Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The now-failed coup in Turkey has generated an enormous amount of commentary from US-based foreign policy experts, but the sampling of it that I've perused has consistently displayed one rather striking characteristic:  the assumption that US readers would be first and foremost concerned with the effects of the coup on Turkish democracy.  I have literally not seen a single analysis of the coup attempt that has so much as mentioned its possible consequences for US interests in the region, except insofar as those interests may be intertwined with the resiliency (or lack thereof) of Turkish democratic institutions.  This is especially remarkable in light of the near-universal judgment that Turkey's democracy was more or less doomed regardless, given that President Erdogan's authoritarian (perhaps even totalitarian) inclinations are well established; that the generals involved in the coup were unlikely to be anything approaching small-d democrats themselves; and that the coup's failure will only hasten Erdogan's and Turkey's slide into dictatorship.  If democracy was, and continues to be, effectively a dead letter in Turkey--with the coup, whether it succeeds or fails, unlikely to alter that fate--then why would its (non-) effect on Turkish democracy be viewed as the key criterion by which to assess its consequences?

To understand the answer to this question requires an understanding of the Cold War-era partisan divide over US foreign policy.  As I've explained previously, the overwhelmingly predominant issue in international relations since the end of the Second World War has been the size, role and desirability of American global power.  In the US, this became a partisan issue with the rise of the New Left in the late 1960s, which took over the Democratic party and aligned it firmly in the "against" camp on the issue.  The New Left took an essentially anti-American position on the Cold War, using as a pretext various alleged American sins against "human rights" around the world.  (Their real motivation, of course, stemmed from the collective interests of the "left" coalition:  reduced power for the military and military industries; devaluing of patriotism compared to cultural cosmopolitanism; and enhanced status for left coalition-aligned internationalist institutions such academia, the diplomatic corps and NGOs.) 

The pro-US-power domestic "right" coalition justified its continued support for American global strength--which coincided with its own collective interests--by invoking the Soviet threat to US security, as it had since the beginning of the Cold War and the advent of Soviet nuclear weapons.  But in the 1980s, in response to the "human rights" critique, a new, "neoconservative" style of justification for US power claimed the moral high ground for the US as primary evangelist for democracy around the world.  With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991--eliminating the major threat to US security--this neoconservative pretext for advancing US power globally became the primary one.  The "left" coalition, in response, shifted its arguments against US power more towards advocacy of internationalism and "balance of power" equilibrium-maintenance--the so-called "neorealist" approach.

Needless to say, simplistic and partisan foreign policy positions masked by superficial cover stories are unlikely to lead to highly successful foreign policies.  The "neoconservative" approach, for example, failed utterly to promote democracy over a half-decade of costly occupation in Iraq, while the "neorealist" approach has generated seven years of successive (effectively intentional) foreign policy failures under the Obama administration.  Yet neither side has found its way towards expressing its goals straightforwardly in terms of US power--the "left" coalition because its goal of weakening the US for its own sake would be so wildly unpopular if explicitly embraced, and the "right" coalition because its goal of expanding US power for its own sake (especially at a substantial cost in blood and treasure) is only slightly more popular. 

Hence when an international development such as the coup in Turkey occurs, nobody dares even suggest that America's interest would be best served by one or another outcome, lest the public interpret such a statement as implying either willingness to sacrifice money or lives to achieve that outcome, or else support for the opposite outcome through inaction.  Instead, we hear about the coup's dire implications for Turkish democracy, without the merest hint as to whether or why the American people should care in the least about its future.

That's unfortunate, because a clearheaded understanding of US interests would be a crucial first step towards formulating a sensible US foreign policy.  And if foreign policy experts won't provide us with that--perhaps because they're utterly incapable of it--then American foreign policy will continue to serve only disguised-partisan rather than national interests, at the expense of the nation as a whole.