Friday, February 10, 2006


It's Rich Lowry versus Kenneth Waltz. The phones are not lighting up.

Matt Yglesias
Rich Lowry's trying to coin a term "neo-realist" for that brand of foreign policy thinker who just so happens to mix and match their realpolitik and their idealism to match up with roughly whatever George W. Bush is doing in any given situation. He notes that The Wall Street Journal used "neo-realist" as a description for Condoleezza Rice and her circle earlier this week. It's a trend!

It's a trend and it's got to stop. "Neorealism" already has an established meaning in international relations jargon -- the people who, following Kenneth Waltz, have sought to formalize and systematize the earlier "classical realism" of Hans Morgenthau, etc. Frankly, I think it's generally misleading to try and import terms derived from academic debates and map them onto policy debates. It's never been obvious to me that Brent Scowcroft's view of what American foreign policy should be like has anything in particular to do with what Waltz or John Mearsheimer have to say about the structure of international politics.

Rob Farley
Lowry wants to think that a neo-realist is someone who combines the idealism of neocons (chuckle) and the hard-headedness of realists. Since neorealism has been a functioning term of international relations theory since 1979, and since several of its proponents are prominent in both academic and public circles (particularly Mearsheimer and Waltz), and since (especially) neorealism as it stands means almost precisely the opposite of what Lowry would have it stand for, I think that Lowry should give it some thought and try to find a new phrase.

Rich Lowry responds to an emailer on the point:
I take the point. But when coming up with a new label, I'm not sure points like this really matter. They certainly didn't when everyone who supported the Iraq war was labeled a “neo-con.” John Bolton is consistently labeled a neo-con--the Wall Street Journal did it the other day--when he's clearly not, and is much closer to being a neo-realist (add him to the list). So Kenneth Waltz is going to have to move over--we're taking the phrase and using it for our own purposes...

Kenneth Waltz is going to have to move over. Sure, Rich. Sure.

Fair enough point on the careless, expansive use of the neocon label, which is I think is common. Regarding Bolton, however, let's go to the Godfather of Neoconservatism:
And then, of course, there is foreign policy, the area of American politics where neoconservatism has recently been the focus of media attention. This is surprising since there is no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience. (The favorite neoconservative text on foreign affairs, thanks to professors Leo Strauss of Chicago and Donald Kagan of Yale, is Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War.) These attitudes can be summarized in the following "theses" (as a Marxist would say): First, patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions. Precisely because we are a nation of immigrants, this is a powerful American sentiment. Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny. International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion. Third, statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the history of the Cold War revealed. The number of intelligent men who could not count the Soviet Union as an enemy, even though this was its own self-definition, was absolutely astonishing.

Finally, for a great power, the "national interest" is not a geographical term, except for fairly prosaic matters like trade and environmental regulation. A smaller nation might appropriately feel that its national interest begins and ends at its borders, so that its foreign policy is almost always in a defensive mode. A larger nation has more extensive interests. And large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal. That is why it was in our national interest to come to the defense of France and Britain in World War II. That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel today, when its survival is threatened. No complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary.

Behind all this is a fact: the incredible military superiority of the United States vis-à-vis the nations of the rest of the world, in any imaginable combination. This superiority was planned by no one, and even today there are many Americans who are in denial. (ha ha.-ed)


With power come responsibilities, whether sought or not, whether welcome or not. And it is a fact that if you have the kind of power we now have, either you will find opportunities to use it, or the world will discover them for you.

Okay, first and slightly off point, I'd love to hear Kristol's explanation of how "a set of beliefs" is different from "a set of attitudes derived from historical experience." This echoes Russell Kirk's idea that conservatism is "the negation of ideology," which I think is is a fascinating claim, albeit one that doesn't comes within telescope distance of being true of most conservatives I've met, and certainly not of conservatism as an actual movement.

Second, according to the Godfather's definition, I think John Bolton can be accurately described as neoconservative, whether or not he personally considers himself such. At the very least he's aggressively serving a neoconservative agenda, and I don't see much of a practical difference between the two.

Third, political movements and ideologies are commonly labeled by their critics, neoconservatism itself being an excellent example. I don't think you can choose a name for your own, especially when it's already the name of a rather prominent theory in the same field. So let's everybody get to work naming Rich Lowry's new theory.

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