Putting the Real Back Into Realpolitik

All I know is that we have to find some way to censure M.B.S. for this — without seeming to attack the whole Saudi people and destabilize the country. And we have to make sure that the social/religious reform process in Saudi Arabia proceeds — whoever is in charge there. Because that is a vital U.S. interest.

— Tom Friedman, “America’s Dilemma: Censuring M.B.S. and Not Halting Saudi ReformsNew York Times, October 17, 2018

The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do. – Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008)

Upon learning of Cardinal Richelieu’s death, Pope Urban VIII is alleged to have said, “If there is a God, then Cardinal de Richelieu will have much to answer for. If not … well, he had a successful life.”– Henry Kissinger, “Diplomacy” (1994)

Order should not have priority over freedom. But the affirmation of freedom should be elevated from a mood to a strategy.  – Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)

I’m a realist. Not a neo-realist, but a realist. There’s a difference. I learned my craft from the two guys quoted immediately above – Sam Huntington and Henry Kissinger. Neither man was a peach. Huntington was a curmudgeon and Kissinger sold his soul for wealth and power, not just once but at least four times over. I wouldn’t want either man in my pack, but I’m grateful that I had both men as teachers.  I think they’re largely correct about … everything. 

It’s that last quote of Kissinger’s that I think is so important in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder and the crystallization of common knowledge regarding the Saudi regime in general and MBS in particular.  “Order should not have priority over freedom. But the affirmation of freedom should be elevated from a mood to a strategy.

Yes, please.

Huntington is dead and Kissinger can’t speak in public without an angry mob shouting him down, so I’m going to speak for both of them.

Any realist worth his or her salt should be appalled at the foreign policy of BOTH Trump and Team Elite toward Saudi Arabia.

The foreign policy failure, from a realist perspective, of both Trump and Team Elite (who I’ll personify with Tom Friedman) has exactly the same root – they believe that they can be friends with Saudi leaders. They believe that it matters whether or not they are friends with Saudi leaders. They believe that Saudi Arabia can be advanced (Trump’s language) or reformed (Friedman’s language) because of this direct personal support, and that advancement/reform is impossible without it.

For Trump, it’s working with the Saudi regime on some cockamamie “rogue killers” notion to get Jared’s good friend MBS off the hook from direct culpability, so that we can “get back to doing business with our great friends in Saudi Arabia”. For Friedman, it’s finding some way to “censure” MBS, his former interview buddy and confidante, so that we can “make sure that the social/religious reform process in Saudi Arabia proceeds”. For BOTH, there is this notion that it matters whether or not the Saudi political leadership has credibility and a winning narrative in the West. For BOTH, there is this notion that US-Saudi relations can move forward in a mutually beneficial fashion if and only if there’s a smiley-face button that everyone can wear.  

In truth, of course, King Salman and Crown Prince MBS and the Saudi royal family are not our “friends”. They will never be our “friends”. There is no smiley-face narrative to be created here. Not now. Not ever.

And that’s fine. 

Here’s the realist truth for Donald Trump: friendship is not necessary, and is in fact counterproductive, to your mercantile goals in Saudi Arabia. You will not get a better “deal” because you are “friendly” with the Saudi regime.

Here’s the realist truth for Tom Friedman: friendship is not necessary, and is in fact counterproductive, to your liberalization goals in Saudi Arabia. You will not get more “reform” because you are “friendly” with the Saudi regime.

The greatest self-delusion of powerful and extremely wealthy men like Trump and Friedman (yes, Friedman), is that they can personally make a difference in grand historic events. That international relations are some Great Game in which they are uniquely able to shape outcomes. That if only they can sit down and look that other extremely wealthy and powerful man straight in the eye, then they can, in the immortal words of George W. Bush vis-a-vis Putin, “get a sense of his soul” and negotiate a treaty, work out a trade deal, push for reforms, denuclearize a war zone … accomplish anything, really.

What a crock.

I’ll close this note with one last Kissinger quote.

Side by side with the limitless possibilities opened up by the new technologies, reflection about international order must include the internal dangers of societies driven by mass consensus, deprived of the context and foresight needed on terms compatible with their historical character. As diplomacy is transformed into gestures geared toward passions, the search for equilibrium risks giving way to a testing of limits. … 

Because information is so accessible and communication instantaneous, there is a diminution of focus on its significance, or even on the definition of what is significant. This dynamic may encourage policymakers to wait for an issue to arise rather than anticipate it, and to regard moments of decision as a series of isolated events rather than part of a historical continuum. When this happens, manipulation of information replaces reflection as the principal policy tool.

– Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)

If this quote doesn’t ring true to you … if it doesn’t scare the bejeesus out of you as Trump looks for those darn rogue killers … well, you’re just not paying attention.

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  1. Avatar for ET82 ET82 says:

    The was a line from Syriana (2005) which comes to mind: “Corruption is our protection.” In short, I ascribe motivated self-interest to be far more prominent for both Trump and the Friedman crowd in dealing with our mischievous foreign partners.

    With Trump, I think it is literally his long sought after payday which is being mildly endangered by this incident. I have a hard time buying into the notion that Trump is a disciple of Great Man Theory and that he seeks to put a stamp on shaping world outcomes. A long track record as the ultimate huckster has me largely convinced Trump is truly involved in geopolitical machinations for individual gain. In the fun house mirrorland of Trump’s mind, US national interests are the equivalent of what personally benefits/glorifies himself. Nothing more. Like the Russians during his real estate years, the Saudis represent an intensely lucrative opportunity for Trump to rent out the American security apparatus for protection payments. A single WaPo contributor being disappeared won’t be permitted to soften any deals. I know Trump is in the Oval Office, but the office isn’t in Trump.

    For Team Elite, the Syriana line is perhaps even more obligatory. In addition to defending their own share of global wealth accumulation, the liberal class must at all times buttress their internal psychosis of enlightened benevolence. I may be extrapolating too far, but I’ve not encountered any other culture outside of America in which it is so absolutely imperative to constantly sustain a sense of one’s goodness. We witnessed a repulsive defense of it during the I’m-a-good-little-boy testimony of Kavanaugh. As in Friedman’s case, the elites are routinely reenacting much the same performance but tend to muster more creative eloquence and dizzying intellect in their delivery. Nevertheless, I would hazard that protecting the constructed fantasy of liberalism as an inherently benevolent force is an additional existential requirement for most elites. The liberal culture and wealth that emerged in post-WWII America has evolved into a singularly fragile world view addicted to both unlimited lifestyle comforts and impervious self-efficacy. Wealth alone is not enough, their good intentions must also reign with infallibility.

  2. Avatar for ET82 ET82 says:

    As for the realist necessity of working with foreign partners like the Saudis, I am less certain of what to believe. My own participation in our Middle East wars revealed the strategic failures of defense-industry adventurism in concrete terms. And I am heavily swayed by Andrew Bacevich’s argument that we remain in denial of having lost our Greater War for the Middle East. There is also the rampant ideology of crusaders like Bolton and Pompeo who perceive the world in terms of good and evil that would be better suited for a Star Wars script.

    What I can sense, but still do not have enough knowledge of, is the degree of systemic financial entanglement that has been mapped onto that part of the world. I have heard how the US retreated from an asset-backed currency, then cut a deal to ensure petroleum would only be priced in US dollars, and formally identified the Middle East as a US project under the Carter Doctrine. Yet I lack the economic indoctrination to know what the global implications of this amounts to. Like a lot of my generation, I really do not have a tremendous amount of assets which need defending and thus I am far more willing to say the hell with all of it. And if the upside of accumulating vast wealth is only to morph into a miserable regurgitator of Friedman, any off-ramp starts to become preferable.

  3. Avatar for cbeirn cbeirn says:

    “That if only they can sit down and look that other extremely wealthy and powerful man straight in the eye, then they can, in the immortal words of George W. Bush vis-a-vis Putin, “get a sense of his soul” and negotiate a treaty, work out a trade deal, push for reforms, denuclearize a war zone … accomplish anything, really.”

    I think Ben is exactly right about this. I take Thomas’s point about Trump’s hucksterism, but megalomania and narcissism strike me as his dominant traits. I have seen the irresistible attraction of taking a hand in the Great Game up close in the wake of the Camp David Accords, and watched the frustration and failure of those following this personality-based “roadmap to Middle East peace” as the process led nowhere except to an early grave for Sadat.

    Perhaps Ben should post that famous picture of the great men side by side in their great coats (and FDR’s even greater cape) at Yalta. These personal interventions never work out as planned, but that won’t stop alpha humans from trying.

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