International Affairs Forum:
So that we can frame this discussion a little bit, could you start by stating in your own terms your theoretical position within IR theory?
Well, funny you should ask. I've been a person who has been a little hard to pin down in the IR theoretical paradigm debate. On the one hand, I have in the past described myself as a realist; in particular a defensive realist. My 1991 book, entitled Myths of Empire, was about why empires get overextended. I argued that the reason for it was that they create a myth that they can increase their security by further expansion. This generally isn't true; it generally only winds them up in quagmires. This myth defies the logic of the balance of power, which is that states band together in order to resist threats from the most powerful or most threatening states in the system.
So, if you want to provoke enemies who resist you, behave too aggressively and you'll get a lot of enemies.
It's a realist argument in the sense that it assumes that the balance of power actually operates in the world and constrains powerful or aggressive states. But it's also not the kind of argument that realists have traditionally made, because it tries to explain this phenomenon of imperial overexpansion as based on domestic politics and domestic ideologies. I argued that politicians and interest groups portrayed the world as one where it is possible to increase security through expansion because of their domestic political agenda. The ‘myths of empire’ is a political ideology which is used to advance the agenda.
On the one hand, I’m a realist in the sense that I focus on the balance of power, power relations and objective facts about power. On the other hand, there are things about my arguments that are more typical of people who believe in a liberal paradigm. I argue that domestic politics matters, that the type of regime matters, that democracies are better at learning to pull back from over-extension than authoritarian regimes. So I see myself as a liberal-realist which strikes some people as a contradiction in terms.
In 2002 you published a journal article entitled Anarchy and Culture. It seems like this is another instance where you were exploring a meshing of ideas; between constructivism and realism. Do you see a strict separation between the two?
Every book that I've ever written has ideas as an important part of it. So in that sense I'm interested in the same things that constructivists are interested in. How ideas can have a life of their own and affect politics. On the other hand constructivists tend to take the view that social reality is constructed out of normative discourse. For instance, ‘what should the rules governing its political behavior be’. That's different from my way of approaching ideas.
I tend to argue that ideas are rooted in social structure, in power relations, in the mode of production and structure of the state. There are elective affinities between these social realities and the kinds of ideas that will appear in social situations. I mean, I'm not like Marx in the sense that I don't believe that ideas directly follow from the structural base of the economy. I do believe that people take ideas seriously and that the logic of arguments takes on a life of its own sometimes, or becomes unhooked from the material circumstances that foster ideas. So I'm as interested in ideas as the constructivists are, but I have a different take on where they come from.
In your new book Electing to Fight, you discuss countries which transition from autocracy to democracy as ones which destabilize the international system when they have weak institutions. If we look at a case like Iraq, do you think that Iraq’s move towards democracy being externally instigated, and not the result of an internal evolution, changes anything with the application of your theory of transitional democracy?
Well Iraq is not making a transition to democracy; Iraq has been making a transition from autocracy to anarchy. What I have been saying about Iraq is that the elections in Iraq are one of several test cases of Bush's hypothesis that democratization will bring peace, security and stability to the Middle East. In addition to his corollary hypothesis that every country is ready to take steps towards democracy, that there is no country that is unprepared for democratization. He has made these kinds of arguments in the past, especially in his second inaugural speech. When the weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaeda explanations for the war in Iraq were no longer plausible, then he switched more towards emphasizing democratization and regional transformation through democratic transition.
We ran a social science experiment in the first 12 months after he gave his second inaugural speech. There were elections throughout the Near East and Middle East. One of those countries was Iraq, where the elections were polarizing with 90% of the people voted for ethnic or sectarian groups. Only 10% voted for the secular, moderate, cross cutting political parties that the US favored. This is because when you hold elections in a poorly institutionalized environment people mobilize political support based on social networks that are there already in the society. In a society like Iraq, ethnicity is based along the lines of the mosque, tribes, and cultural and decent groups which are the easiest to mobilize when governmental, legal, bureaucratic and political institutions are very weak. In a culturally divided society like Iraq, that kind of electoral mobilization is deeply divisive. I don't want to say that the electoral process caused the civil war in Iraq. It was a reflection of the division. I think it also intensified the division, or at any rate, didn't resolve it.
Iraq was just one example of many attempted transitions to democracy in Middle Eastern countries that lacked what we normally think of as the facilitators of a successful democratic consolidation. These are: relatively high level of economic development measured by per capita income, high literacy, non-oil-based economy, mono-ethnic population, a tradition of strong bureaucratic professionalism, minimal corruption, at least some rule of law system. So, all of the places were weak on almost all of those facilitators of democracy, and the electoral results showed. Hamas, a terrorist group, won the election in the Palestinian territories; Ahmadinejad, a nuclear-arming holocaust denier won the presidential election in Iran; Hezbollah, the party that gained the most increased support in Lebanon in those elections and became a state within a state, a spoiler in national politics, and instigated a war with Israel that was ruinous for the country. Anyway, that's my take on democratization in Iraq and its also part of my more general argument that countries which are in transition to democracy are more prone to get into international and civil wars than other kinds of states if they make the transition with weak political institutions and are lacking a lot of these facilitators to consolidation.
Perhaps we can talk about one more example: What is your take on the situation in Kosovo regarding the European defense force?
I think the most important lesson of Kosovo is that the international community contributed to the complexity of the current situation by the naïve policies that it adopted in the immediate aftermath of the military victory over the Serbs, following the Serb mass expulsion of Albanians. The crucial point was after the KLA won its victory supported by NATO bombing, and the Serbs under Milosevic agreed to withdraw from Kosovo. At that point, many Serbs left Kosovo in fear for their lives; some stayed behind. NATO and the European countries announced a policy of encouraging Serbs to stay, and in fact tried to entice them to come back to Kosovo in order to create a multicultural integrated society. Much in the same the way that the Dayton accord in Bosnia held out the hope of people returning to their homes. The goal of which was to create an integrated civic territorial form of national solidarity based not on ethnicity but based on loyalty to a liberal constitution.
Well, I’m in favor of that too. I think that whenever we can in the world, we should constitute nations on a civic rather than an ethnic basis. Ethnic exclusion should be a last resort. On the other hand, in a place like Kosovo where ethnic cleansing has been carried out by a ruthless regime in the context of atrocities. Where you have two communities, the Serbs and the Albanians, who were deeply divided as a result of a history of oppression and distrust. That sometimes you just need to be realistic and understand that you need to separate communities for the sake of peace. If you don't separate them, it doesn't lead to a happy multicultural integration, it just leaves a thorn under the saddle of the body politic. Ethnic politicians who want to gain a political advantage by playing the ethnic card will always have that hated ethnic minority in the neighborhood. These politicians can use the minorities as an excuse for provoking trouble, violence and enmity so that they can exploit it for their political purpose; and that's exactly what has happened.
What the international community should have done, rather than trying to get Serbs to stay, would have been the opposite. They should've paid Serbs to leave Kosovo to the Albanians. They should have given the Serbs of Kosovo whatever it took. Write them a $5,000 check and told them to go to Belgrade and get a new start on life because if you stay here it’s not going to do you any good, it’s not going to do anybody any good. I think the international community needs to learn that civic multiculturalism is a goal to be pursued, but that there are some circumstances where it's a dangerous to pursue it naïvely and blindly.
Jack Snyder is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Relations in the political science department and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War (MIT Press, 2005), Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Cornell University Press, 1991) and The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914 (Cornell 1984) in addition to articles published in the foremost academic journals of Political Science.
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