A Corrosive Interventionism

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In his response to Paul Wolfowitz's essay on realism, David Rothkopf says that realists should endorse interfering in a state's internal affairs to advance our interests:

If the objective is to advance the national interest and influence states and our ability to do so is limited and different from circumstance to circumstance, shouldn’t we use every tool at our disposal to do so (assuming the use of the tool provides a net gain toward achieving our goals)? If so, influencing the nature of states or the internal workings of states is not off bounds for realism — it is the beginning of realism — it is the place where the effort to influence states begins.

Daniel Larison counters:

What is strange about this passage is that Rothkopf insists that realists pretend that state sovereignty and international law are ultimately irrelevant in the calculation of the national interest. Even though we have repeatedly seen from the 17th to the 21st centuries that wars fought to change the internal constitutions of other states produce profoundly negative consequences for all parties, respect for state sovereignty and international law appear nowhere in this analysis. If a government respects the principle of state sovereignty, which ours is bound by treaty to respect, it ought to be concerned overwhelmingly with relations between itself and other governments rather than working constantly to subvert them from within. There is no guarantee that changing regime type will change a regime’s behavior in our favor, and if we believe that there are permanent state interests that persist despite major internal political change there is no use in changing regime type.

The problem with the Rothkopf analysis is the U.S. loses either way. If we assert that we care about the internal working of states, then we're bound by a standard we'll never honor (see Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, etc.). If we assert that we only care about the internal nature of states when it suits our interests, then we will have exposed our professed allegiance to democratic principles as nothing more than a cynical gambit.

Moreover, the position that Rothkopf advocates is inherently destabilizing. The U.S. may believe (for good reason) that we have hit upon the ideal mode of governance. That still doesn't give us a mandate to spread that system far and wide. How would Rothkopf feel if the Chinese, pointing to their 6 percent growth while Western economies slumped, declared autocratic capitalism to be the new model for national development and further, declared that it would seek to change governments that didn't adhere to this system. We know how we would react - just as we did to similar claims made by the Soviet Union in the 1940s.

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