Unrealist Foreign Policy
By Bryan Caplan
From Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War:
To assume that Russia really went to war on behalf of Serbia in 1914 is naive. Great powers do not usually mobilize armies of millions to protect the territory of minor client states. To take an obvious example from recent history, it beggars the strategic imagination to believe that the United States-led coalition truly fought the First Gulf War to reconstitute the internationally recognized boundaries of Kuwait. The “New World Order” of universally sanctified borders was a useful rhetorical fig leaf to cover up the sordid-but-necessary business of restoring order and predictability to Persian Gulf oil supplies and deterring further aggression that might disrupt them.
Likewise, Russia’s real interests in July 1914 could not possibly have been as ethereal as her public posturing about “Slavic honor and the Serbs.”
McMeekin is firmly in the “realist” school of international relations, a position I’ve previously attacked. Long story short: Realism isn’t just dogmatically unrealistic; it’s militantly uncurious. A few thoughts that immediately occur to me:
1. “Great powers do not usually mobilize armies of millions to protect the territory of minor client states.” Great powers rarely mobilize armies of millions for any reason. But when great powers fight big wars, they’re often trying to protect the territory of minor client states. If Kuwait doesn’t count, how about Korea or Vietnam?
2. Realists love to claim that there’s a true underlying motive for war that only the wise can see. But without an outright border crossing, such motives are often impotent – especially since World War II. Would the U.S. have joined the Korean War if a big army of North Koreans didn’t cross the 38th parallel? Would the U.S. have joined the Vietnam War if the Communists stayed put in North Vietnam?
3. If you can believe that countries will fight to retain “their own” minor territories, why is it so hard to believe that countries will fight to protect the territory of their minor client states?
4. If the realist theory is really so obvious, what’s the point of “fig leaves”? During the Kuwait War, there were clearly many people who did want to restore Kuwait’s borders. If leaders can mobilize support by appealing to idealism, how can you claim that idealism doesn’t have a noticeable effect on the outcome? And once you grant that many non-elites have idealistic motives, why is it so hard to believe that many elites sincerely share their sentiments? Do people lose all sense of “nationalist pride” as soon as they take a job at the Foreign Ministry?
5. If the First Gulf War was all about oil, what was the point of indefinite sanctions against Iraq after the end of the war? (And if the Iraq War was all about oil, why did the U.S. let Iraq remain in OPEC?)
6. The Russian, German, and Austrian monarchies perished as a direct result of World War I – along with millions of their citizens. If this isn’t a good reason to doubt that countries are shrewd promoters of their national interests, what would be?