Opinion | A foreign policy that sees the world

Opinion | A foreign policy that sees the world

Robert Wright, whose books include “Nonzero” and “The Evolution of God,” is publisher of the Nonzero Newsletter and host of the “Nonzero” podcast. This essay is adapted from a longer entry in the Nonzero Newsletter.

“Progressive realism,” according to Wikipedia, is “a foreign policy paradigm largely made popular by Robert Wright.” That’s me! So in principle I should have been gratified by the recent Foreign Affairs essay “The Case for Progressive Realism,” by British politician David Lammy. And I should be close to ecstatic now that Lammy, thanks to the Labour Party victory in last week’s election, is Britain’s foreign secretary.

Yet I’m not feeling festive. It turns out that Lammy’s version of progressive realism isn’t mine. Which, by itself, is okay; the world is full of policy prescriptions that aren’t mine, and many of them work out well. But I don’t think Lammy’s version of progressive realism will work out well.

In a sense, it has already demonstrated that. Lammy depicts his foreign policy vision as new, but it’s pretty much the same vision that has long guided his party and comparable Western parties — including the Democratic Party in the United States. And this vision is, in critical respects, not very different from the neoconservatism that has dominated Republican foreign policy for most of the past few decades. Lammy’s progressive realism is one of the several variants of Blobthink that have together played such a big role in creating the mess we’re in.

To put a finer point on that mess: As NATO leaders gather in Washington for their annual summit, they look out on a world with a developing cold war and raging hot wars, a world with little respect for international law and with eroding international norms. And this disarray has two very bad consequences, one immediate and one that will be a slower burn:

1. Extreme volatility. There are two conflicts — in Ukraine and in the Middle East — that are only a miscalculation or two away from becoming regional conflagrations. And one of those wars would put two nuclear superpowers in direct conflict for the first time in history. Meanwhile, a war in the Pacific between nuclear powers is also becoming thinkable as U.S.-China tensions simmer.

2. Descent toward chaos. Growing international disarray leaves the world too divided to effectively confront momentous planetary challenges that demand a coordinated international approach. These challenges include, famously, mitigating climate change and, less famously, (1) preventing conflict in an increasingly militarized outer space (conflict that, by depriving nations of real-time satellite-based monitoring of an adversary’s military, could induce panic that leads to war); (2) preventing the various kinds of chaos that the ungoverned development of artificial intelligence could bring; (3) preventing an unprecedentedly lethal pandemic of the kind that under-regulated biotechnology could bring — whether via an accidental lab leak or the intentional deployment of a bioweapon.

As the world gets more mired in conflict and tension, and the attendant neglect of these issues moves the planet closer to catastrophe, Lammy is telling us to keep doing what we’ve been doing but to start calling it progressive realism. Real progressive realism offers a better path.

By “realism,” Lammy appears to mean just “being realistic.” He writes that “when progressives act realistically and practically, they change the world.” To him, realism is “a politics based on respect for facts.”

But the word “realism” also denotes an international relations paradigm: a view of how the world works and corresponding ideas about how foreign policy should be conducted. There are different schools of realist thought, but there’s one policy principle they share, and it distinguishes true progressive realism from Lammy’s version — and for that matter from all mainstream schools of liberal foreign policy as well as from neoconservatism. It’s a principle that, simple as it sounds, could wind up saving the world.

That principle is this: You take nations as they are.

From a realist’s perspective, statecraft is about crafting relations with other states, not crafting the character of other states. Realists favor holding nations accountable for their behavior toward other nations but aren’t big on holding them accountable for their internal affairs. So a realist foreign policy doesn’t prioritize the promotion of either democracy or human rights. And realists are especially averse to the coercive promotion of these things — through invasion or bombing or economic sanctions.

That doesn’t mean realists are heartless. Many realists (including me) believe these forms of coercion rarely work and often backfire, harming their supposed beneficiaries. Cuba, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Syria — these and other countries are full of people the United States is supposedly trying to help with sanctions that are actually hurting them.

The formal rationales for the many sanctions now levied against authoritarian countries vary, but the rhetorical rationale often involves the theme that has become the guiding mantra of President Biden’s foreign policy: We are, says Biden, engaged in a global struggle between democracy and autocracy. Progressive realists, along with other kinds of realists, reject this premise, but Lammy shows no signs of doing so. He says that a big part of the progressive realist’s mission is to “defend democracy.”

The trouble with Biden’s Manichaean mantra begins with the fact that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The sanctioning of autocratic and authoritarian nations naturally drives them into closer linkage with one another, reinforcing the Western perception that they represent a monolithic, ideologically motivated threat, a perception that can then lead to more sanctions, still closer linkage, and so on.

This dynamic is already empowering China, as some nations avoid the full impact of sanctions by increasing their trade with Beijing and using Chinese currency instead of dollars as the medium of exchange. The result might look like an axis of autocracy, but a term recently used by analysts at the Atlantic Council better captures the logic behind it: an “axis of evasion.”

The progressive realist opposition to Biden’s divisive vision — and to the cold war it is ushering in — reflects not just a recognition of the many planetary problems that need solving but also an expectation that they will grow in number and magnitude. Climate change and the several other issues cited above as grounds for global cooperation have something in common: They are all products of technological development, and they all make relations among the planet’s nations more non-zero-sum; they confront nations, increasingly, with a choice between cooperating to achieve win-win outcomes and failing to cooperate, thus risking lose-lose outcomes. I argued in my 2000 book “Nonzero” that this growing “non-zero-sumness” among nations is inherent in technological evolution, and I think the subsequent quarter-century of evolution in biotechnology, information technology and other technologies supports that thesis.

Though international cooperation that falls short of global scope can help address these non-zero-sum challenges, truly global governance will in some cases be required. Whether or not the covid-19 pandemic began with the accidental release of a genetically engineered virus, the next pandemic could begin that way — or, for that matter, via intentional release. The number of countries where this kind of genetic engineering could happen is already large, and it grows as biotechnology develops. So the scope of international biotech regulation must ultimately reach the planetary level.

AI and some other technologies will eventually have this same property: Their massively destructive misuse could originate in any country, so no country will be safe unless all countries are part of a common regulatory system.

Viewed in this light, Lammy’s advocacy of international governance — “progressive realists must establish global guardrails for technology with the widest possible coalition of countries” — isn’t ambitious enough. Still, he does recognize that China must be part of that coalition: “No grouping of states can address the global threats of the climate crisis, pandemics, and artificial intelligence unless it cooperates with Beijing.”

So Lammy, to his credit, is against a full-on cold war. He envisions a Britain that “simultaneously challenges, competes against, and cooperates with China as appropriate.” This is the same formula that the Biden administration espouses, and it sounds fine in principle. But in the current political climate, with prevailing winds opposing extensive U.S.-China cooperation, following this formula requires clarity of vision and steadfast focus. And one problem with the autocracy vs. democracy framing of U.S.-China relations is that it tends to produce blurry analysis.

Consider this passage from Lammy’s Foreign Affairs piece:

The broad consensus that economic globalization would inevitably breed liberal democratic values proved false. Instead, democracies have become more economically dependent on authoritarian states, with the share of world trade between democracies declining from 74 percent in 1998 to 47 percent in 2022. China provides a particularly stark case in point. The country was admitted into the World Trade Organization in 2001 under the hope that political reforms would follow economic ones. But the state became more repressive as the economy opened up.

The rise of China — which now has the world’s largest economy by purchasing power parity — has ended the era of US hegemony. The world is shaped by competition between Beijing and Washington. Beijing challenges the U.S.-led order in nearly every domain, from developing the technologies and green supply chains of the future to sourcing and processing critical raw materials. But the competition is especially fierce when it comes to security. The Chinese navy has the greatest number of warships in the world.

1. What exactly is the connection between the first paragraph, about China’s internal politics, and the second paragraph, about its external conduct? Is Lammy saying the broader “challenge to the U.S.-led order” is happening because China is authoritarian, notwithstanding the fact that historically, rising powers, including such liberal democracies as the United States, have done what China is doing now — tried to expand their economic and military power and exercise it over a wider realm? Or is he just saying that this challenge to U.S. leadership is especially bad because China is authoritarian? And why exactly would that be? Does he fear China will use its power to convert other nations to authoritarian autocracy — even though the evidence for this common claim is thin, and Beijing’s foreign policy has, if anything, been less ideologically driven than Washington’s?

2. What is so bad about “democracies becoming more economically dependent upon autocracies”? After all, you could just as well say that autocracies have become more dependent on democracies, since trade is reciprocal. If this trade ended, China would suffer from losing its export market just as the countries it exports to would suffer from losing access to inexpensive Chinese goods. Doesn’t this interdependence have virtues, since it might discourage conflict? Isn’t it more valuable than interdependence among Western democracies, since they’re unlikely to go to war with one another anyway?

A true progressive realist would replace Lammy’s recitation of vague, and vaguely connected, anxieties with a single question — not about China’s internal affairs but about its conduct toward other nations. Namely: Will China play by the rules? Will it refrain from invading sovereign nations and violating their territorial rights, as the United Nations Charter requires? Will it honor the treaties it has signed? Will it cooperate with other nations to solve the growing number of non-zero-sum problems the world faces?

It’s by no means clear that the answer to all these questions is yes. There are grounds for worrying, in particular, that China’s regional assertiveness will lead to military conflict. But conflating concerns about China’s conduct toward other nations with qualms about its internal governance just complicates the tasks of thinking clearly about these concerns and doing something about them. Many of the U.S. government’s public condemnations of China’s illiberal domestic policies, and many of the economic sanctions aimed at changing those policies, are worse than ineffectual. They expend finite political capital that could be better used trying to shape China’s external behavior and strengthen Xi Jinping’s grass-roots support among the many Chinese nationalists who are sick of the United States lecturing their government — and this support gives Xi more domestic political fuel for his regional military assertiveness, which many Chinese see as a way of resisting Western hegemony.

Seeing this second problem — that preaching to China about domestic affairs might backfire by strengthening Xi politically — involves deploying one of realism’s key strategic assets: “cognitive empathy,” that is, trying to understand how other leaders and peoples perceive the world. As one of realism’s founding thinkers, Hans Morgenthau, put it, good strategy requires a “respectful understanding” of all relevant perspectives. “The political actor,” Morgenthau wrote, “must put himself into the other man’s shoes, look at the world and judge it as he does.”

This kind of perspective-taking, when used to understand how the United States’ international conduct is viewed abroad, illuminates another kind of obstacle to checking the military assertiveness of China and other countries. Sermons about respecting the U.N. Charter’s prohibition of trans-border aggression aren’t very effective when they come from the country that invaded Iraq in 2003 and that currently has troops in Syria even though the Syrian government doesn’t want them there. If the world’s most powerful nation wants to strengthen the norm of complying with international law, it will have to do a better job of modeling that norm.

Lammy doesn’t seem to get this. After attributing Vladimir Putin’s 2014 seizing of Crimea to President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce a redline in Syria in 2013, he writes that Putin “concluded that the West no longer had the stomach to defend the rules-based order.” Talking about Washington enforcing the “rules-based order” without signaling a sense of irony is by itself grounds for having your progressive realist credentials questioned, but, in this case, the grounds go beyond that. Lammy seems unaware that in 2007, before Putin first broke the most basic of the rules by committing trans-border aggression, he complained to an audience of U.S. and European officials in Munich about the United States having broken that rule — and warned that if “disdain for international law” continued, “the number of serious mistakes will be multiplied” and the world will reach “a dead end.”

In Putin’s view, the United States ignored this warning (for example, by recognizing in 2008 the independence of Kosovo, whose separation from Serbia had come via a NATO intervention not authorized by the U.N. Security Council). Putin also felt the United States ignored his warning — issued in the same speech — about expanding NATO further; in 2008, President George W. Bush persuaded reluctant European leaders to promise eventual NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia. None of this excuses the Russian leader’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 or his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, both of which were violations of international law, period. But it does suggest that future U.S. foreign policy might benefit from an honest assessment of past Western policies that made Ukraine’s current tragedy more likely. This assessment is something most Western foreign policy elites, including Lammy, assiduously avoid and something most realists favor (perhaps because some of these dubious policies are ones that most realists, including progressive realists, would have avoided).

The progressive realism I’m advocating is a radical ideology. It holds that the rule of law needs to move from the level of the nation-state to the level of the planet — and that this transition needs to start soon. We have to build global governance before the technologically based threats it could control overwhelm us and render the project hopeless. Hence the call for the United States to transform its conduct and even its self-conception — to quit invoking the “rules” selectively and opportunistically, and quit sermonizing about how other societies should organize themselves, and start tempering its narcissistic sense of exceptionalism with some humility and self-awareness.

This agenda will strike most people in the foreign policy community as hopelessly unrealistic. But very few of these people are conversant in the implications of technological evolution. For example: How many of them have heard of the Kessler Effect? That’s a hypothetical but, as outer space gets more crowded, increasingly plausible chain reaction that could be set off by the destruction of a single satellite: the debris would smash other satellites, whose debris would smash other satellites, and so on, until a sizable chunk of the world’s reconnaissance and communications infrastructure was inoperative — at which point, various kinds of freakouts by now half-blind nuclear-armed nations might ensue.

So, I would ask anyone who dismisses calls for global governance (complete with global respect for international law) as naive to do the following: Study up on the drift of technological evolution and then either argue persuasively that technology isn’t creating the threats I and many other observers (including, to some extent, Lammy) worry about or come up with a plausible and less radical plan for controlling them.

In the absence of such a plan, the United States’ national interest will demand a fundamental reorientation of U.S. foreign policy toward progressive realism. It’s in the nature of non-zero-sumness that the interests of other nations would be served by that, as well.

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