Whither Realism?

This is the first in a series of four articles trying to come to terms with Obama’s foreign policy. Click here to read Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

Is compromise possible between realists and neoconservatives? Are the ideas that animate realism and neoconservatism fundamentally incompatible? Or is there a way forward that can restore the peace within both the Republican party and the conservative movement?

The conflict within the GOP has not been this sharp since 1976, when Gov. Ronald Reagan attempted to wrest the party’s nomination away from President Gerald Ford. Reagan denounced Ford’s commitment to détente as timid and naïve, and argued for pursuing victory in the Cold War. Yet, even had Reagan prevailed, the defection of realists to the Democratic column would have been unthinkable. For its liberal critics, realism was the cynical doctrine that prolonged the war in Vietnam and ignored growing concern for human rights.

Today, liberal and moderate Democrats think of realism as the kinder, gentler doctrine of George H.W. Bush, whose commitment to consensus-building, diplomacy, alliances, and multilateralism were lost on the younger President Bush. During George W. Bush’s final months in office, Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, invited despondent realists to recognize that their “natural allies” were the tough-minded Harry Truman Democrats, not the neoconservatives or the “latent isolationists” of the conservative right. After eight years of George W. Bush, might one or more realist titans—Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, or even Henry Kissinger—be tempted to declare that realism is no longer at home in the GOP?

Realists themselves have suggested that realism is homeless by nature, a perpetual orphan in the jarringly idealistic landscape of American politics. They arrived at this understanding long before the Bush presidency, the war in Iraq, and the rise of neoconservatism. To understand the conflict between realism and its adversaries on the right, one must return to the founding texts of the realist tradition. At the heart of these texts is a reading of American history that identifies a dangerous excess of idealism as the greatest threat to our national interest.

Determined to confront this excess, realists have devoted much less attention to the subject of whether and how American values can play a positive role in the making of American foreign policy. Nonetheless, there is a striking but underappreciated continuity within the realist tradition on the subject of morality and its proper role in foreign relations. Whether confronted by the threat of communism during the Cold War or Islamic extremism today, the United States has found it necessary to provide an ideological alternative to what its adversaries offer. Whereas neoconservatives emphasize the role of freedom as the moral ballast of American foreign policy, realists have consistently favored an appeal to the material aspirations of those who might otherwise fall prey to enemy ideologies. For more than half a century, realists have warned that an aggressive commitment to democracy promotion will provoke a backlash against American interventionism. This stark contrast between the realist and neoconservative positions will be no less salient during the Obama presidency because it derives from a clash of principles at the very core of these two schools of thought.

What Is Realism?

“As the label implies, realists believe foreign policy must deal with the world as it really is.” This is the first principle of realism according to Stephen Walt of Harvard, defending realism in a recent debate. Labels aside, realists have long recognized that their interest in objective truth does not distinguish them from other schools of thought. In Man, the State and War, the 1959 book that established Kenneth Waltz as the pre-eminent realist of his generation, Waltz tartly observed that “everyone, of course, thinks his own theories [are] realistic.” Furthermore, Waltz challenged the assertion that realism could be defined by its commitment to the national interest. “Everyone is for ‘the national interest’,” he remarked. “No policy is advanced with the plea that, although this will hurt my country, it will help others.”

The essence of realism is elusive. There is no definition of realism that would satisfy all of its leading exponents, let alone its critics. Nonetheless, realism is a coherent intellectual tradition, marked by persistent emphases and concerns that are as immediate for realists today as they were 60 years ago. In their role as public intellectuals, realists have consistently advised American statesmen to strike a careful balance between a reliance on power and a reliance on diplomacy. In the words of Hans Morgenthau, the most influential theorist of international relations in the years after World War II, successful leaders understand “the two fundamental propositions that diplomacy without strength is futile and that strength without diplomacy can be provocative.” By itself, this statement may seem like a platitude. What makes it distinctive is the complementary argument that there are two specific kinds of idealism whose excesses tend to disrupt the balance between power and diplomacy in American statecraft.

Passive idealism tends to reject power as a legitimate tool of statecraft. Rather, passive idealists insist that the actions of the state must have the sanction of international law or of a multilateral organization. Aggressive idealism is too quick to reject diplomacy as a necessary tool of statecraft. Confident in the justice of their cause, aggressive idealists refuse to engage diplomatically with immoral adversaries. From a realist perspective, this bellicose self-righteousness is the fatal flaw of neoconservatism. In a recent interview, Brent Scowcroft regretted the influence of neoconservatives in the Bush administration: “They contended we did not have time to reach out to our friends and our allies—such an approach would only slow us down. America knew what had to be done…transform the world. We should do so starting with the Middle East; it needed to be turned into a bastion of democracy. This was…idealism with a sword.”

Scowcroft’s observations might have been lifted directly from the most influential texts of modern realism. The realist diplomat and scholar George F. Kennan once called Reinhold Niebuhr “the father of us all, ” and indeed, Niebuhr’s 1952 monograph, The Irony of American History, could easily be mistaken for a realist critique of the Bush administration. “Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem,” Niebuhr observed, “are insufferable in their human contacts.” Approvingly, Niebuhr quoted a European diplomat who suggested that “American power in the service of American idealism could create a situation in which we would be too impotent to correct you when you are wrong and you would be too idealistic to correct yourself.” Niebuhr also identified fear as a dangerous accelerant of rigid idealism. He wrote, “In the present situation even the sanest of our statesmen have found it convenient to conform their policies to the public temper of fear and hatred which the most vulgar of our politicians have generated or exploited. Our foreign policy is thus threatened with a kind of apoplectic rigidity and inflexibility.”

Today, it is hard to imagine that the U.S. ever suffered from the sort of idealism that considered power itself, or even the concept of a national interest, to be illegitimate. Yet realism owes it origin just as much to its opposition to this species of idealism as it does to the aggressive variety denounced by Morgenthau, Niebuhr, and Scowcroft. In 1917, before the U.S. declared war on Germany, Woodrow Wilson delivered an address to the Senate entitled “A World League for Peace.” In it, the president asked, “Is the present war [in Europe] a struggle for a just and secure peace, or only for a new balance of power?…Only a tranquil Europe can be a stable Europe. There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace.” For realists, Wilson’s position represents the height of naïveté. Whereas the balance of power kept the peace in Europe for almost a century after the fall of Napoleon, Wilson’s League of Nations just barely preserved the peace for two decades, before giving way to the most catastrophic war in history.

At the moment, it may not seem that any party or movement in American politics is inclined to dismiss power as illegitimate. In The Post-American World (2008), Fareed Zakaria says of the Democrats that “the party remains consumed by the fear that it will not come across as tough. Its presidential candidates vie with one another to prove that they are going to be just as macho and militant as the fiercest Republican.” Yet just eight years ago, Henry Kissinger expressed the grave concern, shared by many realists, that the Vietnam generation—brought to the White House by Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992—shared Woodrow Wilson’s aversion to power politics. In Does American Need a Foreign Policy? (2001), Kissinger wrote that Clinton and his cohort “recoiled from the concept of national interest and distrusted the use of power unless it could be presented as being in the service of some ‘unselfish’ cause.” The former Secretary of State warned that Clinton’s reluctance to recognize the relationship between power and security led him to concentrate on ethnic conflict in the Balkans at the expense of the very real threat of Iraq. Kissinger continued, “The hesitant American response to [Saddam’s] challenge was motivated by two psychological legacies of the Vietnam protest: the enormous reluctance to use power, and the insistence on justifying any threat of force by enlisting the widest multilateral backing.” Of course, when George W. Bush displayed a greater willingness to use power and less of a concern for multilateral coalition building, Scowcroft—Kissinger’s deputy and successor at the National Security Council—condemned Bush for a different sort of excess idealism. In practice, the golden mean between power and diplomacy is a hard thing to achieve. When presidents fail to do so, realists are inclined to suggest that excessive idealism, of either the passive or aggressive sort, is the most probable culprit.

Realism and American Politics

It isn’t easy being a realist in America. In the words of John Mearsheimer, “Americans who think seriously about foreign policy issues tend to dislike realism intensely, mainly because it clashes with their basic values…America has a rich history of thumbing its nose at realism…Realism is largely alien to American culture.”

Mearsheimer penned those words almost 15 years ago, long before the publication of his controversial 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Some critics found it surprising that Mearsheimer would attribute so much influence to a domestic pressure group, given that his influential work as a scholar has consistently emphasized how “the keys to war and peace lie more in the structure of the international system than in the nature of individual states.” What this criticism fails to appreciate is the deep suspicion with which realists have treated the disruptive influence of American history, culture, and domestic politics on the making of American foreign policy. Realists maintain that these forces have generated a distinctive brand of idealism that is extremely vulnerable to self-destructive excesses.

The realist diagnosis of American idealism begins with geography. America never had to pay much in blood for its expansion from a cluster of colonies to a superpower of continental proportions. This experience resulted in a naïve belief, in Morgenthau’s words, “that nations have a choice between power politics and another kind of foreign policy conforming to moral principles and not tainted by the desire for power.” By extension, Americans believe that conflict arises not from a clash of interests, but rather from misunderstandings or malevolent intentions, often on the part of dictatorships. Thus, Morgenthau warned of the American habit of mind, whereby “conflicts between democratic and non-democratic nations must be primarily conceived not as struggles for mutual advantage in terms of power but as fights between good and evil, which can only end with the complete triumph of good, and with evil wiped off the face of the earth.” Written more than five decades ago, Morgenthau’s words anticipate the realist critique of neoconservatism today.

Woodrow Wilson is the pivotal figure in the realist history of American foreign relations, responsible for marching the U.S. into the modern era under a banner of unabashed idealism. Kissinger writes that “Wilson’s ideas prevailed because, however radical and daring they sounded to foreign ears, they represented a global application of verities burnished during a century of American isolation.” Realists often consider Wilson’s greatest sin to be his years of delay in bringing the U.S. into the Great War against Germany. Had Wilson exhibited an appropriate concern for the balance of power in Europe, the U.S. may well have been able to end the war before it devastated the Continent and sowed the bitterness that would culminate in the horrors of World War II. While holding Wilson responsible for this error, realists recognize that domestic political constraints limited his options. Yet, George Kennan writes, “History doest not forgive us our national mistakes because they are explicable in terms of our domestic politics…A nation which excuses its own failures by the sacred untouchableness of its own habits can excuse itself into complete disaster.”

Turning their gaze from history to contemporary politics, realists emphasize three causes of poor statesmanship: popular ignorance, congressional meddling, and special interests. Zbigniew Brzezinski writes, “The citizens of the world’s only superpower, which ultimately makes it decisions on the basis of the popular will, are abysmally ignorant about the world.” Earlier, George Kennan condemned Americans’ denial of “the legitimacy of the real interests and aspirations of other peoples.” Echoing Kennan’s words, Fareed Zakaria recently lashed out at “a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement. Other countries can have no legitimate interests of their own.” Zakaria also remarked, “Americans speak few languages, know little about foreign cultures, and remain unconvinced they need to rectify this.”

To their chagrin, realists have found that Congress is susceptible to precisely the same kind of parochialism and idealistic excess that denatures other agents of American foreign policy. “Congress not only legislates the tactics of foreign policy but also seeks to impose a code of conduct on other nations by a plethora of sanctions,” wrote Kissinger in 2001. Zakaria lodges the same protest. He prefaces his complaint by insisting that “the problem is not confined to Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld or the Republicans.” Rather,

American politicians constantly and promiscuously demand, label, sanction and condemn whole countries for myriad failings. Over the last fifteen years, the United States has placed sanctions on half the world’s population. We are the only country in the world to issue annual report cards on every other country’s behavior. Washington, D.C. has become a bubble, smug and out of touch with the world outside.

Congressional moralism also has a more aggressive side. Brzezinski criticizes how, “Congress, the mass media, and interested lobbies have periodically embarked on propaganda campaigns to expose what might be called America’s ‘enemy of the year’. Press campaigns followed by hostile congressional resolutions and speeches have focused for example, on Libya, then Iraq, then Iran, then China.”

All of these concerns would have been familiar to earlier generations of realists. Morgenthau wrote, “Considerations of domestic politics may ultimately corrupt foreign policy altogether.” He denounced “the disproportionate influence exerted upon members of Congress by the spokesmen of special interests groups, of which in foreign affairs the China lobby and certain ethnic and religious minorities have been the most potent.” Thus, it should come as no surprise that realists are once again at the center of an explosive debate about the role of special interests, this time focused on the Israel lobby.

Realism, Ethics, and Democracy Promotion

Realism has been stalked for decades by accusations of amorality or even immorality. Realists have rejected this charge vehemently. Some have taken a hard line by asserting that the only real choice is between morality and survival. Since survival itself is the highest good, lesser concerns—such as international law, democracy, and human rights—must not be allowed to predominate.

More often, realists tend to recognize two eminently practical reasons for allowing ethics to play a significant role in the making of foreign policy. First, the American public demands it. Second, the legitimacy of American power in the eyes of others depends on that power being validated by a higher purpose. When writing about power and diplomacy, realists have the confidence that comes from being part of a proud intellectual tradition. In their discussion of ethics, realists often seem hesitant, as though unaware that their fellow realists have made forays into the same unfamiliar territory. Yet surprisingly, these explorations tend to arrive at a similar end point.

In Does America Need a Foreign Policy?, Kissinger writes, “Excessive ‘realism’ produces stagnation; excessive ‘idealism’ leads to crusades and eventual disillusionment.” The notion that realism itself can be taken too far is extremely rare in realist writing. This notion implies that idealism has a place in our pursuit of the national interest. Yet Kissinger provides only the barest hint of what it might he. He writes, “America’s ultimate challenge is to transform its power into moral consensus, promoting its values not by imposition but by their willing acceptance.”

Seventy years ago, one of the founding fathers of realism, the British scholar E.H. Carr, grappled with a similar dilemma. As Nazi power cast its shadow over Europe in the late 1930s, Carr wrote, “The exposure by realist criticism of the hollowness of the utopian edifice is the most urgent task of the moment in international thought.” Yet “it is an unreal kind of realism which ignores the element of morality in any world order,” since an effective order “cannot be based on power alone,” because “any international order presupposes a substantial measure of general consent.” In spite of recognizing this imperative, Carr’s classic treatise, The Twenty Years Crisis (1939), provides no more detail than Kissinger on the subject of how to create the necessary moral consensus. Despondently, Carr lamented, “The place of morality in international politics is the most obscure and difficult problem in the whole range of international studies.”

One author who focuses in greater depth on legitimacy is Fareed Zakaria. In The Post-American World, Zakaria writes, “As power becomes diversified and diffuse, legitimacy becomes even more important—because it is the only way to appeal to all the disparate actors on the world stage. Today, no solution, no matter how sensible, is sustainable if it is seen as the illegitimate.” But where does legitimacy come from, if not from sensible proposals that satisfy different countries’ interests? Zakaria takes a decidedly ecumenical approach, observing that “Legitimacy comes in many forms.” Other governments allowed the Clinton administration, without Security Council approval, to use force in Bosnia and Kosovo because “the rest of the world did not need assurances about its intentions.” At other times, doing the right thing is wrong without permission. Sometimes, and for some countries, legitimacy is simply out of reach. Zakaria approvingly quotes a Singaporean scholar who says, “No one in Asia wants to live in a Chinese-dominated world. There is no Chinese dream.” By contrast, the American dream “is what has made [our] immense power tolerable to the world for so long.”

Neoconservatives have a straightforward position on legitimacy. It comes from a commitment to democratic values. This commitment creates a bond of trust between democratic governments. If consistent, this commitment also advertises to the citizens of developing nations that the U.S. will help them realize their aspirations for greater freedom. Realists express profound reservations about judging foreign governments on the basis of their democratic credentials. Waltz cautioned that this sort of democratic idealism rapidly dissolves into “messianic interventionism” that “may lead to perpetual war for perpetual peace.” Kennan advised, “No people can be the judge of another’s domestic institutions and requirements.” More recently, Kissinger expressed great concern about destabilizing attacks on the principle of sovereignty, “which declared a state’s domestic conduct and institutions to be beyond the reach of other states.”

Instead of associating legitimacy with democratic values, realists have counseled American statesmen to demonstrate their concern for the economic welfare of others. With remarkable consistency, realists argue that the poor and oppressed have a much greater thirst for prosperity than they do for freedom. Niebuhr argued that the extreme poverty of post-colonial states led their citizens to think of international politics as a class struggle in which they were allied with Marxist forces. For cultural reasons, the post-colonial states had little interest in political freedom. “A democratic society,” Niebuhr wrote, “requires not only a spiritual and cultural basis that is lacking in the Orient but a socio-economic foundation which [they] cannot quickly acquire.” Realists today emphatically reject Niebuhr’s condescending appraisal of non-Western religions and cultures, yet still consider them to be a cause of disinterest in political freedom. With regard to China and India, Fareed Zakaria explains

They see themselves as developing countries and, therefore, too poor to be concerned with issues of global order, particularly those that involve enforcing standards and rights abroad. Second, they are not Protestant, proselytizing powers and thus will be less eager to spread universal values across the globe. Neither Hinduism nor Confucianism believes in universal commandments or the need to spread the faith.

The deficient culture is now ours, with its inclination toward aggressive idealism.

In spite of their positive appraisal of economic development initiatives, realists continue to evince a much greater interest in the affairs of the great power and the emerging great powers. One exception to this trend is Zbigniew Brzezinski. Although best known for his role as national security adviser to President Carter—an unabashed idealist—Brzezinski’s hawkish realism served as a counterweight to Carter’s natural inclinations. In Second Chance (2007), Brzezinski argues that the U.S. should have three priorities: to manage great power relationships, to limit or end violent conflicts, and “to address more effectively the increasingly intolerable inequalities in the human condition.” In today’s developing world, there is “a population conscious of social injustice to an unprecedented degree and resentful of its deprivations and lack of personal dignity.” The choice facing the U.S. is either to address this anger or to become its target.

In addition to Brzezinski, Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman have identified the promotion of equitable development as an essential component of American foreign policy. Lieven and Hulsman’s position is especially interesting because it grows out of their determination to place realism on a more solid ethical foundation—hence the title of their 2006 book, Ethical Realism. In spite of their profound admiration for Morgenthau and Niebuhr, Lieven and Hulsman write, “We condemn classical realism in the style of Henry Kissinger and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brezinski not only for its lack of a sense of ethics in the conduct of policy, but also for the its lack of any sense of the long-term goals of that policy.” According to Lieven and Hulsman, the preservation of today’s global order, which strongly favors American interests, depends on demonstrating that all nations have a chance to share in the benefits of that order. The neoconservative agenda of democracy promotion cannot achieve this objective, since “reasonably pro-Western democracies can only be established in the long run if the social, cultural, and institutional foundations for them are laid by successful economic development—and this is a generational process.” Lieven and Hulsman’s position strongly suggests that a heightened concern for ethics will not bring realism any closer to the neoconservative position. On the contrary, it only intensifies the realist conviction that the developing world wants to share in the prosperity of the West, but isn’t ready for democratic politics.

Realism and Neoconservatism in the Age of Obama

Will Barack Obama create a home for realism in the Democratic party? Many of his admirers consider a commitment to realism to be one of his virtues. Last summer, as Obama headed to Europe, Zakaria attributed to him a “world view that is far from that of a typical liberal, much closer to that of a traditional realist.” Zakaria correctly observed that “Obama never uses the soaring language of Bush’s freedom agenda.” Shortly after Obama’s victory in November, liberal columnist E.J. Dionne discerned, “What’s most striking about Obama’s approach to foreign policy is that he is less an idealist than a realist” in the tradition of George H.W. Bush.

This resemblance to the elder Bush may be an illusion, however. For the past eight years, liberals have compared George W. Bush unfavorably with an idealized portrait of his father. Dionne and others forget that the realism of George H.W. Bush led the 41st president to make decisions that profoundly antagonized his liberal opponents. In 1990, they denounced his impatience with diplomacy and rush to war in Iraq. In Congress, the Democratic opposition to invading Iraq was actually more united in 1990 than it was in 2003. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, Bush sought to preserve his administration’s close relationship with Beijing, a decision that Bill Clinton would use against him in the 1992 presidential race.

Rather than courting either realists or idealists, President Obama may search for the elusive middle ground between realism and idealism. His predecessors sought the same balance, although they tended to approach the middle from one side or the other. As Kissinger has suggested, successful presidents must avoid the peril of bending too much in either direction. American voters demand nothing less. Yet both candidates and experts have struggled to define a tangible and coherent middle ground. In last year’s campaign, John McCain described himself as a realistic idealist. Others have written about the need for democratic realism or idealpolitik as realpolitik. For now, we simply don’t have the words to define a middle path as anything more than a compromise between opposing principles. The challenge facing every new president is to translate this uncertain guidance into action.

David Adesnik is a policy analyst in Washington, DC. He blogs for Doublethink. In 2008, David served on the foreign policy staff of John McCain’s campaign for president. He received his doctorate in international relations from Oxford.

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