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Unipolarity and Democracy

Jack Snyder, Robert Shapiro and Yaeli Bloch-Elkon are presenting a new version of their paper on unipolarity at APSA that’s of considerable interest in its own right, but that also sheds some light on the recent debate between Dan Drezner and Glenn Greenwald.

The paper tries to answer the question of why America invaded Iraq and, more broadly, what the invasion of Iraq says about America’s strategic position, foreign policy choices and public opinion over foreign policy. Snyder, Shapiro and Bloch-Elkon (henceforth S,S,B-E for convenience) argue that one needs to understand both international and domestic factors in order to answer this question. Unipolarity - the US’s unchallenged position as the most powerful state in the international system - explains why the US could consider engaging in imperial policies. But there were many other possible choices available to the US. Powerful states like the US can choose to engage with the world pragmatically, to adopt a principled foreign policy of humanitarian assistance that eschews imperialism or perhaps to engage in limited liability politics, embarking on moralistic politics abroad, but abandoning it when the costs rise. For S,S, B-E, the point is that the international policies of very powerful states aren’t as constrained by systemic or other pressures as those of less powerful ones. So what explains the Bush administration’s turn to an “imperial ideology that portrays the world as a place where ubiquitous threats must be countered by decisive, preventive action”?

S,S, B-E argue that the answer lies both in September 11 and in the domestic politics of polarization. September 11 ruled out a strategy of indifference to the outside world - it is unsurprising that the US attacked Afghanistan in response. But it didn’t ineluctably lead either to the invasion of Iraq or to the framing of international politics that supported the invasion. To explain that, S,S, B-E argue, we need to look at the way in which national security strategy became an electoral ‘wedge issue’ for the Bush administration. S,S, B-E claim that the Republican party needs wedge issues in order to counter their electoral disadvantage on economic issues; they refer to work by Larry Bartels which suggests that their traditional wedge (abortion) has had decreasing electoral payoffs since 1996. Thus, “[e]mpire became the new wedge issue, picking up where social issues left off.” It allowed Republicans to keep conservative voters happy, while peeling off some potential Democratic voters. Democratic politicians tried to counter this by “me-too” politics on national security and terrorism - but weren’t able to counter the Republican advantage. In short:

Unipolarity opened a space for interpretation that tempted a highly ideological foreign policy cohort to seize on international terrorism as a wedge issue to transform the balance of power in both the international system and American party politics. This cohort had its hands on the levers of power on September 11, 2001, as a result of three decades of partisan ideological polarization on domestic issues. Their instinctive response to the terrorist attack was grounded in ideological sincerity but also in routine practices of wedge issue politics. From conviction and from tactical habit, successful Republican politicians had learned that polarizing on non-economic issues is a political necessity in a country where most voters want costly welfare-state policies that are at odds with the upper-income tax cuts that are the bread and butter of the Republicans’ central constituency.

Unipolarity thus makes over-reaching belligerence more feasible than it would otherwise be:

Under unipolarity, the immediate, self-evident costs and risks of war are more likely to seem manageable, especially for a hegemonic power like the U.S. that commands more military capacity than the rest of the world combined. This does not necessarily make the use of force cheap or wise, but it means that the costs and risks of the use of force are comparatively indirect, long-term, and thus highly subject to interpretation. This interpretive leeway may open the door to domestic political impulses that lead the hegemon to overreach its capabilities.

However, if the hegemonic power is a democracy, imperial overreach can only be sustained in the short term - as the costs become more evident, the government is likely to lose political support. S,S,B-E provide survey evidence documenting the loss in support for the Iraq war, except among the small core of true believers. It’s clear from their argument that Iraq only worked as a wedge issue in the short term.

This explanation gives, it seems, some succour to both Glenn and Dan. For Glenn, it offers some scholarly support (a) for the notion that recent US behavior should be understood as a form of imperialism, and (b) that imperialism isn’t an inevitable expression of national interest. For Dan, it offers some support for the claims that military preponderance is not ipso facto imperialism, and that current imperialist tendencies are likely to be limited over the longer term by democratic politics.

At least among the majority of Democratic and Independent voters, democratic checks on reckless policy are working more or less as the “democratic marketplace of ideas” theory expects. After the 2008 election, America’s interlude of imperial ideology may seem more a passing reaction to September 11 than a reflection of a longer-lasting trend under unipolarity.

However, this cautiously optimistic conclusion comes with a proviso. While S,S,B-E’s arguments suggest that imperial overreach will be corrected in democratic systems, there is no necessary reason that successful imperial wars of aggression will be, and some reason to suspect that they won’t (S,S,B-E note in passing that the Bush administration might be in much better political shape had the Iraq adventure somehow succeeded).

What’s even more interesting to me are S,S,B-E’s arguments about what this means for US politics over the longer term. They suggest that even while the Iraq war hasn’t been a successful wedge issue, it has helped to increase polarization, albeit a form of polarization that is arguably highly unfavourable for Republicans over the longer term. They discuss how public opinion among Bush supporters is increasingly out of touch with empirical reality, and cite to a public opinion scholar who argues that “this echoes Leon Festinger’s research on the psychology of ‘cognitive dissonance’ in millenarian sects that believed more strongly in the impending end of the world after their prophecies had failed.” S,S,B-E suggest that it is likely on the balance of the evidence that elite driven ideology is leading Republicans to become “so ideological in their view of foreign affairs that they are impervious to information.” Among other interesting little public opinion factlets, they note that “[a]stonishingly, the percentage of conservatives who saw global warming as a critical threat dropped from 38 percent in 1998 to 22 percent in 2004, while a majority of liberals still perceived this as a critical threat.” Thus, as John Quiggin and others have suggested, we’re seeing a form of ideological coccooning occurring that is certainly unpleasant and problematic for democratic politics, but that also (although S,S,B-E don’t argue in exactly these terms) means that the crazies are much less likely to exert meaningful political influence than they were in 2001-2004.

[cross-posted at Crooked Timber ]

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