Slaughtering the Opposition

[Cross-posted from ProgressiveHistorians.]

So Ezra and Matt don't like Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose new book, The Idea That Is America, has just come out.  I haven't read the book, but like Ezra and Matt, I've met Slaughter and heard her speak.  I'm generally a huge fan of her ideas and approach to foreign policy, which is distinctly Wilsonian internationalist in the sense that Wilson meant it (i.e., creating alliances and strengthening international organizations rather than "spreading democracy."

With that in mind, let's dispense with Matt's objections first, because they're the easiest to dismiss.  Matt thinks Slaughter is "soft and gentle," and he doesn't "have confidence that she's willing to make the tough decisions to deal with the rogue immoral elites that are destroying the planet."  Well, I've got news for Matt.  In academia, if you've attained tenure by age forty-four, that's quite an achievement.  But at age forty-four, Anne-Marie Slaughter had gotten herself named Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of International Relations at Princeton -- while being a woman in what is still largely a man's field, as well as a wife and mother.  Let me tell you, any woman that can attain that high a peak in that little a timespan in that closed a field is not "soft and gentle," she's ambitious and tough as nails.  So Matt fell for her disarming "gentleness," which I saw too when I heard her speak -- she was saying how she needed to talk fast because her kids would miss her if she didn't get home soon -- but that doesn't mean Mahmoud Abbas and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad aren't going to realize very quickly that this lady can put the kibosh on them really fast if they don't shape up.  When you think of Anne-Marie Slaughter, don't think of Condi Rice, think of Madeleine Albright -- and then imagine her bombing the heck out of Serbia, and you'll get a pretty accurate picture.

Now, to Ezra's objections, which are more substantive:

The problem with Slaughter's vision, which I generally found myself in enthusiastic agreement with, is that the only one I trust to carry it out is, well, Slaughter. And possibly me. It is not a durable framework that could withstand the ascension of another Bush administration. Indeed, while her interpretation of the values that guide America would lead to a very different foreign policy than that carried out by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, her focus on the ideals animating our foreign policy, rather than the consequences of our actions abroad, leaves a vessel that could easily be filled with noxious policies.

Well, this is a valid point, and in fact is also a valid criticism of Wilson: no one but he could interpret his ideological precepts properly, and they were twisted by his death into some truly odious ideas like the doctrine of pre-emptive war.  I think Slaughter's aware of this historical context -- the speech that I heard was just peppered with discussion of Wilson, among others.  Nevertheless, I think a foreign policy run by ideals is critical to engage people and nations who may be motivated by more than self-interest.  Self-interest may keep the peace (sometimes), but it's not going to result in better human rights laws or stronger international systems.  Like Wilson, Slaughter understands this, and she also understands that she's playing with fire when she suggests an idealist foreign policy in suspiciously similar language to that used by people like Paul Wolfowitz.  Finally, I think she understands that we need to play with that fire if we're going to wrest back control of our foreign policy from the idealist Right.

Accordingly, I think Ezra has reached exactly the wrong conclusion from eight years of the Bush Administration: "I'm fed up with values," he writes.  "Entirely.  They've failed this country."  Wrong -- it's the malicious twisting of near-universal American values by the self-interested Right that has failed us, not idealism itself.  Despite what Bush has done to their hope, people still need something to believe in; Ezra wants to walk off that field and leave it to the Republicans, while Slaughter wants to engage them and take back from them the ideas that make America great.

At the talk I attended, Slaughter shied away when I asked her about world government, which was a disappointment for me.  Nevertheless, I think she grasps better than almost anyone in foreign policy circles today how important international organizations and the corresponding visions that go along with them are to the future of the world.  If anyone can accomplish the goals Slaughter has set for America, it's Slaughter herself.  I say let her try.

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