As part of an ongoing debate that will decide upon The Future Of International Relations in Thought And Deed Once And For All, Anne-Marie Slaughter asks me a question:
Given [the reality that new Arab Spring regimes are likely to be less friendly to U.S. interests], why aren't scholars and commentators like my friendly foil Dan Drezner not actively recommending that we simply tell the Syrian government that it can do whatever it likes to its people, as Joshua Foust, Dan Trombly and their fellow defenders of absolute sovereignty insist is the right of all sovereign governments? Why didn't we encourage the Egyptian military to fire on the protesters in Tahrir Square, keep Mubarak in power, and enforce a transition to his son? North Korea's Kim Il-sung managed such a transition to Kim Jong-il, who looks set to do the same to Kim Jong-un. If states are what matter in the world, then why not do everything we can to encourage the continuation of governments that are friendly to our interests, regardless of what happens within their borders?
Well, there's a few answers to give here. The first is to read what I actually wrote about U.S. policy towards the Assad regime. The difference, you will find, is that Slaughter has a higher opinion of America's ability to direct change on the ground than I do. Consistent with what I've written in the past, U.S. influence will work better on allies than adversaries, and Syria falls under the adversary category
The second point is that realists don't deny the possibility of revolution from below -- and, indeed, that's what seemed to happen in Tunisia and Egypt. When that happens, there is a tactical benefit to being on the right side of history. It's worth recalling that with Egypt, for example, U.S. official statements evolved from "the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people" to "I hope Mubarak ... is going to respond to some of the legitimate concerns that are being raised" to "Yay! He's gone!!" A similar process happened with Syria.
The third, obvious point is that the United States has been perfectly willing to stand on the sidelines in the face of brutal crackdowns in Bahrain and other Persian Gulf states. This is because those states are strategically important, the status quo favored American interests, and the crackdowns were effective.
I say this not as a cheerleader of this policy, nor as a detractor, but simply as an observer. I'd also observe that the United States is hardly alone in engaging in this kind of hypocrisy. Iran condemned the crackdown in Bahrain while staying mum about the unrest next door in Syria, blasting the NATO intervention in Libya, and gleefully repressing its own internal protests. Saudi Arabia opposed the overthrow of Mubarak but supported the Libya intervention. Only Israel has been consistent.... in saying that they don't like this whole popular uprising thing one little bit. So, in other words, theocracies, autocracies, and democracies are all acting primarily to advance their interests whenever they can, and their values when they
can have the luxury to do so.
Fourth, I think Slaughter is suffering from a levels of analysis problem. Even the most structural of structural realists recognize that there's a difference between an individual country's foreign policy and the international system -- and I'm not much of a structuralist. In Anne-Marie's writings on this subject, she's shuttling between discussions of the best way to describe the changing international system and what American foreign policy should look like in the near term. Those two topics are related but not exactly the same. A good international relations theory can guide foreign policy actions, but it will always be an incomplete. There's simply too many variables that can be dismissed away as "random variation" at the systemic level but matter a lot at the national level.
I encourage my readers to peruse the rest of Anne-Marie's post on the changing international system, and whether you agree with her
army of metaphors characterizations. It raises much larger questions that will require further contemplation. Fortunately, I have a 12-hour flight in my immediate future.
What do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.