04 January 2017

Progressive realism on foreign policy?

One liberal Democratic organ that doesn't share that cohort's prevailing Russophobia is The Nation. That's most likely because editor-publisher Katrina vanden Heuval shares the views of her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, who is, depending on your perspective, a leading voice of reason on the left regarding Russia, or a cowardly apologist for Vladimir Putin. The lead editorial in the January 16/23 issue, dedicated mainly to foreign policy, challenges the Democratic narrative of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and deplores the fact that those who challenge that narrative "are labeled a Trump apologist, a Putin puppet, or both." The editorial writer, presumably vanden Heuval, doubts in the first place whether the specific Democratic National Committee emails supposedly hacked by the Russians and provided to Wikileaks swayed many blue-collar voters in the crucial states Trump turned from blue to red. She also wonders why "liberals who have traditionally been wary of the national-security state and justifiably suspicious of its claims" are so ready to believe CIA accounts of Russian hacking. "Skepticism isn't treason," she writes, "instead, it's essential to establishing the truth." While I wouldn't put it past the Russians to carry out this sort of mischief, I also agree that The Nation's skepticism is reasonable and proper, especially given the angry butthurt Democrats continue to feel since the election.

In an introduction to the issue proper, the editorial calls for a fresh start with Russia, arguing that "it is neither pro-Trump nor pro-Putin, but simply sober realism, to argue that we need to partner with Russia on a host of issues, ranging from combating terrorism to promoting and enforcing nuclear nonproliferation." For the other contributors, this means finally abandoning the exceptionalist entitlement to global leadership, learning to respect other nations and cultures' standards of political legitimacy, and more simply learning to bargain rather than issue morally absolute demands. One writer in particular, Robert Wright, gets to the heart of what he calls "Our Empathy Problem." The problem, as he notes, "is not a shortage of empathy ... but rather an imbalance between two kinds of empathy." Wright makes a distinction between "emotional empathy," the all-too-obvious driving force in grass-roots liberal interventionism, and "cognitive empathy," which he considers a necessary corrective. Emotional empathy, he explains, is "the feel-your-pain kind," while cognitive empathy "means putting yourself in the shoes of other people in the sense of seeing how the world looks to them." While many of us can't help empathizing with dissidents and freedom fighters, especially when they defy overwhelming odds to oppose authoritarians like Putin of Bashar al-Assad and suffer for their trouble, Wright urges us to learn to "understand the perspectives of important actors clearly enough to calculate the likely consequences of our actions." Liberals resist this recommendation, he realizes, because it seems to mean "putting yourself in the shoes of brutal dictators," but "if you agree that preventing mass slaughter and mass suffering is morally good" then you need to be able to imagine how Assad, in the most obvious example, would react to calls for his unconditional abdication from power. While foreign policy "realism" remains unpopular among liberals and progressives who see it as indifferent to injustice and suffering, Wright recommends a "progressive realism" that makes a palliative distinction between "tolerating" and "backing" oppressive rulers while making "do no harm" foreign policy's first priority.

Wright probably undercuts his argument by offering liberals a choice between two kinds of empathy rather than the harder choice between empathy and reason. The latter, I'd think, would get a progressive realist to the same result regarding dictators' behavior as cognitive empathy, while weaning liberals away from their destructively emotion-driven foreign policy. The problem with emotional empathy especially is that it isn't really an imagining of yourself as another, but the imagining of the other as yourself. Empathetic assumptions are driven by our feeling of what our rights should be anywhere on earth, on what we would tolerate and what we should not. This is why we always imagine "freedom fighters" in our own image, despite the messier reality in most places. Liberals are arguably the worst at this because so many seem actually to believe what might otherwise be neocon propaganda, without having the vested interests in regime change that often actually motivate neocons. It'll be hard to change when American liberalism  pretty much defines itself by empathy and compassion, but perhaps reasonable compassion, always conscious of how things can be made worse by good intentions, can overcome the raw empathy that sometimes blindly drives American policy. It's here that Trump and his movement might recommend a prioritized empathy, insisting, and not unreasonably, not that you should not care what happens to oppressed people, but that you should care first and more about how your reaction to foreign oppression affects your fellow citizens. In a sense, if "progressive realism" is meant to minimize the cost to ourselves of empathetic interventions, as well as minimizing the suffering of others by minimizing conflicts everywhere, it could be described with two words progressives may not feel comfortable with, but fit just the same: "America first."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How many times in the past has the CIA interfered in foreign elections? If even only once, then the US has no basis to complain when it is done to us. In a nation that claims to be a bastion of "democracy", then one should expect that nation to deal with all other nations as equals. As a nation that claims to be christian, it seems a majority of said christians have forgotten "Do unto others as you would have do unto you." Either way, it really makes the US look like a whining hypocrite.