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Seven Myths About International Relations

From a united Europe to American exceptionalism.

By: /
12 July, 2012

There are many commonly held beliefs in international relations. But that doesn’t make them true. Here is OpenCanada’s list of the top seven myths of foreign policy.

A United Europe

The dream of a unified Europe is not a new one. Way back in 1871, Victor Hugo was already talking about a “United States of Europe.” Almost a century later (albeit, an extremely bloody century), the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union.

And how does the European project fare today? Not so well, according to just about every headline on the subject. But the eurozone crisis goes much deeper than economic turmoil, says Brussels-based journalist Gareth Harding. It exposes the myth at the heart of the European dream – that Europeans could ever be Europeans first and Germans, French, Belgians, etc., second.

“The European Union has constructed common institutions, laws, and even a currency. It has created all the symbols of a nation-state … What it lacks is a people who share a common culture, language, or narrative – or at the very least are able to identify with the political construct that has been created in their name,” says Harding.

The European motto is “United in Diversity.” But if the Germans don’t trust the Greeks, and the Brits don’t trust the Spanish, and the Dutch don’t trust the Romanians, and nobody trusts Brussels, can you have real unity?

The U.S. is Exceptional

In the opening scene of his new television show, The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s great white protagonist is asked why he thinks the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. He responds by listing all of the ways that the U.S. is not great – “We’re 7th in literacy, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy …” – before lamenting that the U.S. used to be great, back when it stood up for what was right. So it goes in the U.S., where even sharp critics of American greatness can’t entirely cut the cord to the idea of American exceptionalism.

When U.S. President Barack Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he sparked a political controversy. In a more recent speech, Obama was decidedly less relativist, saying, “The United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs.”

Harvard professor Stephen Walt isn’t so wishy-washy. He straightforwardly argues that American exceptionalism does not exist and never has. According to him, American exceptionalism is no different from the exceptionalism of other countries: The U.S. does not behave better than other states, it has no special genius, it is not responsible for most of the good in the world, and God is not exclusively on its side.

Mind you, none of these arguments preclude the idea of American greatness. It’s just the “greatest” part that is suspect.

The ICC is an International Criminal Court

“We Africans and the African Union are not against the International Criminal Court. That should be clear,” Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission, told reporters at an African Union summit in Ethiopia last year. “But, we are against [chief prosecutor Luis Moreno] Ocampo who is rendering justice with double standards.”

Ping was referring to the fact that, since its creation in 2002, the ICC has considered seven “situations,” all of them on the African continent. Why only Africa? According to international human-rights law expert William Schabas, Ocampo has “avoided situations where he would likely step on the toes of permanent members of the UN Security Council, from Afghanistan to Gaza, to Iraq, to Columbia.”

But greater balance might be coming. Fatou Bensouda, a Gambian lawyer who can’t help but be more popular than her predecessor, has replaced Ocampo as chief prosecutor, and the Office of the Prosecutor is still conducting preliminary examinations in a number of places, including Afghanistan, Georgia, Colombia, Honduras, and Korea.

China Pulls the Financial Strings

China holds $1.2 trillion in U.S. government debt. That’s not an insignificant amount. And with things as they are in Washington these days, it’s doubtful that the U.S. will become less of a debtor nation any time soon. But does that mean that Washington has become beholden to the whims of Beijing, lest China ask for its money back?

Daniel Drezner is skeptical of this influence. In his article Bad Debts: Assessing China’s Financial Influence in Great Power Politics, he writes, “To be sure, China’s reserves endow it with greater policy autonomy. Capital exporters can use their financial leverage against dependent allies and when acting in concert. Against great powers, however, financial statecraft is of limited use.” So while China is certainly better able to deflect pressure from the West on everything from currency prices to human rights, it still isn’t calling the shots – at least, not yet.

Aid Helps

“By encouraging corruption, creating dependency, fueling inflation, creating debt burdens and disenfranchising Africans (to name a few), an aid-based strategy hurts more that it helps.” So says Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. Moyo is one of a growing number of aid skeptics who argue that large, government-to-government aid programs fail to yield sustainable, long-term growth.

The central problem, they say, is a lack of engagement with the private sector. Grants and concessional loans from international donors create the wrong incentives for governments, drawing their attention away from their own people. This stymies private-sector growth, making it nearly impossible for Africans to pull themselves out of poverty.

But aid skeptics do not hold a monopoly on the debate. As Stephen Lewis said at the 2009 Munk Debate on foreign aid, “Millions of people living with HIV AIDS alive today, who without aid for anti-retroviral drugs would be dead; millions of children immunized against fatal diseases; over 30 million additional African children in schools since the year 2000; modest reduction in extreme poverty, from 58 percent to 51 percent between 1999 and 2007; 12 million orphans with the prospect of food; malaria death rates cut in half in countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia over the course of just two years because of insecticide-treated bed-nets. I could go on ad infinitum. This is aid.”

The U.S. Will Defend Taiwan Against China

The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act states that the U.S. will “maintain the capacity … to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

In a 2001 interview, then-president George W. Bush said that the U.S. had an obligation to defend Taiwan from attack with whatever means were necessary, adding that “the Chinese must understand that.”

Such strong words would seem to indicate a strong will to defend Taiwan against an attack from China. However, that would mean overlooking the “strategic ambiguity” the U.S. has traditionally applied to its statements regarding Taiwan and China. In a later interview, Bush clarified his earlier remarks by saying, “our nation will help Taiwan defend itself. At the same time, we support the one-China policy and we expect the dispute [over Taiwan’s sovereignty] to be resolved peacefully.” In 2006, Senator Dianne Feinstein said, “It is important to point out a common misconception: nowhere does the [Taiwan Relations Act] explicitly require the U.S. to go to war with the mainland over Taiwan.

Calling It Quits Over Casualties

Too many soldiers coming home in body bags, the post-Vietnam conventional wisdom goes, will undermine public support for a war. This is because the public has become, in the words of John Mueller, “casualty phobic.” Mueller points to the Iraq War as a prime example – as the body count grew, support for the war dropped precipitously.

But this isn’t always true, say Bruce Jentleson and others. Rather, it’s the type of mission, and the public’s perception of whether that mission is a success, that really counts. So when the United States intervenes to overthrow a government, support will be less than when it intervenes to impose a ceasefire, or delivers aid.

Successful actions during a mission, such as capturing an enemy stronghold or holding successful elections, result in a “halo effect” of renewed or continued public support, even if troops are dying. Thus, the public is more “defeat phobic” and wary of complicated objectives than it is casualty-averse.

This doesn’t mean that casualties don’t matter – just that casualties alone do not fully account for fluctuations in public opinion. In the short term, removing Saddam Hussein appeared to matter more than the number of troops lost in terms of the American public’s support for the Iraq War. Over the longer term, however, the halo effect could not reverse the overall decline in support as more and more soldiers were killed.

So while policymakers still need to consider potential casualties when they put soldiers in harms way, they also need to think about whether a mission’s objective is to keep the peace or to build it, and what the real likelihood of success is.

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