Stephen M. Walt

Realism and toleration

In my last post, I argued that the U.S. policy of “don’t ask don’t tell” is contrary to a realist view of world politics, because it excludes qualified people from military service and thus makes it harder for the United States to field the most effective forces in a competitive international environment. I think there ...

SAN DIEGO, CA - NOVEMBER 5: An American flag flies next to a Rainbow flag at the San Diego Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center in San Diego, California on Wednesday, November 5, 2008. Proposition 8 passed in Tuesday's election banning same sex marriage .(Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

In my last post, I argued that the U.S. policy of “don’t ask don’t tell” is contrary to a realist view of world politics, because it excludes qualified people from military service and thus makes it harder for the United States to field the most effective forces in a competitive international environment. I think there are other objections to the policy as well, but I was primarily concerned in that post with the strategic implications. The policy obviously doesn’t prevent the United States from producing highly capable fighting forces, but restricting the talent pool in this way means our forces will cost more than they have to and/or be less effective than they could be.

This got me thinking: might a similar logic be at work at a more global level? Specifically, does the competitive nature of international politics give some states an advantage because their political systems and social values make it relatively easy to attract and assimilate talented citizens from other countries, thereby enabling them to draw more-or-less selectively on the entire global talent pool? If so, then these states will be able to improve their relative position over time, and to the extent that globalization now facilitates people moving from place to place, that tendency should be increasing. By contrast, states that make assimilation difficult or that discriminate on other areas will tend to be less attractive destinations for highly educated and/or entrepreneurial individuals, and these states will for the most part have to work with the citizenry they’ve got or pay a very high premium to attract talent from abroad.

One can see this dynamic by comparing Japan and the United States. Japan is an ethnically homogeneous society, with small minority populations who remain objects of discrimination. It is possible for foreigners to become naturalized citizens after five years of continuous residence, but this practice is not widespread. Japan also has a rapidly aging and declining population, which will have significant long-term effects on its power and influence. Yet given Japan’s current policies discourage talented foreigners from immigrating and assimilating, thereby making it harder for Japan to attract the best and brightest from around the world and reverse its demographic slide.

The United States, by contrast, is the very model of a melting-pot society. People automatically qualify for citizenship if either parent is a citizen or if they are born on American soil, and naturalization is quite common (about one million people became naturalized citizens last year). Although support for immigration has waxed and waned throughout U.S. history and remains a contested issue today (mostly due to issues pertaining to illegal immigration), the United States has had remarkable success attracting and assimilating some of the best and brightest from all over the world. All I have to do is look at my colleagues, whose ranks include an impressive number of scholars born outside the United States. Each of them was hired as a result of a global talent search, and we’d have a less distinguished faculty if we had looked only at U.S. citizens. Some of my colleagues eventually returned to their countries of origin (such as Andres Velasco, currently Minister of Finance in Chile), but others are likely to spend most if not all of their careers here in the United States.

The success of the American melting pot, as many scholars have commented, is due partly to good fortune (North America was rich in natural resources, arable land, etc.) but also to the particular nature of American civic nationalism (or what Anatol Lieven calls the American Creed): faith in liberty, constitutionalism, democracy, the rule of law, individualism, and political and cultural (but not economic) egalitarianism. Although the United States has hardly been free of racial or ethnic conflicts during its history, these features have made it possible for every new group to integrate itself as full citizens. The United States is an attractive destination not just because it is a wealthy society, but also because many different groups and individuals can become integral parts of that society instead of facing permanent second-class status.

If I’m right, then the pressures of international competition give an advantage to any society that can “cream” some of the smartest and/or hardest working people from all over the world. How? By making that society an attractive place to live and work, mostly by creating an atmosphere of equality and toleration. By contrast, societies that limit their de facto talent pool by defining citizenship narrowly, by treating minorities badly, by discriminating on the basis of race, religion, or other characteristics are placing themselves at a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis the rest of the world.

Over time, therefore, we should expect a growing gap between “cosmopolitan” societies that develop institutions and cultures in which diversity and tolerance are prized and where potential conflicts between them are managed well, and more restrictive societies that are either attractive only to a fixed population of particular ethnic identity, or who are face recurring internal conflicts between various contending groups. My bet would be that, other things being equal, the former do better over time.

And note that this argument isn’t just about ethnic assimilation. In effect, what I’m suggesting is that from a realist perspective, there is a strong case for “small-l” liberal toleration. All else equal, societies that establish strong norms and institutions that protect individual rights and freedoms (including those governing sexual preference, I might add) will become attractive destinations for a wider array of potential citizens than societies that try to maintain a high degree of uniformity. And when you can choose from a bigger talent pool, over time you’re going to do better.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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