Blogs > Cliopatria > Review of Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman's Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World

Oct 7, 2006 6:47 pm


Review of Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman's Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World



George W. Bush still has more than two years to serve as president, but it isn't too early to proclaim his foreign policy to be a failure. America no longer is seen as unbeatable; its moral authority has largely dissipated. What has been termed resolute will at home is seen as foolhardy arrogance abroad. U.S. friends have grown distant, while China and Russia are resisting American initiatives. The finest military on earth is being wrecked in pursuit of secondary goals.

The war in Iraq has lost the international goodwill generated by 9/11 and emboldened terrorists the world over. Iran and North Korea are moving ever closer to becoming nuclear weapons states. Washington's supposed democratic crusade is widely seen as both inept and hypocritical. After the war in Lebanon, Israel is even more distant from peace, further sullying America's reputation in the Muslim world.

Yet alternative foreign policy visions seem in short supply. The traditional conservative movement is dead. The short list of Republican presidential candidates is dominated by unthinking hawks who mimic George W. Bush's recklessness. By and large conservative pundits want to bomb more countries and kill more people. The American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation have adopted liberal Wilsonianism to guide their policy advice.

The Left is little better. While the fecklessness of the Bush administration continues to amaze, the Republicans are different in degree rather than kind from the Clinton administration. After all, it was a Democratic president who took America into a Balkan war in which the U.S. had no stake and which ended up validating ethnic cleansing by America's allies – all in the name of humanitarianism.

Today, the Left objects more to the Bush administration's dishonesty and incompetence than to its objectives. Most leading Democrats backed the Iraq war; most liberal analysts implicitly support the neoconservative agenda, having advocated the bombing of Kosovo and invasion of Iraq, and proposing to occupy Darfur. Yet it is promiscuous intervention that is bringing America to ruin.

In short, at the moment when U.S. foreign policy is in crisis, indeed, in greater disarray than any time since the Vietnam War and perhaps World War II, there is no effective political opposition or philosophical alternative. In terms of foreign policy, Washington is bankrupt.

Ethical Realism offers a glimmer of hope. Concise and informative, the book carves an alternative path out of Washington's foreign policy wilderness. The authors are Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation and John Hulsman, formerly of the Heritage Foundation. Both writers have lost jobs because of their policy independence. Most recently, Hulsman, who initially supported the Iraq war, was fired by Heritage – which has abandoned Thomas Jefferson for Woodrow Wilson – for writing this book. An organization that was skeptical of President Bill Clinton's misguided joy ride in the Balkans now cheerfully promotes nation-building on the Euphrates.

What makes the Lieven-Hulsman collaboration particularly interesting is that the authors come at foreign policy from opposite ends of the policy spectrum. As they explain:

"We are two foreign policy thinkers from what are usually taken to be opposite camps who have come together in frustration at the current states in the American foreign policy debate, and the very dangerous courses being pursued by the Bush administration and supported by leading Democrats. Our cooperation is one sign of the bankruptcy of the traditional party divisions as a way of understanding the real policy differences and alternatives facing America today. We hope that it will encourage others to break out of their tribal straitjackets and to draw up radically new approaches that will challenge both party establishments and serve the vital interests of Americans and their allies."

The animating force behind Ethical Realism is what the authors see as the veritable collapse of American foreign policy. In its drive to assert U.S. primacy, the Bush administration actually has weakened America and reduced its global influence. Judging consequences alone would lead one to question the patriotism of President Bush and his neoconservative allies. But the blame is bipartisan. Most Democratic paladins routinely regurgitate the administration's goals, simply promising to run the world competently, and with UN approval. Even many on the Left would have supported the Iraq war had it been advanced by one of their own.

Explain Lieven and Hulsman:

"What has failed in Iraq has been not just the strategy of the administration of George W. Bush, but a whole way of looking at the world. This consists of the beliefs that America is both so powerful and so obviously good that it has the ability to spread democracy throughout the world; that if necessary, this can be achieved through war; that this mission can also be made to advance particular U.S. national interests; and that this combination will naturally be supported by good people all over the world, irrespective of their own political traditions, national allegiances, and national interests."...

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