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Realpolitik vs. Reality

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Obama's election provides an opportunity to reconsider the utility of realpolitik, the guiding principle of American foreign policy for the past sixty years. Realpolitik is supposed to be 'practical', but one can't escape the feeling that it would be better termed dummheitpolitik, since it has been the major cause of almost every foreign policy problem we face in the world today. Building up Osama bin Laden to harass the Russians in Afghanistan comes to mind, not to mention building up Saddam Hussein to fight Iran. And of course there's Iran--possibly the most democratic nation in the Muslim world before we sabotaged Mossadegh and installed the Shah's dictatorship, whose oppressive regime opened the door to the fundamentalist Mullahs.

When you get right down to it, realpolitik is merely macho politics--a kind of Johnny-one-note foreign policy. You rattle sabers, hoping someone will wimp out. When they don't, you waste billions slaughtering civilians for a few years, then carry on as before, only with a considerably weakened economy, fewer resources, more enemies, and less real influence. Or you subvert other countries--overthrowing their democratically-elected governments, as we did all over Latin America, achieving nothing beyond a few years of easy sailing for American corporations followed by a huge loss of influence and goodwill all over the continent, so that today more than half of Latin America either views us as the enemy or simply ignores us altogether.

The dinosaurs are already wetting their drawers over Obama's suggestion that negotiation with Iran might conceivably be an alternative to another stupid adventure. Our media are also appalled, for the media are consistently more knee-jerk-macho than the American public. War, after all, is so much more newsworthy than peace. Violence sells.

Why is talking considered so fraught with terrible peril? Why is it, when we've been pushing the rest of the world around for the last 60 years that negotiating with countries much weaker than we are is considered 'dangerously naïve'? Why is the assumption always made that American diplomats will be outwitted by evil, sly foreigners? Why are Americans such Nervous Nellies that they want get out the nukes every time anyone disagrees with us?

When a huge giant acts like a timid little victim in a cartoon, it's humorous. When the world's only superpower, having bombed and/or invaded sovereign nations on four continents--none of them having threatened us in any way--tries to pass itself off as a poor little weak victim, it's just disgusting, and unworthy of a great nation.

Realpolitik means reacting to every tension spot in the world by throwing bombs at it.

Realpolitik means making sure an entire nation is against us, when only a small minority is.

Realpolitik means choosing foreign policy leaders on the basis of their belligerence and paranoia.

It's time for Americans to grow up, get their heads out of the sand, and put Realpolitik to bed. Our policy of bombing wedding parties, torturing prisoners, ignoring international law and international treaties, and treating every nation's territory as our personal property is not 'realistic', it's just short-sighted.

Realpolitik has always been contrasted with internationalism, which was seen as idealistic. That was true a century ago. Today, internationalism is the only reality. The problems we face all require international solutions. The world has shrunk, and the nation-state is obsolete as an ultimate authority. Corporations are international, terrorism is international, the economy is international, nature is international, pollution is international, labor is international, poverty is international, disease is international.

The credit crisis should have been a wake-up call. Banks and other corporations have for a long time taken rich advantage of the fact that politicians cling to meaningless national boundaries. Nations compete with one another, allowing multinationals to play them off against each other. But when trouble came, the banks were forced to reveal the truth to their nationalistic suckers: unite or we all go down.

The world we live in today is one of networks. The largest network will succeed, the others will fail. When Citibank tried to maintain a closed network of ATM machines, for example, several smaller banks banded together to form an open ATM network, which Citibank was ultimately forced to join because it was larger. Isolationism today is a losing strategy.

And networks are not empires--they're composed of equals. The United States can no longer dictate to the rest of the world--by attempting to, under the Bush administration, it has seen its influence around the world sink to its lowest depth in history.

It's time to conduct our foreign policy like grownups, living in a grownup world, not like hyperactive ten-year-old boys living in comic-book dreams of superheroes.

(Check my website for information on my new book THE CHRYSALIS EFFECT: THE METAMORPHOSIS OF GLOBAL CULTURE).