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The Exhausting Worldview of the Neocons

Your humble blogger has been attending Chatham House-y type meetings recently in which Very Prominent Neooconservatives have been participating.  It's been a while since I've really had to sit and listen to their increasingly unpopular worldview.  And the more I thought about it, the more I began to appreciate that for the True Believers of the neoconservative faith, watching world politics much be exhausting

To understand what I mean, consider two stories plucked not entirely at random from the news wires.  The first is Israel's decision to stop throwing a public temper tantrum and to start focusing on the coming negotiations with Iran and accept that the interim deal is a fait accompli

Israel is shifting its tactics over the Iran nuclear talks, moving from fierce public criticism of the Obama administration to private pressure about the next stage of the negotiations, according to US, Israeli and western officials.

After several weeks when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly tried to lobby US public opinion against the interim agreement with Iran reached last month in Geneva, the Israeli government is now looking to use its influence in Washington to shape the administration’s negotiating position.

A team of senior Israeli officials led by Yossi Cohen, national security adviser, is due to visit Washington in the coming days to begin detailed discussions with the Obama administration.

Mr Netanyahu described the Geneva deal as a “historic mistake”, appearing to open a new breach in relations between the two countries and offering a reminder of the difficult relationship Mr Obama and the Israeli leader have had over the past five years.

However, Israel’s government, despite its sharp words, believes the deal that was finally reached was better than a previous draft on the table because of its lobbying of the six powers involved and now plans to continue the effort in Washington.

“Our opinion is still that the first deal was a move in the wrong direction,” said an Israeli official. “But that’s water under the bridge and we will now focus on what is going to happen in the coming months.”

Now, to you or me, this reads like Israel adapting to reality and trying to maintain its influence over the evolving geopolitical arrangements in the Middle East.  To neoconservatives, however, this is Israel in retreat.  They've given up on fighting the interim deal!  Their threat to launch a military strike against Iran has been exposed as empty rhetoric!!  Why should Iran ever take Netanyahu seriously again? 

The key things to realize about the neoconservative worldview is that: 

1)  Reputation and the image of strength are everything;

2)  Countries bandwagon to the strong states and eschew the weak states. 

3)  Even the slightest concession in the present weakens one's reputation and strength for the future; so

4)  Any concession in a present negotiation ineluctably leads to unconditional surrender in the future. 

If you think that news item will put neoconservatives in a tizzy, then this one about easing Sino-American tensions over the new ADIZ will send them into orbit: 

The U.S. and China both signaled they are backing away from a confrontation over China's new air-defense zone, with both nations moving toward an understanding that the zone won't be policed in ways that threaten the region or endanger the lives of pilots and passengers.

U.S. officials insist the defense zone established by China on Nov. 23 over disputed islands in the East China Sea is illegitimate. Some said privately that they don't expect China to roll it back.

Vice President Joe Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping met more than five hours in Beijing on Wednesday to discuss the air-defense zone and other issues....

[T]here was little talk of China formally rescinding the air-defense identification zone, or ADIZ. A defense official echoed the U.S. position that China shouldn't "implement" the zone—statements that could suggest the U.S. wants China to halt steps toward adopting the stringent regulations Beijing originally announced.

The U.S. position, coupled with China's elastic interpretation of its own rules so far, appeared to reduce the immediate threat of the standoff widening into a military clash that could embroil the U.S.

China on Thursday asked the U.S. to respect the zone, saying it complied with international norms. But China added that it was willing to discuss "technical issues" with other countries on flight safety in the region.

Beijing has also clarified requirements that aircraft file reports or face unspecified defensive measures.

China's defense ministry, which issued the rules, now says the military won't shoot down aircraft in the zone, and will instead monitor and identify them, only sending up fighter jets to track them if they are considered a threat.

Defense experts said that interpretation of the rules is relatively close to how other countries, including the U.S. and Japan, enforce air-defense zones, which are established unilaterally and aren't regulated by an international body.

"Here we have our ally, Japan, saying the zone should be undone, but that's a position the U.S. is unlikely to take," said M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on China and international security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The real question is what you do to enforce it, so that's why you see the U.S. increasingly focusing on the procedures." He added that "there's been an evolution" in the U.S. position.

Fravel calls it an evolution, and most analysts would see this as a decent compromise that saves face for most of the involved parties.  Neoconservatives see this as the first pebble of an inexorable avalanche that will lead to the ejection of U.S. influence from the Western Pacific, the abject surrender of South Korea and Japan to regional Chinese hegemony, and the evaporation of U.S. credibility in the region.

Here's the thing:  every once in a while, the neoconservatives are right.  There are other actors out there who share this kind of bullying worldview, and the neoconservative policy response is usually best way to deal with them.  The problem is that most actors in the world -- yes, including China and Iran -- don't think this way.  They fear balancing coalitions and are sensitive to the security dilemma and so forth.  Responding in a neoconservative fashion to these actors is counterproductive.  A mixture of prudence, tough-minded negotiations and patient policy planning works better. 

But if you buy into the neoconservative worldview, this approach to threats seems like the first step on the road to abject surrender (and, to be fair, the Obama administration's track record on policy planning has been... not great).  So you warn people of the dangers.  And after a decade in which Americans are listening to you less and less, these warnings have to get more shrill just to have an impact -- which, of course, only undercuts the reputation and credibility of those speaking so shrilly. 

So, today, I do have some sympathy for the neoconservatives.  Theirs is a lonely, exhausting worldview -- and it's not going to get better anytime soon.   

Daniel W. Drezner

The Great Convergence of American Foreign Policy Beliefs

Yesterday the Pew Research Center and Council on Foreign Relations released their America's Place in the World survey of mass public and elite  attitudes about American foreign policy.  The headlines and the press coverage are unsurprising for anyone who's paid attention to this sort of thing over the past five years or so.  Most Americans think the U.S. is less powerful than it was a decade ago; that China is now more powerful than the United States; that the U.S. should "mind it's own business internationally," and so forth.  About the only thing that counts as a surprise is the resilient enthusiasm for economic globalization in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.  The CFR analysis points out that these findings do not equal a newfound enthusiasm for isolationism, which is true as far as it goes, but you'd expect the CFR analysts to push this line. 

What I think is interesting, however, is the growing convergence between mass attitudes and elite attitudes about American foreign policy.  A recurring theme among those who study public opinion has been that there's a foreign policy disconnect between Washington elites and the rest of the country -- the former is far more enthusiastic about liberal internationalism than the latter

Comparing the responses of CFR members to the broader survey, however, this disconnect seems... narrower than it used to be.  Consider these snippets from Pew

Members of the Council on Foreign Relations, like the general public, believe that the U.S. global power has declined; 62% say the United States plays a less powerful and important role than it did a decade ago....

Nearly three years after start of the Arab Spring, most members of the Council on Foreign Relations prioritize stability over democracy in the Middle East. Nearly two-thirds (64%) say stable governments are more important, even if there is less democracy in the region, while 32% say democratic governments are more important, even if there is less stability.

In this regard, the opinions of CFR members are similar to those of the public: 63% of the public views stable governments as more important in the Middle East, while just 28% say democratic governments are more important.

So is there total convergence?  Not exactly: 

In essence, CFR members are much less concerned with the perceived negative externalities of economic globalization and more concerned about climate change as a policy problem.  That said, there's a pretty robust correlation of other priorities.  Counterterrorism and counter-proliferation remain top priorities, the promotion of human rights and democracy does not [I'll note with bemusement that the American public is much more enthusiastic about strengthening the United Nations and move on.]

What's driving this convergence of views?  I'd suggest that the hangover of Iraq, the curdling of the Arab Spring, the Great Recession, and the evaporation of the neoconservative wing of the GOP foreign policy apparatus all have something to do with it (see here for more).  Furthermore, in policy terms the convergence has been even more concentrated:  President's Obama's policies towards Syria and Iran mirror public attitudes much more closely than elite attitudes. 

It is possible that some of these trends might get reversed over time. A resurgent economy could cause CFR members to get friskier about projecting power overseas.  A hawkish GOP nominee could cause a partisan shift -- though as of now I'd put money on the 2016 GOP presidential nominee having less hawkish views than either John McCain or Mitt Romney.  Still, analysts who used to complain about a divergence between the American public and the foreign policy community over foreign affairs need to stop complaining -- because the trend is now one of convergence. 

Am I missing anything?