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Ten Years After: 9/11 and ‘Justified Realpolitik’ – Analysis


By Alankrita Sinha and Tanvi Kulkarni

Apart from the many changes that the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the US resulted in, it also changed the way historical references are now made. Major events in the world are now referred to in terms of either pre-9/11 or post 9/11. Add to this the fancy tendency to promote this ‘post 9/11’ period as a revolutionary era. Many-an-analysis on international politics in the past decade has fallen prey to these misnomers. The arguments that US power is on a decline and that American foreign policy, misguided by moral insinuations, has set a major backlash are particularly attractive in the non-Western world. But several premises of this argument can be both contested and overruled.

Life after 9/11?
Life after 9/11?

Why should global American interventions be seen as bereft of good intentions? Plus, have these intentions emerged from a sudden sense of ‘moral responsibility’ post 9/11? No they have not. We argue this case in the following commentary.

Humanitarian Intervention and Democratization

The imposition of democracy and the politics of intervention (humanitarian or not) are as much tools of hard core realpolitik as military endeavours. As features of coercive diplomacy, both emerged as powerful tools of foreign policy in the post Cold War period. What makes interventions an instrument of reapolitik is the concept of ‘selectivity’. Humanitarian interventions, according to Michael Walzer are those which fulfil two basic conditions. First, they converge with an already ongoing struggle against an oppressive regime within a country. Second, an intervention can only be said to be humanitarian if the invading country does not stay put after toppling the regime but follows a quick ‘entry and exit strategy’.

The US in this respect has proven that neither of these conditions stands a chance in lieu of its own interests. For the US, foreign policy interests overrule any sense of morality and the subsequent overstepping of lines when it comes to interventions. Note the obvious lack of the ‘rescue’ element of the US ‘humanitarian’ missions. In addition to this, the issue of selectivity is even more evident when it comes to US interventions thus marking it as realpolitiking at its best (or worst). Post Cold War, you have the NATO forces led by the lone superpower, the United States march into Iraq (1991) and Kosovo (1999) to ‘fight for the plight of the minorities’ in these countries. Both these interventions were unauthorized by the United Nations. Compare this to the complete US inaction in Rwanda (1994) or to how the Kurds have now been left fending for themselves (post 2003).

Similarly, the link between humanitarian intervention and democratization is indeed another sticking point. Forcibly ‘planting’ democratic political systems in societies that have no socio-cultural-historical bases to sustain such a system is no moral an idea. A forced regime change brought on by an invading country (whatever may be the justification for this intervention) is a matter of realpolitik led by the quest for power and material, not by overarching moral considerations. Moreover, they are a severe impingement of a country’s sovereignty thus highlighting the coercive nature of their perpetrators. It is no surprise then that ‘democratization’ is a convenient excuse as the US had tried to overthrow many a democratically elected government if it has not paid heed to its own interests. Besides, US double standards between hailing democracy and appeasing authoritarian regimes (like Saudi Arabia) have been well-critiqued. In Afghanistan too, the western forces ended up destroying the nation’s parliamentary democracy and centralizing authority in the hands of the president. Thus, realpolitik in its truest sense still remains integral to US foreign policy, though one may contest its sanctity.

Not a distinctly Post 9/11 phenomenon

Much before the Bush Doctrine aggressively (read offensively) promoted a foreign policy of ‘engaging democracies and protecting human rights’, these lines were already used by Jimmy Carter. In fact, the post Cold War American Presidents have often taken refuge in these ideas and as a matter of fact led to a certain continuation of US foreign policy. Secretary of State in the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton, too borrows from her husband, former President Clinton’s doctrine when she supports democracy and human rights as primary elements of US foreign policy. The tradition of ‘just wars’ or more appropriately justifying wars has been an integral part of the US’ grand strategy. The US has ever since the Cold War justified/sold military interventions all around the world on these two greatest words of our times. There is neither anything revolutionary nor post 9/11-specific to it. Aggression was a feature of the Neo-conservatism that made up the Bush Administration and not a result of the attacks on American democracy by anti-democratic forces. The Obama doctrine has managed to tone down the vehemence of the Bush era.

Finally, theory has it that realpolitik is amoral. However, realpolitik can cleverly be garbed under moral justifications. We attribute this cunning to the US rather than it falling prey to Chinese grand-strategy. Pax Americana may truly be on the decline, but not because of the ‘American goody-goody’. ‘Justified-Realpolitik’ is certainly the American oxymoron.

Alankrita Sinha and Tanvi Kulkarni
Research Officers, IPCS
email: [email protected], [email protected]

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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