Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Realpolitik blues

The latest issue of Harvard International Review includes an article dealing with something I occasionally bang on about in my international communication classes: the shift from liberalism to realism in U.S. foreign policy. Louis Klarevas, Assistant Professor of Political Science at City University of New York (article doesn't say which campus but it's the College of Staten Island) writes about the present administration's tendency toward realism in international politics. Realism is a political philosophy whose U.S. followers include such notable foreign policy figures as Henry Kissinger and Condoleeza Rice (anybody worried yet?) Without getting into all the hoary details, realism essentially tends to see the world as a scary battelground between Big Power politics, where disputes are settled by clashing armies and wars (the founding document for realism is often considered to be Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War). Only the strong survive, might equals right, all that good stuff. Liberalism, on the other hand, recognizes a much more complex world system, that recognizes the power not only of nation-state actors, but also TransNational Corporations, NonGovernmentals Organizations, InterGovernmental Organizations (including the UN), and of course the global media (which is where I take a particular interest).

Now realism might have worked well as a theory in Thucydides's time, and maybe even during the era of 19th Century European colonialism, but it doesn't wash in today's world of complex interdependence. If you're, say, America, you can't run a world solely on the basis of power politics netween nation-states. You have to consider how people around the world think about America: do they love us or hate us? Do they want to be like us or want to kill us? This is important for America because encouraging others to love America and its values is a win-win - and that's where the media come in. In a world influenced by multiple non-state actors, as well as public opinion, the media raise themselves up as a power to be reckoned with. Liberalism - in international relations terms, not the way that Republicans describe it - describes the world and these issues better than realism. And liberalism provides a better prescription for America to succeed in the world: by downgrading the role of the "hard power" stick (i.e., tanks, guns, aircradft carriers) and returning the emphasis on "soft power" carrot, which is expressed in things like Hollywood movies, U.S. TV shows, cultural exchanges, educational opportunities for foreigners in U.S. universities, people in strange lands shouting "I Love America!" to the camera, and so on. Soft power is really the power of ideas and their promotion - and this is something the United States has traditionally been very good at. Naturally, then, the media have an enormous role to play in "soft power" terms. The U.S. media have been a little less effective in selling the American dream in the past two or three years. I for one would like to see them get back to the status quo ante (bellum). But we have to get the current round of ugly power politics out of the way.


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