The Yglesias Doctrine

Sorry I’ve been neglectful this week; traveling makes blogging dfficult, to say the least. But while plenty of interesting things have happened that I haven’t commented on (if one counts Tom Vilsack self-immolating and dropping out “interesting,” which even for someone like me is pushing it), the most fascinating to me was Matt’s revealing of his foreign policy doctrine. Which, not too surprisingly, I disagree with quite strongly:

As a general rule, though, I don’t think Beinart’s idea works. It treats the issue here as fundamentally epistemic — we need a way to check whether or not some invasion scheme is a good one. I think the issue here is structural. The problem isn’t that the United States is insufficiently virtuous to remake the world, but that no country is sufficiently virtuous to wield the level of power that would be required to remake the world. The exercise of power needs to be constrained by some kind of widely acceptable rules. I would propose that the use of force is legitimate when it is either:

  • In direct self-defense.
  • In defense of another country (i.e., we assist Costa Rica in repelling a Nicaraguan invasion).
  • When authorized by a UN Security Council resolution.
  • When called for by a relevant (i.e., the OAS can’t authorize an invasion of Burma) regional organization.
    Obviously, there’s no guarantee that all wars undertaken under those conditions will turn out well. There are always going to be considerations of prudence and efficacy specific to the particular case.

  • I think Matt (and Beinart) make the tragic – and all too common – mistake of assuming that American hegemony is defined by the mess the Bush administration has made of it over the past six years. It isn’t. The United States has a long track record – stretching back to Teddy Roosevelt – that has shown it to be, with a few notable exceptions (Bush II and Nixon come to mind) “sufficiently virtuous” to “remake the world.” A few examples:

  • Organizing the peace between Russia and Japan in 1905, preventing further major regional warfare.
  • Intervening in WWI to ease the bloodshed coming over Western Europe.
  • Initiating the Lend-Lease program in the early days of WWII, and helping destroy Germany despite the fact the only Japan actually attacked us.
  • Starting the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions, ensuring a harmonious economic order and creating an at least somewhat successful diplomatic forum.
  • Stopping British, French, and Israeli aggression in 1956.
  • Defusing the situation in Cuba in 1962 without resorting to invasion.
  • Negotiating the peace between Egypt and Israel in 1978.
  • Deposing – sans occupation – Noriega in Panama in 1989.
  • Protecting Kuwaiti sovereignty in 1991.
  • Re-instituting the legitimate government of Haiti in 1994.
  • Stopping the genocide in Bosnia in 1995.
  • Stopping the genocide in Kosovo in 1999.
    Etc. etc. One can argue that some of these interventions were not motivated by altruism – though that case is next to impossible to make in relation to Bosnia/Kosovo, the Suez case, the European theater of WWII, and the Bretton Woods institutions. But the consequences for the world (which I, as a utilitarian, consider the only relevant variable) have been so overwhelmingly positive that it is just plain dishonest for Beinart/Yglesias to argue that the US (or, in Yglesias’ formulation, any country) is incapable of using its hegemony wisely. We have, for the most part, and the world is significantly better for it. We shouldn’t extrapolate from Iraq that hegemony is evil any more than we should extrapolate from 1939 that appeasement never works; each case is the exception, not the rule.
    And maybe I’m just an unrepentant Benthamite, but Matt’s restrictions on the use of force are far too complicated. I say, if the use of force does more good than harm, go for it. Good includes national economic gain, preservation of human life, an increase of national security, the spread of democracy, etc. Harm includes bloodshed, economic damage, loss of international reputation, dictatorship, etc. A possible intervention into Sudan is justified not by any intrinsic qualities it possess; it just would save more people than it would kill. Similarly, the invasion of Iraq was not justified because more people died than would have otherwise, our international reputation was damaged significantly, we’ve wasted one trillion dollars, etc. So a harmful war could be started with UN approval, and a beneficial war could be conducted without it (see Kosovo).

  • 2 thoughts on “The Yglesias Doctrine

    1. What is so troubling is that the Bush Administration’s disasters make people like Matt Yglesias look more correct. I don’t have a good answer for the problem of limiting bad American foreign policy. The best that I can come up with is that the European Union could serve as a counterweight.

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