The Bush Doctrine and the Poverty of International Relations Theory

Mackubin T. Owens

September 1, 2003

I attended the American Political Science Association (APSA) annual convention in Philadelphia over the Labor Day weekend and can report that there is both good news and bad. The good is that security studies is making a comeback after a 10 year decline (brought about by the end of the Cold War). The bad news is that for the most part, political scientists are still a pretty monolithic lot, and they don’t understand America and its foreign policy.

A case in point was a roundtable on "Offensive Realism, Radical Nationalism, and the Bush Doctrine of Preemption." The panel, chaired by my good friend and former colleague Emily Goldman of the University of California at Davis, included some of the best known international relations theorists in the country: John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, Steve Walt of Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Stephen Van Evera of MIT, Catherine Kelleher of the Naval War College, and Robin Dorf of the Army War College. The spectrum of opinion on the panel ran from critical of Bush to extremely critical of Bush.

This particular APSA panel was not an isolated phenomenon. The panel’s discussant, Chris Demchak of the University of Arizona commented that in all of her travels as head of the International Security and Arms Control section of APSA, she had never met an academic IR professor who defended the Bush doctrine. She wondered why this might be so.

If all IR theorists were "liberals" or "pluralists," the answer might be obvious. After all, liberals believe that actors in the international political system (IPS) can cooperate as well as compete. They contend that the goals of actors within the IPS transcend power and security. Liberals stress the importance of peace and prosperity. They see an important role for actors in the IPS other than states, including international institutions such as the United Nations. They are unlikely to approve a doctrine that focuses on security and emphasizes military action, including preemptive war.

But the dominant IR perspective in the American academy is "realism." Indeed, all of the APSA panelists were realists. In IR theory, a realist is someone who stresses the importance of power and military security in international affairs. For the realist, the state is the only important actor in the international arena and relative power the only meaningful goal. There are "human nature" realists who argue that the international realm is merely a reflection of the fallen nature of man. They can be said to be disciples of Thomas Hobbes.

Most modern realists are "structural realists" who believe that the competitive character of international politics arises from the structure of the IPS—international anarchy. Since states have no common superior, they are the arbiters of their own security needs—in other words, the IPS is a "self-help" system: each state must take whatever steps it believes will ensure its survival, regardless of the opinions of others. A state may form alliances, go to war, or build up its defensives. Of course, if state A takes what it considers to be defensive steps, state B may see these actions as threats to its security. This is called the "security dilemma" and is the source of arms racing and preemptive war.

For the realist, relative power is the key. "Defensive" realists argue that a state will only pursue the power that it needs to ensure its survival. "Offensive" realists such as John Mearsheimer believe that a state will seek to acquire as much power as it can get.

According to the panelists, the Bush doctrine is at best a-strategic—it fails to establish a priority of goals—and at worst counterproductive. Since it is open-ended, threatening the use of military force whenever necessary, it is very costly.

For instance, toppling Saddam has cost billions at a time when the US economy is sluggish and huge budget deficits are predicted for years. The occupation of Iraq will only raise the cost of the war, and because most of the world thinks war is a mistake, we will get little help from other countries. Preventive war in Iraq was unnecessary because rogue states can be deterred just as the much more dangerous Soviet Union was during the Cold War.

The panelists argued that the Bush doctrine undermines cooperation with others, reinforcing the perception that the United States is a bully. Accordingly, it jeopardizes the international unity necessary to defeat global terrorism. Indeed, it will increase anti-American sentiments throughout the world, especially in Islamic states.

Ironically, the realists on the APSA panel make the same argument that liberals often do. For instance, Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s last secretary of state, and certainly no realist, argued in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs that the Bush doctrine, as applied in Iraq "frightens and divides the world” and thereby actually has harmed the war against al Qaeda: "Instead of simply asking others to oppose al Qaeda, [the president] now asks them to oppose al Qaeda, support the invasion of an Arab country, and endorse the doctrine of preemption—all as part of a single package. Faced with this choice, many who staunchly oppose al Qaeda have nevertheless decided that they do not want to be ‘with’ the United States."

Some of the panelists repeated the old charge that when it comes to foreign policy, President Bush is under the thrall of a cabal of "neo-conservatives." Steve Van Evera mentioned in particular the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). I was a member of the PNAC working group on defense. I had no idea that I was so influential.

At one point, a panelist suggested that the lack of diversity of opinion on foreign policy within the Bush administration constituted an "echo chamber." Given the uniformly negative assessment of the Bush doctrine during this roundtable, I wonder if the panelists appreciated the irony of that comment.

While the panelists made many worthwhile points, it seems to me there are at least two problems with their arguments. The first has to do with the specific charges they made. The second has to do with the state of IR theory itself.

First, not a single panelist acknowledged the impact of 9/11 on the Bush defense policy. Before 9/11, the Bush administration seemed committed to a grand strategy of selective engagement. In all of his speeches, both as a candidate and as president before 9/11, George Bush criticized the open-ended nature of the Clinton doctrine, taking it to task for its indiscriminate use of military force in instances not involving vital national interests. The pre-9/11 Bush doctrine stressed foreign policy retrenchment and military "transformation." We on the PNAC defense working group laid out a much more ambitious foreign policy and grand strategy, but it was a non-player before 9/11.

9/11 changed the security landscape. Now the more ambitious grand strategy seemed to make more sense, and it gained a place at the table. Some, both critics and supporters, have called this approach "muscular Wilsonianism," noting its emphasis on expanding democracy. But such an approach can be found in Thucydides, who noted that an important goal of both Athens and Sparta was to establish and support regimes similar to their own, democracies in the case of Athens and oligarchies for Sparta. The inference one can draw is that the security of a state is enhanced when it is surrounded by others that share its principles and interests.

Second, the panel illustrated the poverty of IR theory. In essence, the debate between realists and liberals is a debate between Machiavelli and Kant. For realists, liberals are too abstract and place too much emphasis on the "good side" of human nature. For liberals, realists are too pessimistic and cynical. In addition, their theory is too parsimonious; it fails to explain too much in the world.

It seems to me that John Locke provides an explanation of the world that combines the strengths of realism and liberalism. No one has done a better job of explaining the synergy between power and prosperity than Locke. Locke usually is treated as an intellectual precursor of liberalism, but when it comes to war and peace, it seems to me that Locke provides a comprehensive answer.

The Lockean synthesis is captured nicely in a document that more professors of IR theory ought to read, if they truly want to understand the United States—Washington’s "Farewell Address." Of course, both realists and liberals will see what they want in the document, but it is the combination of interest and principle that is most noteworthy.

After the passage that everyone misuses to prove that the real policy of the United States should be isolationist—"…it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves…in the ordinary vicissitudes of [Europe’s] politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships and enmities," Washington provides the Lockean synthesis. "If we remain one People, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisition upon us, will not lightly hazard giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel."

IR theorists, confined to their conceptual boxes can’t see this. They don’t understand the United States and they certainly don’t understand George Bush. And this is why IR theory has become so sterile.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is on leave from the Naval War College to write a history of U.S. civil-military relations. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam, 1968-69.