Daniel W. Drezner

Carl Schmitt’s deathgrip on the American foreign policy psyche

Carl Schmitt’s deathgrip on the American foreign policy psyche

I’ve received some pushback in the blogosphere in response to my last post, an effort to goad Mitt Romney into making saome substantive foreign policy critiques.  Let’s talk them out. 

First, I wrote that, "relations with Pakistan, Russia, India and Canada have cooled off considerably since the Bush years."  There’s been some justifiable pushback on that sentence — but within that pushback there’s some interesting things to note about the politics of perception. 

I linked to a Foreignaffairs.com essay on the Canadian-American relationship, but Roland Paris does a pretty effective job of shredding their argument, in no small part by reminding readers of the true low point in bilateral relations this century:

Between 2003 and 2005, I had the privilege of serving as an advisor on Canada-U.S. relations in the Department of Foreign Affairs and in the Privy Council Office. Relations today are no worse, and probably better, than they were then. Jean Chrétien had just declined to send Canadian troops to Iraq – the right decision, but one that nevertheless angered officials in the George W. Bush Administration, who were hoping at least for an expression of political support. (It didn’t help that Chrétien announced his decision in the House of Commons to a throng of cheering Liberal MPs.) Bush then cancelled a planned state visit to Canada….

Here is a different picture that fits better with the facts: The state of the Canada-U.S. relationship today is sound. Yes, there are irritants, but they are no more challenging than the irritants of the past. Nor does only one country – or one leader – bear the fault for these irritants.

This is a pretty powerful critique.  As someone who has too much experience in making this kind of argument, however, I fear it won’t carry much weight in the American body politic.  The reason is that Paris’ basic point is that, "look, things were a lot worse a little while ago."  But that’s not a point that plays politically.  When talking about bilateral relations in a political context, analysts and pundits care about the trendline more than the base level.  The trendline suggests a mild cooling of a very warm and multidimensional relationship.  So people will focus on the cooling. 

Still, in linking to the article in the first place, I did perpetuate the meme.  So, apologies. 

There was also some pushback on Russia as well.  Daniel Larison notes:

One needn’t be a supporter of current Russia policy to recognize that it isn’t the complete disaster of the late Bush years. I know I’ve beaten this topic to death lately, but this claim about relations with Russia being worse than they were during “the Bush years” is simply wrong.

This may be easy to overlook at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are cooler than they were a year or two ago, but apparently it can’t be repeated too often that the Bush administration drove the U.S.-Russian relationship into the ground starting in 2002-03 and then kept going down. U.S.-Russian relations were widely recognized to be at a post-Cold War low in August 2008 and during the months that followed, and administration policies and decisions contributed significantly to that outcome. The current administration had repaired a fair amount of the damage, but quarrels in the last year have undone some of that improvement. Outgoing President Medvedev said that the last three years “have perhaps been the best three years in relations between our two countries over the last decade.” Maybe that’s damning with faint praise. Relations between the two countries from 2002 to 2012 were mostly mediocre or poor. That doesn’t make the claim any less true.

Indeed, in a related post, Dan Nexon notes the benefits of the "reset" relationship with Russia:

The basic theory behind the Obama Administration’s "Reset" policy was that US-Russian relations could be disaggregated: that it is possible for two countries to disagree on a range of issues and still cooperate on matters of common interest. That bet looks to be correct; despite a significant deterioration in relations between Washington and Moscow, the pursuit of common interests persists.

The Russian government has given approval for the United States and its NATO allies to use a Russian air base in the Volga city of Ulyanovsk as a hub for transits to and from Afghanistan….

Unfortunately, too many pundits and policymakers continue to reduce US bilateral relations with other countries to single "barometers."

Again, this is factually correct, but to go all emo on Larison and Nexon, it "feels" wrong somehow.  Why?  I think it’s based on some combination of the following: 

1) The arms control dimension of the "reset" took much longer to play out than anyone expected — including Obama administration officials.  Everything eventually got signed and ratified, but Russia’s prickliness during the whole episode seemed to baffle American officials. 

2) Russian rhetoric towards the United States continues to be quite hostile — and has become even more hostile since large-scale protests began in December of last year.  Vladimir Putin isn’t fond of Michael McFaul, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama — so even cooperative moves are obfuscated by bellicose rhetoric. 

3)  Syria. 

Nexon is correct to observe that there are key dimensions on which cooperation has been significant.  I do wonder, however, if too many Americans have imbibed the simple Schmittian  dichotomy of friend and enemy to view other countries.  We’re unpracticed as a country in dealing with the category of "rival" — or, in the case of Russia, "demographically crippled rival." 

Finally, the very smart Will Winecoff responds with a curiously lazy post.  The key points:

At some point Romney will be asked direct questions about foreign policy. When he asked those questions he will say things like "I will get tough with China to make sure they play by the rules and stop stealing American jobs" and "I will not let terrorists kill American citizens, and I will do whatever is necessary to keep Americans safe" and "I will keep America strong by not cutting our military budget" and "Screw Russia". He will not say whether he favors neoconservatism or realpolitik because he does not know what those things are. Neither does any of the people who will be asking him questions (unless Fareed Zakaria gets a crack, which he won’t), nor will 99.9% of the people who will hear his answers.

His actual foreign policy will be run by the bureaucracy, which will be highly constrained by structural factors, and will be reactive to events yet to occur.

A few responses: 

1)  Mitt Romney is many things, but he’s not an idiot.  He knows perfectly well what realpolitik and neoconservatism are. 

2)  I don’t want Romney to talk about foreign policy because it will provide a sneak peek into what he’ll actually do.  I want him to talk about it as a way of A) demonstrating leadership over how own friggin’ campaign machine; and B) demonstrating the necessary background knowledge to reassure people like me that he can handle a foreign policy crisis.  By not talking about it, all he’s doing is encouraging his own loyalists to leak like crazy.  And by repeatedly ghosting God-awful op-eds, he’s sowing doubts that he has any kind of game plan about how to be proactive about foreign policy.  Oh, and that reminds me…

3)  Winecoff’s structuralist view of foreign policy might be true in the long run.  Presidents who deviate away from the foreign policy "mainstream" for too long usually have to reverse course.  The notion that any president’s foreign policy is "will be run by the bureaucracy," however, vastly underestimates the president’s short-term flexibility.  So it does kinda matter who’s working in the Oval Office come January 21st, 2013.