Realism, Unipolarity, and Morality

This arrangement will be undermined by the coming collapse in the price of crude later this decade. A Citi GPS report expects Brent to “stabilize below $90, perhaps falling well below these levels at times and as a result the current $90 floor price for Brent looks likely to become a ceiling price by the end of this decade.” Additional capacity coming online in Iraq, Canada, and the United States alone would shave off tens of dollars a barrel; far below the “break-even price” for the Saudi state which is already at $80, and expected to grow into triple digits. A fiscal crisis in the oil monarchies is already baked into the numbers. Along with the threats inherent in the upcoming inter-generational succession struggle in Saudi Arabia, the central assumption underpinning US policy in the Persian Gulf is looking increasingly fragile.

Neorealism sees unipolarity as the vacuous, trivial case where there is no systemic pressure. This misses the immediate implication that in a unipolar system the foreign policy of the unipole is the dominant variable in world politics. One expects the unipole to pursue a grand-strategy aimed at preventing the emergence of a competitor. Given the distribution of war potential on the globe, this amounts to a strategy aimed at preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon at the two extremities of Eurasia. As a corollary, the United States will exclude any great power or regional hegemon from acquiring control of the energy resources of west Asia. Furthermore, a centered realist would expect the US to maintain its naval primacy and keep the world’s sea-lanes under its protection. Realism has no further implications about US foreign policy.

In a unipolar world, the foreign policy of the unipole constitutes the system level of world politics. What one needs to talk about, therefore, is the political economy of US policy. The invariants of US policy emanate not from raison d’état but from Ferguson’s investment theory of party competition. In reality, the United States runs a ‘protection racket’ in the interests of the ‘masters of the universe’.

Protecting brutal clients against the threat of democracy is an American specialty: Saddam, Suharto, Sandinista, the al-Saud, and the Shah, just to name a few starting with S. This is surprising because as Walt himself demonstrated in The Origins of Alliances, clients are neither reliable nor very useful. In a bipolar system, there is systemic pressure: Soviet military and financial support for Egypt and Syria forced the US to increase its patronage to the Saudis, who were – just like today – leading the counter-revolution against Nasserism. Walt’s result holds a fortiori in a unipolar world. In any case, as the weaker power in a bipolar regional security complex, the House of Saud needs US protection more than the United States needs Saudi excess capacity. 

A friend of mine and a regular reader of this blog wondered if I have any moral feelings about this business. I was taken aback. The moral dimension – and the magnitude of the crimes – is so obvious that I stopped ranting about it a long time ago. As a prudent first principle of analytical thinking, it is necessary to distinguish between the positive – i.e., what exists – from the normative – i.e., what ought to be. This is part of the reason why you haven’t read much outrage on these pages. Another is that we are so far indeed from “what ought to be” that it seems almost absurd to mention it.

The bodies have been piling up high everywhere – Chile, Panama, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen – for a very long time indeed. Compared to the long list of crimes the complicity in the butchery in Syria is a minor affair for the United States. Since 1990, even the fig leaf of the cold war is gone. US support for brutal regimes continues unabated: not in the pursuit of strategic interests so much as in the interest of those who matter.

The United States has cornered the market for security. It has the luxury of being in a position to square its ‘interests’ with its ‘values’, except that ‘values’ are pure rhetoric which have no bearing on US policy. They are meant to hoodwink Americans amid much self-congratulation about the ‘greatest nation on earth’. US ‘interests’ emanate from tightly-knit sectors of wealth and power, in the spirit of the founding fathers who thought that ‘those who own the country ought to rule it’. 

31 thoughts on “Realism, Unipolarity, and Morality

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