Our debate with the socialist thinker Daniel Bessner elicited a flurry of reactions and comments. We're not surprised. It's what we hope to do more of at Wisdom of Crowds. Instead of "winning" arguments, we want to interrogate the source of deep difference and understand why we believe what we believe. In that spirit, subscriber and friend of the pod Aaron Irion—a graduate student at George Washington and former advisor to the Montana House of Representatives—submitted a thought-provoking comment in response to the episode. We passed it along to Daniel and each of us took a swing at replying. We had fun with this one and enjoyed the opportunity to extend the debate. Enjoy.
JUMP TO RESPONSE:
Shadi | Damir | Daniel
Aaron: What was great about having someone on like Daniel Bessner, who is far outside the “mainstream,” is that it quickly clarified Shadi and Damir’s priors, down to making Damir finally admit publicly that he is something of an offensive realist (something most of us with an international relations background had long ago figured out). While the entire conversation was illuminating, I think Daniel’s most effective line of attack on Shadi, one I wish could’ve been fleshed out more, was on the question of short-vs-longtermism. If I had to strip Daniel’s philosophy down to its bare bones, nixing its leftist morality, I think it’s functionally a vision of making American foreign policy humbler.
As a young person, I must admit I find that particularly attractive. When I look back on the geopolitical events of my life, they are almost all characterized by a pursuit of short-term gains followed by catastrophe in the medium-to-long terms. Whether it be the deregulation of the 1990s leading to the global financial crash in 2008, America’s gung-ho attitude in Afghanistan and Iraq leading to mass death and ultimate failure, or the interventions in Libya and Syria that made us all feel good for a moment before ushering in 10 years of chaos and immiseration, I think humility, not a continued hubris, is the lesson. While I find Shadi’s vision morally attractive in the abstract, I am deeply skeptical that it could play out well in reality. Of course, nothing is pre-determined but as the quip goes - history rhymes. In this case, it would probably rhyme with “utter disaster.”
What I found completely unconvincing about Daniel’s argument was its maximalism. The idea that nothing can be bettered unless capitalism is overthrown, and climate change is stopped in its tracks immediately, strikes me as both nihilistic and factually incorrect. I’m unconvinced that a socialist world would even mitigate climate change given that the USSR (though I know Daniel won’t claim it as properly socialist) was an extractive state that desecrated its own ecology. I also found it quite ironic that while Daniel is ostensibly seeking to cripple the American empire to empower the global south, it was Shadi who had to make the (correct) point the individual lives of folks in the global south matter, and that we must factor them, and not solely the United States, into our analyses.
As I listened to the conversation move from short- and long-termism to what’s “realistic,” to Damir’s pressing of Daniel on this theory of change, one question persisted; is it useful at all to have a foreign policy “vision” or “doctrine” in today’s world? I think in different ways Shadi and Daniel both have one, and Damir to a lesser extent, but I go back and forth on its utility for the 21st century. It’s not just that we live in an increasingly complex and evolving world. It’s more so that the idea of a uniform foreign policy vision largely relies on a now defunct logic emanating from the Cold War and then the Unipolar Moment.
That logic presupposed a certain kind of consensus, and it’s why Democratic and Republican administrations alike were committed first to fighting the Cold War and then to advancing American primacy after 1991. A doctrine is useful in these circumstances, because one can count on its continued implementation over time. But in a domestic policy space now characterized by hyper-polarization, in which every president’s foreign policy is essentially ripping up whatever their predecessor did, how useful is having a uniform doctrine?
To tie it to the conversation, it’s much more difficult to even consider short and long-term consequences when there is no guarantee that a policy will survive longer than four years. Damir is likely off the hook with this question, and I find his idea of “groping” for solutions quite convincing. But for Shadi, and I guess this connects to the question of “realisticness,” I’m interested in hearing not so much about what your vision for American foreign policy is, that much I think I can grasp, but on why you think having a coherent vision at all is useful if your goal is truly to affect change where you can? My conclusions (to my dismay) sound simultaneously like a vulgar realism and European technocracy, but I’d love for you to wrestle with them nonetheless.
Shadi: Who would argue against humility in foreign policy in the abstract? Of course, it is good to be humble, if by that we simply mean avoiding arrogance, excess, and the sense that we can do no wrong, because of course we can and will.
But is it humble—or not humble—to threaten to cut off economic and military assistance to Tunisia in light of its ongoing, slow-motion coup? It might not sound humble, because it seems confrontational. But to not threaten to suspend aid means, in effect, enabling and emboldening a would-be strongman to suppress his domestic opponents by force. Not exactly humble either. But perhaps it’s better to say that humility isn’t the best heuristic for judging U.S. foreign policy, since both acting “aggressively”—and not acting aggressively—are conscious policy choices that affect, and even destroy, the lives of those in the global south.