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Jul 19, 2006 9:33 pm


Progressive Realism?



In the vein of the Truman Democrats, Beirnartian liberalism and Ikenberrian liberal realism, Robert Wright has weighted in with what he labels ‘Progressive Realism’.Essentially, he argues that what is needed is the idealism traditionally attributed to liberal foreign policy combined with a degree of realism that reflects the changing nature of American strategic interests.

The proposal is a response to what he feels is a false dichotomy between the “chillingly clinical self-interest” of traditional realism, and the “dangerously naïve altruism” of neo-conservatism.A choice, he argues, which has serious limitations.

The realism in his argument stems from a broadened interpretation of American interests beyond the preservation of state integrity, the core of traditional realism.This of course, is a consequence of the globalizing of vulnerability.In Morgenthauian terms:

America’s fortunes are growing more closely correlated with the fortunes of people far away; fewer games have simple win-lose outcomes, and more have either win-win or lose-lose outcomes.

The liberalism in his proposal is similar to that proposed by Beinart and the Truman Democrats – multilateralism as a necessary tool for both pragmatically addressing the global nature of threats, as well as a means of legitimising American international engagement.

He concludes that what is needed is a reinvigoration of post-war multilateral institutions, legitimised by the active involvement of the US. As he summarizes:

President Bush’s belated diplomatic involvement in Darfur suggests growing enlightenment, but sluggish ad hoc multilateralism isn’t enough. We need multilateral structures capable of decisively forceful intervention and nation building — ideally under the auspices of the United Nations, which has more global legitimacy than other candidates. America should lead in building these structures and thereafter contribute its share, but only its share. To some extent, the nurturing of international institutions and solid international law is simple thrift.

The question of course is the same one that many have asked of Beinhart, Ikenberry and Kupchan over the past year - how is this different than simple liberal internationalism?

I suppose that one way is that the Realist aspect of Wrights proposal would limit American involvement in broader/global security issues to those with the greatest overarching and broadly defined strategic consequence for the US.As he puts it, this would obviously prioritise the Middle East over the Sri Lankan civil war.While I can see the attractiveness of this for a US domestic audience, unless these overlapped identically with perceive global interests, then this would undermine the very multilateralism for which he advocates.He wants to have his cake (the benefits of multilateral institutions), with out the sacrifice (collaborativethreat prioritization).This is ok when the interest converge, as is the case with the current dynamic in the Middle East or arguably with a new nuclear arms control regime (for which Wright is an advocate).But what happens when they do not?

Who knows if progressive realism will catch on -in a sense though, it doesn’t matter. There is enough overlap in the numerous emerging liberal responses to the Bush foreign policy that we could be beginning to see the common ground that will form the next (‘08) democratic foreign policy platform.


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Jonathan Dresner - 7/20/2006

Who knows if progressive realism will catch on...

I think that, like the neo-con/realpolitik dichotomy, is a false one. As you note, there's other formulations of foreign policy which approximate this, and there just isn't very much that's original here except the neologism. "Enlightened self-interest" has been at the core of liberalism for ... well, centuries, really ... and it's really in deviations from that standard that we've gotten ourselves into trouble time and again.

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