Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism in Today’s Middle East
It’s September, so it’s time for first year graduate (and undergraduate) students in International Affairs to delve into the heady worlds of Mearsheimer, Huntington, Doyle and Waltz. While provoking many an eye roll from sleep deprived students, the theories of Realism and Liberalism (and yes, even Constructivism) can be recast, reformulated, and combined in order to postulate about recent developments in the international system and the United States’ pursuit of the best response to them.
After being inundated with the theories of International Relations at the beginning of the semester, it’s tempting to let them loose in the chaotic realm of the practical.
In the Middle East, the principle change in the regional order since the end of the Cold War has been the empowerment of the Arab Street. Despite the recent setbacks of people-powered political progress, the movement away from autocracy that recently seemed impossible now looks inevitable.
As much as neo-realist Kenneth Waltz would loathe admitting it, there is a new currency of political power. Legitimacy is progressively replacing military capability as a determinant of the future of the Middle East.
A new grand strategy for United States policy in the Middle East can be articulated by employing the three main schools of International Relations theory. By focusing on the idea of legitimacy (Constructivism), the United States can peacefully promote the spread of democracy (Liberalism) in order to maintain its unrivaled hegemony in the international system (Realism).
Legitimacy comes from approval and consistency. A system of government is legitimate if it enjoys the support of a plurality of its citizens. In this sense, the one-party rule of Hosni Mubarak was illegitimate.
A policy is legitimate if it enjoys the approval of a majority of the people it affects. By this definition, the US invasion of Iraq was illegitimate, not only because many Iraqis disapproved, but also because the United States received considerable opprobrium from the Arab public writ large and the majority of the United Nations Security Council.
In this new environment of declining military utility and low-cost insurgency, a nation which is viewed as legitimate and consistent will meet less resistance from a newly empowered Arab public in while executing its policies.
Thus, it might behoove countries pursuing their “self-interest” to appear to be acting altruistically—in the best interests of the Arab Street. In other words, it may be in a country’s long-term interest to prioritize image above immediate interests and reputation above impassive, practical gains.
This recasting of Realism in the terms of Liberalism sounds pretentious and hoity-toity. After all, largely discredited American politicians have articulated similar sounding proposals. Neoconservative Charles Krauthammer favorably referred to the Bush administration’s Middle East policy as “democratic realism.” Condoleezza Rice said it was a combination of pragmatic realism and Wilsonian liberal theory.
But what I have in mind is much different, both theoretically and practically. Theoretically, the obvious flaw of the Bush doctrine was that the imposition of democracy undergirds the basic tenets of democracy itself. Future US administrations should never impose democracy by force but rather assist independent grassroots movements without poisoning—you guessed it—their legitimacy.
If the inevitable flow of history—despite periodic rapids, waterfalls and sea monsters— is headed toward democracy (I still see you, Fukuyama), Western powers and the United States in particular are acting with futility by erecting dams along the way. Democracy cannot be imposed, but nor can it be stifled when it produces victors that are perceived as anti-American, such as Mohammad Mossaddeq, Salvador Allende or Hamas.
Practically this far-sightedness would constitute a drastic shift in US foreign policy. The United States should be commended for its support for the protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. However, it’s less than vigorous support for grassroots movements in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Territories has tarnished its image on the Arab Street, exposing American hypocrisy and selfishness.
As the US loses hearts and minds, so its diplomatic capital depreciates. Turkey has supported the Arab uprisings consistently, earning high approval ratings across the Arab world, which has translated to increased real power. Iran and Saudi Arabia have interpreted the uprisings selectively, choosing which to support and which to suppress. Which would the US rather be?
The alliance with Saudi Arabia is based solely on interests and artificiality. The political character of the Saudi state differs markedly from American liberal values, as the Riyadh-sponsored crackdown in Bahrain aptly demonstrated. Washington should consider if importing Saudi oil is more important than allowing its exports of Wahhabism. Not so far in the future, the alliance with Saudi Arabia will do the US more harm than good. Washington should act expediently to wean itself off the al-Sauds’ sclerotic regime and seductive energy.
Washington is not perceived as a legitimate neutral arbiter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but as an enabler of Israel’s 45 year-old occupation. As prospects for a two-state solution have slimmed due to intractable settlement expansion, consecutive American administrations have been light on the criticism and heavy on the unconditional aid to the chagrin of the Muslim world.
Ending with a flurry of Constructivism, it must be said that the idea that domineering forces can be permitted to suppress a people’s right to dignity, honor, and control of its destiny is in its death throes. This principle is as true in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli as it is in Riyadh, Manama, Tehran and Jerusalem.
The United States, if it wants to see an American Century, must see reputation, consistency, accommodation and legitimacy—and not just gun barrels and oil barrels—as determinants of power. Students of International Relations are taught that a hegemon is motivated to preserve the status quo. However, the status quo is changing whether the United States likes it or not.
The Arab public will outstrip royal families and one-party dictators as the region’s principle actors. With its global preeminence largely unrivaled, the United States should take this opportunity and make short-term sacrifices in order to maintain its long-term interests, a sentiment which admittedly is made difficult by short election cycles, political pandering and super PACs. For if the United States can well and truly align its interests and its ostensible values, Washington can establish a Benign Hegemony and avoid plummeting from the precipice of its own hypocrisy.
But then again, I’ve only been a graduate student for six days.