Saturday, June 18, 2011

Who Doesn't Love a Grand Theory Debate?

. Saturday, June 18, 2011

Well, me. Nevertheless, Nexon on Caverley, Caverley responds.

No deep thoughts from me, as I haven't read the article under discussion, but it seems that Caverley is arguing that neocons support democratization at least in part because it would weaken their (our?) enemies. Nexon argues that no neocons actually say that, nor do they have good reason to think it given their reliance on both neoclassical realism and some forms of (non-Wilsonian) liberalism, neither of which make that case. From where I sit that sounds right enough, and yet... even if neocons don't make that case, perhaps they should.

Academic IR writes all the time about how democracy can enfeeble states. And also about how it can strengthen them. Democracies supposedly constrain leaders by both making it difficult for them to go to war, but then make them try like hell to win once they get in one. Democracies are supposedly better are imposing audience costs, but that's a double-edged sword. Etc.

If we buy any of this*, then a statement like "democratization will strengthen states in some ways and weaken them in others" that is followed by a statement like "from the perspective of the United States vis-a-vis new democracies, the latter will usually out-weigh the former" is not implausible on its face**. Was Japan strengthened by post-WWII democratization, along with the economic integration that followed from it? I think so. Was Japan strengthened in its bilateral relationship with the U.S. by that process? Arguably no. It became completely dependent on the U.S. for its security, and to a large degree its economic prosperity. Relative to China, Japan got stronger. Relative to the U.S., perhaps not.

To think about it in another way: the neocon goal of a "league of democracies" would certainly have the U.S. as the most central node. Network externalities being what they are, the effect would be to reinforce American power. (Somewhat perversely, this isn't too far from Ikenberry's view.) It can then make an offer to other states: democratize and you'll get the benefits of being in the network, but only as a peripheral node. Such an arrangement could simultaneously increase America's relative power while improving material conditions for the new democracy. Thomas Friedman (does he count as a neocon?) would call it the "Golden Security Straitjacket". Speaking of the devil, Friedman has written a bunch about the benefits of authoritarianism.

So perhaps Nexon is right that neocons don't believe in "democratic enfeeblement". But maybe they should. It could follow from their other beliefs.

*I'm not necessarily saying we should. I hope Phil Arena chimes in.

**To be clear, Nexon doesn't argue that it is; only that Caverley's paper doesn't establish the claim that neocons actually believe this, despite using strange readings of cherry-picked texts.


filarena said...

I started to write a response, but stopped myself. Mostly would have been repeating things I've said before.

I'm utterly unqualified to say whether neo-conservatism, insofar as it is or can be stretched to appear to be a descriptive theory of international relations, is more akin to neo-classical realism or liberalism. Similarly, I haven't read enough neo-conservative work to judge whether democratic enfeeblement is or is not part of why neo-conservatives advocate spreading democracy.

But as to your other point, as I think comes across on my blog and in my work, I'm a skeptic when it comes to most of the rosy things people say about democracy's effect on security. I'm not sure how I feel about the claim that the US benefits from spreading democracy because it reduces other states' ability to extract the resources necessary for adopting aggressive foreign policies though. I'm having a hard enough time just working through the problems I see with claims about democracies not fighting one another, being transparent, choosing short and winnable wars, trying harder to win those wars they do fight, etc.

Caverley has elsewhere argues that wealthy, unequal democracies in particular should be especially prone to starting wars. His basic argument is that wealthy states can largely substitute capital for labor, and the more unequal they are, the more that means that the median voter doesn't bear much of the cost of the war. I'm not sure what that says or doesn't say about neo-conservatism, but I've always thought that was a clever and plausible argument, and it seems worth mentioning as long as we're on the topic.

LFC said...

"Thomas Friedman (does he count as a neocon?)..."

I don't think so. He just 'counts' as a myopic cheerleader for neoliberal globalization.

Who Doesn't Love a Grand Theory Debate?
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