Washington’s Back Swan moment?
Hollywood and Washington might be having another one of those wonderful serendipitous moments. When the movie script writers capture the political mood better than the spin doctors could ever dream of. This time, the psychological drama between the ‘innocent’ White Swan and the ‘manipulative’ Black Swan might be an unlikely but quite telling metaphor of the ideological shift happening in US foreign policy. The neoconservative ‘white crusaders’ (or so they want to be seen) are losing ground to the ‘cynical’ supporters of Realpolitik who are clearly back in town.
A few days ago the Wall Street Journal released a remarkable piece:
“After weeks of internal debate on how to respond to uprisings in the Arab world, the Obama administration is settling on a Middle East strategy: help keep longtime allies who are willing to reform in power, even if that means the full democratic demands of their newly emboldened citizens might have to wait.”
From a distance you might think this is not telling us anything new about the US diplomatic strategy: a publicly advertised willingness to promote a ‘certain’ brand of democracy, but always tempered by calculated strategic alliances and interests.
However, if you look closer you will spot important nuances on how this hawkish diplomacy has traditionally been delivered. Two distinct camps have been battling against each others for decades. On one hand neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz or Donald Rumsfeld have been promoting a crusade like sense of the world, whilst realists led by Henry Kissinger believe in cold and cynical Realpolitik.
After 10 years of neoconservative hegemony in Washington, this statement reported by the world leading media of global corporate power is far from benign. It might signal a return to the Realpolitik of the Kissinger years.
“and then, there are the unknown unknowns…”
Neoconservatives vs. Realists
The fight between Neoconservatives and Realists probably reached its peak between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
For many, it seemed counter-intuitive that many Realists, unlike neoconservatives, were opposed to the Iraq War. After all, realist theory is often depicted as presenting a deeply pessimistic account of international politics in which all actors are compelled to seek power in order to ensure their survival and security. And because there is always the chance that any particular state may resort to force, Realists maintain that war is an ever-present possibility in an anarchical environment. Whilst Realists are indeed pessimistic about the prospects for a drastic improvement in the condition of international politics, they are nevertheless cautious about the use of military force. In 2003 they argued, quite simply, that war with Iraq was not in America’s national interest.
Neoconservatives, on the other hand, had not swallowed the outcome of the Persian Gulf War of 1991. They wanted a regime change in Iraq, worked hard at it, and prevailed. A crucial and often under-recognized part of the puzzle lies in the ways they were able to deploy an ‘ideological framework’ and political rhetoric that drew upon powerful currents in the American political culture.
The cornerstone of this framework was that neo-conservative foreign policies and neo-liberal economic policies were going to work hand-in-hand to enable the US to deliver free-market and democracy around the world. They provided the perfect script Americans wanted to embrace. ‘Everything’ could be justified for ‘the right reasons’: the war in Iraq, the free trade agreements, the expansion of Wall Street banks. It was all done “to lead and support the free world”.
The enthusiastic adoption of this self-righteous doctrine mobilised symbolic and political resources supported by influential political constituencies, which proved terribly effective at countering realist opposition. Neoconservatives really managed to colonise Washington’s brain.
This is why Obama’s public admission of a return to Realpolitik is so notable. The WSJ added “Instead of pushing for immediate regime change the U.S. is urging protesters from Bahrain to Morocco to work with existing rulers toward what some officials and diplomats are now calling “regime alteration“… If that is not cynical temperance, what is?
Is this the end of the ‘pristine’ neo-liberal storytelling?
It certainly sounds like the global choir is changing its tune.
- albeit in carefully chosen terms, the OECD broke away from its traditional unconditional pro-globalisation line and denounced growing inequalities in a report issued in 2008.
- more recently, IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Khan admitted that glowing pro-globalisation economic assessments made about the Arab world were seriously myopic:
“And what has happened recently in North Africa is, in my view, very closely linked to this — the fact that both Tunisia and Egypt had rather good global indicators — growth, inflation. But inequalities within the countries were such that, added to a demand for more liberty, which is more on the political side, it ends up as we know. So it means that we need to work more on this question of distribution of income, poverty lines. We do it, but probably not enough. And that’s the lesson we have to draw for the future.”
This is really worth pondering. The Director of the IMF is actually admitting that the first popular Arab uprisings took place in countries previously acclaimed by the IMF (1). If those award-wining students now lead the charge against the master, the IMF might start worrying about who’s next in line on the laureate list.
It would be easy to dismiss those views as personal progressive positional statements intended to prepare his eventual candidacy to the 2012 French presidential election. However other voices within the IMF are also pointing out growing inequalities as counter productive for the global pro-business agenda, subtitled “building democracy” by necons.
Meet your IMF Director. On his soap box.
Surely die-hard neoconservative storytellers will defend their legacy and insist there are no connections between the needed structural reforms and the uprisings in Arab countries. Instead they will say that neo-liberal policies were right, that local corruption is to blame for the current failures: “If only we had let the free market operate…”. Surely a return to realpolitik does not mean progressive social policies at all. But it could mean that the official story telling will become much more difficult to spin.
And if Washington and Hollywood script writers ever believed in their ‘focus groups’, they have one right now made up of ordinary folks at Madison, Wisconsin sending them a pretty strong signal: whether Black or White, the Swan has been ‘outed’.
References and further readings:
> (1): As a reminder, here are extracts from pre-GFC statements from the IMF.
Tunisia: “Effective economic management and an outwards-oriented development strategy have contributed to placing Tunisia’s economic performance over the past decade among the best in the region, with real GDP growth averaging almost 5 percent in a stable macroeconomic environment.”
Egypt: “In 2004, the establishment of a well-functioning foreign exchange market lifted formal and informal restrictions on access to foreign exchange that had long hampered business in Egypt. The weighted average import tariff was cut to about 6.9 percent by 2007, accelerating integration with the global economy. Personal and corporate income tax rates have been slashed, and tax administration is being modernized. Business regulations have been streamlined to speed up customs clearance and facilitate registration of new businesses and property. A wide range of productive assets have been privatized, and more than half of the banking system is now in private hands.”
Libya: “Progress has been made in various structural reforms, partly in line with past Fund TA recommendations and the Medium-Term Reform Strategy (Country Report 06/137). A sound framework for the management of the oil wealth has been established through the creation of the LIA. Customs administration has been reformed and a large taxpayer’s office established; the presentation of the budget has been consolidated and a macrofiscal unit initiated; a large number of public enterprises have been privatized; and one third of public employees are being retrenched to the private sector. Two large state-owned banks were privatized in 2007 and 2008, and two of the three remaining public commercial banks were merged in April 2008.”
> Washington’s calculated approach with the Arab countries (source: WSJ)