David Rothkopf

Left-handed Realpolitik: Walk softly and who needs a stick when everyone knows you aren’t going to use it?

Last week I spoke on a panel at NYU’s Center for Law and Security as part of the roll-out for a report they prepared entitled “Reforming the Culture of National Security: Vision, Clarity and Accountability.” Wait, don’t go. As bland and academic as the title sounds, the report itself, prepared in conjunction with the Markel ...

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STRASBOURG, FRANCE - APRIL 04: speak during a meeting at the NATO summit on April 4, 2009 in Strasbourg, France. Protestors try to blockade the streets towards the congress center, where the NATO's 60th anniversary summit takes place. /Photo by Sascha Schuermann-Pool/Getty Images)

Last week I spoke on a panel at NYU's Center for Law and Security as part of the roll-out for a report they prepared entitled "Reforming the Culture of National Security: Vision, Clarity and Accountability." Wait, don't go. As bland and academic as the title sounds, the report itself, prepared in conjunction with the Markel Foundation and spearheaded by Jamie Rubin, formerly one of Madeleine Albright's right-hand associates at the State Department and Mike Sheehan, one of America's leading counter-terrorism experts, is one of the most common-sensical and sound appraisals of what needs to be fixed in the national security apparatus of the U.S. government that has been conducted in recent memory. It's short, too. Pithy, devoid of jargon and doesn't dwell on remaking the government's org chart. It cuts to what ought to be done to make the system we've got work as we need it to and in so doing, makes a sizable contribution.

Better still for those of us on the panel last week was that the crowd in attendance for the roll-out was smart and none of them lived inside the Beltway. One audience member, after listening to our summary of some of the current big issues we face in national security, stood up and pointed out that America planted the seeds for some of the most prominent problems we face today with past policies that seemed like a pretty good idea at the time but which then produced unintended consequences. He listed a few such as support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, support for Saddam to help contain Iraq, etc. He noted the merits these policies seemed to offer when initiated and then asked: What policies are we pursuing that might make sense today but that are likely to produce unintended consequences in the future?

Last week I spoke on a panel at NYU’s Center for Law and Security as part of the roll-out for a report they prepared entitled “Reforming the Culture of National Security: Vision, Clarity and Accountability.” Wait, don’t go. As bland and academic as the title sounds, the report itself, prepared in conjunction with the Markel Foundation and spearheaded by Jamie Rubin, formerly one of Madeleine Albright’s right-hand associates at the State Department and Mike Sheehan, one of America’s leading counter-terrorism experts, is one of the most common-sensical and sound appraisals of what needs to be fixed in the national security apparatus of the U.S. government that has been conducted in recent memory. It’s short, too. Pithy, devoid of jargon and doesn’t dwell on remaking the government’s org chart. It cuts to what ought to be done to make the system we’ve got work as we need it to and in so doing, makes a sizable contribution.

Better still for those of us on the panel last week was that the crowd in attendance for the roll-out was smart and none of them lived inside the Beltway. One audience member, after listening to our summary of some of the current big issues we face in national security, stood up and pointed out that America planted the seeds for some of the most prominent problems we face today with past policies that seemed like a pretty good idea at the time but which then produced unintended consequences. He listed a few such as support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, support for Saddam to help contain Iraq, etc. He noted the merits these policies seemed to offer when initiated and then asked: What policies are we pursuing that might make sense today but that are likely to produce unintended consequences in the future?

It’s a thought-provoking and worthwhile exercise. The history of modern American foreign policy is a parade of unintended consequences, responses and more unintended consequences. From blundering into the Bay of Pigs to backing Somoza, the Shah, the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, Pinochet or Saddam, the list is long. And while one can make the argument that many of these actions were justified — and some certainly were — there have been a number in which the consequences produced were likely worse than the benefit gained. Many of these came as a consequence of realpolitik, which all good FP readers know means policies based on practical rather than ideological (or ethical) considerations. Most often — perhaps given this term’s initial association in the United States with Henry Kissinger — this was what might be characterized as right-handed realpolitik where our partners were often on the right end of the political spectrum and our goals were most often aligned with the American right’s vision of the United States as a great power. (This was certainly not always the case, of course, since one of the most famous examples of Kissinger’s balance of power oriented realpolitik was his opening to China.) 

That in mind, I wonder if we are not entering a period in which the greatest risks of unintended consequences will be raised as by our adherence to what is emerging as a kind of left-handed realpolitik. In this iteration of the old foreign policy favorite, we coolly assess what we perceive is possible and in the interests of keeping the peace and minimizing perceived (near-term) risks shrug off the concerns of ideologues or “idealists” (often on the right in this instance) that more could or should be done. (This by the way is closer to the meaning of the term as it has evolved in say, the country of its origin, Germany.) As it happens in left-handed realpolitik, we often seek rapprochement with rivals or potential adversaries many of whom are perceived to be of the left. The tactics of choice of right-handed realpolitik have included back-channels, covert aid and hoping it doesn’t blow up in our face in the future. The tactics of choice of left-handed realpolitik are engagement, offering more carrots to bad guys than in the past, and hoping that it doesn’t blow up in our face in the future. (Point of emphasis: engagement is not a strategy…it’s a tactic. It’s only as good as what it gets us.) To the extent either set of approaches is actually realistic and seeks the peace through sound management of the balance of global power, what’s not to like? I’m all for any brand of realpolitik that is both advances our interests and is truly realistic. But it is worth noting that either approach is undone when “partners” are misjudged and the potency of our appeal or our tools — be they of force or diplomacy — is over-estimated.

Instances in which the Obama administration appears to pursuing left-handed realpolitik (walk softly and who needs a stick when everyone knows you aren’t going to use it?) are Iran, North Korea, Russia, Pakistan, and perhaps, based on what Hillary Clinton said the other day, Burma, and maybe soon Venezuela and Cuba. And in some instances, where such approaches would eliminate unnecessary tensions or distractions (Cuba being the best example), it seems like a wise approach. Nonetheless, my answer to the question from the audience at the NYU event regarding which of our emerging new policies are likely to get us in trouble is any that seem to use this approach to resolve proliferation problems today but which end up punting the toughest issues associated with them into tomorrow. 

There is, to choose an example we have discussed here before, an emerging consensus among foreign policy makers in the administration that since all the options for stopping Iran from advancing their nuclear program are so difficult and offer such a low assurance for success that it is only realistic to accept that they will soon have weapons or weapons capability. The goal is therefore is to figure out how to live with that. This seems sound on many levels. See Roger Cohen’s argument to this effect in his piece “Realpolitik for Iran” in today’s NY Times. But the unanswered question for all who propose this approach is what will happen as the arms race it is already triggering in the region produces nuclear programs with an overt or covert weapons dimension in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Jordan, the Stans, etc. At what point are there so many programs that an accident or an incident becomes inevitable? What responses will that require? 

This is the paradox of many instances of American realpolitik in practice: they turn out only to be realistic about the near term but not about the longer term. Whether embracing a bad guy (who we might call an ally) that produces victory today and blowback tomorrow or whether engaging with a bad guy (who we might hopes will stop being an enemy) that avoids conflict today and raises the risk of it tomorrow, both approaches can suffer from a lack of foresight. Clearly the great flaw in the current proliferation scheme and options being discussed is that no such regime is meaningful without an enforcement mechanism that includes among its options the use of force (ideally multilateral…but what a challenge that will be) against a violator. And until we end up with such a mechanism no approach to containing nukes will be realistic by any definition.

An interesting sidebar: after the NYU event, a very heated discussion ensued between a respected Arab journalist and a former senior, also well-respected American journalist in which the Arab journalist was arguing that the United States must stop Iran or the consequences in the region will be a grave. The American said we probably could deal with Iran but would have to stop it before nukes spread to Saudi, etc…and the Arab argued this was racist, that we will accept a Persian bomb but not an Arab bomb. The discussion then went on to the cautionary and I believe accurate observation that while it was all well and good and even important for Obama to embrace Islam, that the biggest threats to global security were not between Islam and the United States but within Islam-between Sunni and Shiite (which the journalist felt was the real hair-trigger fault-line that would soon worry us in a nuclear Middle East) or Kurd and Turk or Hamas and Fatah or Moderate and Extremist.   

In every respect, the event offered useful reminders that the really hard part of dealing with national security threats has just begun to surface for the Obama administration and that it has little to do with summits or pirates.

Sascha Schuermann-Pool/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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