Friday, May 10, 2013

World War II, Ideology, International Relations, and Iran

*Well, the other day was V-E Day which usually prompts me to write about something pertaining to WWII on that day in my journal and lacking anything else to write about at the moment I'll just share those thoughts here:

There is a tendency, usually on the left but not always, to minimize or eliminate altogether the part ideology can play in the origins of international conflicts. A typical move is to reduce the set of grievances down to purely socio-eonomic factors. For example, there are many who argue that the state of poverty that many Muslims are born into is what leads some of them to become suicide bombers rather than any prior adherence to a radical belief system. So the thought here is that if you raise the economic status of these groups of people, they will then eventually become satisfied to such a degree that they will no longer seek destructive means of airing their problems. Realists will also often downplay ideological factors but for other reasons. Their emphasis is that most state actors are rational practitioners of power politics so that the problems that arise between states are not usually the result of a clash in the respective ideologies of these states but rather owing to each state pursuing its own national self-interests which of course often conflict with one another.

The importance of WWII concerning this matter lies in the unequivocally ideological nature of Hitler and the Nazi regime.  Hitler's own worldview as put forward in Mein Kamp is what powered German foreign policy before and during WWII. Hitler believed in Aryan racial supremacy and a twisted form of Darwinism (Social Darwinism) and sought to implement these twin beliefs by ridding Europe of what he considered undesirables and almost succeeded at this. Hitler desired Lebensraum (living room) for Germany and believed in a Grossdeutche (a greater Germany) both of which he accomplished by the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland and the Anschluss with Austria. Hitler considered Russia to be Germany's true, eternal enemy and so invaded that country in 1941. In other words every movement of Nazi German foreign policy corresponded with the ideological beliefs and goals of Adolf Hitler. Now of course Germany before and during Hitler's rule had harbored certain concrete geopolitical objectives that weren't necessarily ideological, but these become incorporated into the behemoth that was Nazi ideology so that one can still confidently say that it was the totality of Nazi ideology that formed the basis for German foreign policy in the 1930's and 40's. So then WWII offers the clearest example of ideological factors playing an important role in the outbreak of an international conflict.

The "ideology" question is not a moot one. For example, it has relevance to something going on today, namely, the negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear ambitions. The question about how much ideology may be influencing the Iranian regime's actions is a pertinent one given its vitriolic rhetoric towards states like Israel. Now the realists could be right that Iran is just a normal, rational thinking state and if this is the case then allowing them to have nuclear weapons capability wouldn't pose a major risk to the region. (See for example Kenneth Waltz's article for a recent articulation of this view.) But the problem here is that we know so little about the true nature of the Iranian regime. For example, how much actual influence does the President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have over foreign policy? How much does the Supreme Ayotollah have? Or the Revolutionary Council? The danger is that if it's
essentially one person (like Hitler in Nazi Germany) running foreign policy then the likelihood of Iran pursuing a rational foreign policy is significantly reduced. And the fear is that it is actually Khamenei, the Supreme Ayotollah, who wields all the power in Iran. This is a major concern because of the apocalyptic nature of some of Shia Muslim belief that Khamenei seems to hold. And so if this is indeed the case, then allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons capability would be extremely risky. But on the other hand if power is spread amongst several players then the possibility that Iran is acting quite rationally, by IR theory standards anyway, is high. To clarify, if it's ideology that's driving Iranian foreign policy then letting them have "the bomb" would be a huge risk for the region; but if it's traditional, "rational" power politics determining their foreign policy then there is little to worry about. At this point we simply don't know.

Now, I usually count myself among the Realists in that I tend to assume that states typically act out of a "rational" calculation of national self-interests when conducting foreign policy. But there are clear cases in history when ideology has driven a country's foreign policy and so one shouldn't be too quick to dismiss ideological factors in explaining state behavior. To do so could be to invite disaster as the European countries did on the eve of WWII by assuming that Hitler was a rational state actor, merely  pursuing traditional German foreign policy objectives. Thus, current efforts at diplomacy with Iran should heed this lesson.


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