "Realpolitik" meant something more closely focused on what we might call physical assets — coal mines, warm-water ports, and the like. I believe this original understanding has totally fallen out of use.

    I think that there is at least some common ground here — the way we were doing business in the Middle East for many decades was dominated by what you refer to as cynicism. That way outlived whatever usefulness that it had, and if nothing else 9/11 highlighted the fact that these policies had outlived whatever useful lives they might have had. While you (and many others) criticize Bush, the reality that the old way was done for must be recognized by all.

    There seems to be some understating of the Scowcroftian influence — he's not just relieved, his acolytes are pulling the levers. Insofar as you assert there is a difference between the Obama administration and Nixonian policy, I'd like to see one concrete question upon which they come to different conclusions. Support for the Iranian protesters? Support for the House of Saud? Support for Mubarak?

    (What's with the swipe at Bismarck? The guy was a brilliant statesman who unified his country then quickly formed a web of alliances that kept the peace in Europe for 40 tumultuous years. He restrained military adventurism in his country much more than fostered it.)


    I think one of the points we're dwelling on is the distinction between Kissinger and Kirkpatrick. Both may have been pursuing anti-communist policies, but I don't think you could conceive of Nixon delivering the "tear down this wall" speech or refering to the Soviet Union as an "Evil Empire".


    Is there a non-ironic use of the term "Obamaniac?"

  10. When Andrew Sabl required me as a junior (or senior) to read Hume, I didn't get it.

    And now, 6 years after having taken Sabl's class…I still don't get Hume. Please, no more Hume.

  11. Horseball: "The current right-thinking is that George W. Bush was a wild-eyed idealist pursuing truth and justice."

    Exactly. Justice demanded that Bush get a photo op on an aircraft carrier, and faced with the truth that he would have to kill half a million Iraqi's to get it, Bush demonstrated that he was a wild-eyed idealist by not letting the difficulty of killing half a million Iraqi's stop him.

    I know I shouldn't feed the troll, but Horseball's attempt to attribute his defense of George Bush to liberals is notable for its sheer audacity.

Comments are closed.