Keeping It Real

Larison rounds this up pretty well, but we’ll add on some pieces and do what we do. Do not read just the snippets here, read the whole articles.

Paul Wolfowitz in Foreign Policy:

Of course foreign policy should be grounded in reality. Americans agree that foreign-policy goals should be achievable — that the United States should match its ends with its means. What sensible person could argue with that? That is simply pragmatism. But “realism” as a doctrine (I’ll spare you the quote marks henceforth) goes much further: In the words of one leading realist, the principal purpose of U.S. foreign policy should be “to manage relations between states” rather than “alter the nature of states.”

Unquestionably, what makes realism seem so plausible today is skepticism about the war in Iraq and the belief that it was part of a crusade to “impose” democracy by force. I believe, to the contrary, that the purpose of the war was to remove a threat to national and international security. Whether the Iraq war was right or wrong, it was not about imposing democracy, and the decision to establish a representative government afterward was the most realistic option, compared with the alternatives of installing another dictator or prolonging the U.S. occupation. In Afghanistan, the same choice was made for the same reasons after the Taliban fell, and many realists not only supported that decision, but argued for putting even more effort into “nation-building.”


Critics of realism, like myself, do not think that a businesslike management of the “relations between states” should lead us to neglect issues regarding the “nature of states.” In reality, the internal makeup of states has a huge effect on their external behavior — so it must also be a significant consideration for U.S. foreign policy.

Judging by his own words, Obama seems to agree with this, and not the realist dogma. In Moscow, the U.S. president deliberately spoke over the heads of the Kremlin’s leaders to tell Russians, “Governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not.” In Cairo, he stated, “Government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power.” And in Ghana he was even clearer: “No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy; that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.”

I like the sound of that, but some realists may not.

And then many, many responded. Stephen Walt:

On the whole, Wolfowitz’s discussion of “realism” in the Sept./Oct. issue of FP is about as accurate as his 2002 estimates about the troop levels needed to occupy Iraq and the overall costs of the war. He implies that realists are uninterested in moral issues and claims “there is a serious debate” between realists and their critics regarding the peaceful promotion of political change. But this is a caricature of realist thinking and a nonexistent debate, and it is telling that he never offers any evidence to support his description. The only “realists” he bothers to mention are Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and he never quotes or cites other prominent realist scholars or policymakers. Having decided to expose realism’s alleged limitations, in short, apparently he couldn’t be bothered to do some research and read what they had to say.

What do realists believe? Realists see international politics as an inherently competitive realm where states compete for advantage and where security is sometimes precarious. So, realists emphasize that states should keep a keen eye on the balance of power, which makes them wary of squandering blood or treasure on needless military buildups, ideological crusades, or foolish foreign wars. Realists cherish America’s commitment to democracy and individual liberty, but they know that ideals alone are no basis for conducting foreign policy. They also understand that endless overseas adventures will inevitably provoke a hostile backlash abroad and force us to compromise freedoms at home.

David Rothkopf in FP:

Reading Wolfowitz’s piece, I kept thanking Providence for giving me a concentration in English in college rather than say, political science. I actually was taught what words mean. (In fact, being an English major taught me that “political science” may be the humdinger of all oxymorons … even if calling “realists” realists and “neoconservatives” neoconservatives comes pretty darn close.) Economists have their “lies, damned lies, and statistics” and clearly, political scientists have their “lies, damned lies, and labels.”

It’s not just “neocons” and “realists” of course who are mislabeled or falsely advertising themselves. There is nothing “conservative” about the reckless fiscal policies of “conservative” champions like Reagan or Bush, nothing “progressive” about the New Deal nostalgia of many on the left, nothing “pro-life” about abortion opponents who also use a misreading of the Second Amendment to allow them stock up on assault weapons, nothing “liberal” about folks who think the answer to everything is greater government control of people’s lives. Say what you may about the underlying beliefs, the labels are meaningless.

That said, if we can stipulate the labels are primarily forms of branding and positioning that are as related to the underlying realities as Madison Avenue claims of the health-benefits of smoking in the middle of the last century, then we can move on to the more relevant policy questions raised by Wolfowitz. These turn not on whether “realists” are more realistic than other policymakers but rather on whether the “realism” peddled to the public actually holds water as an approach.

Daniel Drezner:

On these points, Wolfowitz is mostly right and very wrong on one important issue.  He’s right to say that Obama might be a realist (pragmatist) but he’s not a Realist.  I also think he’s right to say that regime type matters.

So he’s right, but he’s also banal in his rightness. No president will ever be a Realist. Few foreign policy leaders are so wedded to a theoretical doctrine that they don’t think regime type matters at all. Henry Kissinger might have been a Realist in the academy, but in power he was a realist.  Wolfowitz takes great pains to point out that George H.W. Bush didn’t always act like a Realist — but it’s also true that George W. Bush stopped acting like a Neoconservative around 2004.

Presidents are politicians, and they’ll discard ideas that don’t work.  And no promulgator of ideas in international relations should be brassy enough to think that their doctrine is always right.

What’s missing from Wolfowitz’s essay is any genuine assessment of the costs and benefits of the different policies available to the United States when dealing with, say, the likes of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or North Korea.  Wolfowitz seems to think that more aggressive steps should be taken to foment internal regime change in these countries.  In doing so, he cleverly contrasts it with the counterfactual of “doing nothing.”  But, as previously noted, the Obama administration has been ratcheting up containment policies against adversaries like Iran and North Korea.  There’s a lot of virtue in using containment to deal with these regimes — and in the case of Pyongyang, the policy might be bearing fruit.  The word “containment” never appears in Wolfowitz’s essay, however.  This suggests a kind of all-or-nothing logic to Wolfowitz’s thinking that might explain certain policy blunders committed in the past decade.

Steve Clemons in FP:

By the end of his essay, Wolfowitz identifies himself as a hybrid realist as well — choosing the term “democratic realist.” I’d call Scowcroft and Brzezinski adherents of newly emerging hybrid schools of “ethical realism” and/or “progressive realism” in which they worry first about the overall ability of America to achieve its global objectives vis-à-vis other states, but with a sensitivity to and concern for both the internal realities of other countries and the increasingly disconcerting transnational challenges that are facing the international system as a whole.

In other words, these hybrid realists of the Scowcroft/Brzezinski sort do believe in states as the primary actors of the international system, but they see tremendous value in institutions like the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, in negotiating international deals on many issues, including arms, nuclear weapons, and climate change. Brent Scowcroft even sits on the board of one of Al Gore’s major climate-action groups. These hybrid realists are sensitive to the role that global public opinion — inside countries — about the United States and its policies plays internationally.  These are not characteristics of the type of classic realists that Paul Wolfowitz contrasts himself with in his essay.

Chris Bodenner at Sully’s place

David Adesnik at Doublethink:

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.”


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.

James Kirchick at Doublethink:

That President Obama has had no more luck than the man who preceded him has not diminished the hopes of the “realists.” If anything, it has made their calls for a lessening of tensions and the increase of inducements all the more self-assured. Their faith seems to be invested in a conception of this president as a man uniquely qualified to improve America’s relations with regimes that are historically and inherently antagonistic to our own.

But there’s no reason to believe that the president will be luckier than he already has. Various Iranian officials have made it abundantly clear – both before and after the fraudulent June 12 election – that they have no intention whatsoever of forgoing the country’s nuclear program, and, furthermore, that talks about the future of such a program are not even an option. The insurrection which brought the regime to power 30 years ago was predicated upon a revolutionary anti-Americanism, and that is the only crutch on which the regime can prop itself. Every rationale that the government in Tehran has offered for its continued existence has been shown up as deficient, and a paranoid fixation on the machinations of evil outsiders is all it has left. And thus it must be noted that the Second Iranian Revolution – a repudiation of the first – died on this president’s watch.

President Obama has disappointed on other fronts and in other regions, in ways both large and small. His reaction to the “coup” in Honduras – in which the country’s military ousted the president on the orders of the Supreme Court, Attorney General and Congress – was a sign of his inclination to be led rather than lead. In this case, Obama did not side with the democratic forces in Honduras resisting the attempts of their leader to follow in the footsteps of Hugo Chavez; rather, Obama parroted the same position on the matter as Chavez and Raul Castro.

Daniel Larison (entire post):

David Adesnik and Jamie Kirchick have contributed to a Doublethink symposium in which I am also participating. My essay will be up fairly soon, and I’ll announce when it appears. Adesnik and Kirchick are both addressing the state of foreign policy realism. Adesnik has provided the broader overview, and Kirchick has applied his usual critique of realism to Obama’s policies. As I hope my essay will explain, the relationship between realism and Obama’s policies is far more tenuous than realists or interventionists would like. So many of the arguments over the place of realism in the Obama administration take for granted that it actually has a significant place in the administration’s conduct of foreign policy. I am finding that assumption less and less tenable as time goes by.

On a related topic, via Andrew I see that Foreign Policy asked Walt, Rothkopf, Drezner and Clemons to respond to Paul Wolfowitz’s tired attack on realism. Rothkopf first objects to the abusive deployment of vague and/or meaningless labels and then proceeds to endorse a strongly interventionist view. Drezner distinguishes a kind of pragmatic recognition of hard truths from a grander theory of “Realism.” Walt and Clemons naturally engage in more polemical refutations of Wolfowitz as the most prominent and identifiable realists among the four.

On the question of whether realists should be concerned with regime type and altering the nature of other states, Rothkopf writes:

If the objective is to advance the national interest and influence states and our ability to do so is limited and different from circumstance to circumstance, shouldn’t we use every tool at our disposal to do so (assuming the use of the tool provides a net gain toward achieving our goals)? If so, influencing the nature of states or the internal workings of states is not off bounds for realism — it is the beginning of realism — it is the place where the effort to influence states begins.

If realists were simply interested in the most cynical Machtpolitik imaginable, this would be true. What is strange about this passage is that Rothkopf insists that realists pretend that state sovereignty and international law are ultimately irrelevant in the calculation of the national interest. Even though we have repeatedly seen from the 17th to the 21st centuries that wars fought to change the internal constitutions of other states produce profoundly negative consequences for all parties, respect for state sovereignty and international law appear nowhere in this analysis. If a government respects the principle of state sovereignty, which ours is bound by treaty to respect, it ought to be concerned overwhelmingly with relations between itself and other governments rather than working constantly to subvert them from within. There is no guarantee that changing regime type will change a regime’s behavior in our favor, and if we believe that there are permanent state interests that persist despite major internal political change there is no use in changing regime type. As I have said before, a liberal, pluralistic, democratic Russian government that meets all of the expectations of Westerners concerning its internal behavior will nonetheless still be a Russian government interested in the same strategic goals and wary of the same potential threats. Indeed, a more liberalized Russia could easily justify its interventions in neighboring states, whether on behalf of ethnic Russians or not, with the language of “responsibility to protect,” “human rights” and, of course, “freedom.” Even now Moscow mimics our use of this propaganda to justify its presence in the separatist enclaves in Georgia–imagine what “liberations” it might carry out if it had credibility as a full-fledged liberal, constitutional regime. Obsessing over the ideological orientation and constitutional organization of other states has powerfully destabilizing effects when that obsession is made into the basis for policy and the justification for the use of force. That ought to be enough of a reason for realists and everyone else to reject it as folly.

Related in foreign policy news, Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson argue in Commentary for the GOP foreign policy to be:

In response, some Republicans have been tempted to promote their own brand of retreat from global engagement out of the belief that, the cause of democratic internationalism having been severely damaged by the war in Iraq, the GOP should seize the mantle of foreign policy “realism.” Thankfully, the Republicans who nominated John McCain in 2008 did not succumb to this temptation, and it would be disastrous if the party were to yield to it in the future. A durable national consensus holds that American interests are served by the promotion of free trade and classical liberal ideas. With the spread of weapons of mass destruction, it has never been clearer that America and the world have the most to fear from dictatorship and radicalism, the most to gain from liberalization and reform.

A moral component to our foreign policy is, moreover, part of the American DNA. It would have been impossible to maintain the seemingly endless exertions of the Cold War without the American people’s instinctual concern for those held captive and their no less instinctual abhorrence of oppression. The same is true in the conflict with Islamist extremism and other current global challenges. Americans have an interest in liberty and human rights because they are Americans—and because America’s safety is served by the hope and health of others. Republicans can be forthright about the foreign-policy tradition that mixes toughness with generosity, the willingness to confront threats forcefully with the active promotion of development, health, and human rights. Since the midpoint of the last century, this has been the GOP’s watchword. Among younger Americans focused on global issues like genocide, poverty, women’s rights, religious liberty, malaria, and HIV/AIDS, it can resonate loudly.

And Robert Wright, in an old NYT op-ed, sounds the Progressive realism bell:

It’s an unappealing choice: chillingly clinical self-interest or dangerously naïve altruism? Fortunately, it’s a false choice. During the post-cold-war era, the security landscape has changed a lot, in some ways for the worse; witness the role of “nonstate actors” last week in India, Israel and Iraq. But this changing environment has a rarely noted upside: It’s now possible to build a foreign policy paradigm that comes close to squaring the circle — reconciling the humanitarian aims of idealists with the powerful logic of realists. And adopting this paradigm could make the chaos of the last week less common in the future.

Every paradigm needs a name, and the best name for this one is progressive realism. The label has a nice ring (Who is against progress?) and it aptly suggests bipartisan appeal. This is a realism that could attract many liberals and a progressivism that could attract some conservatives.


Progressive realism begins with a cardinal doctrine of traditional realism: the purpose of American foreign policy is to serve American interests.

But these days serving American interests means abandoning another traditional belief of realists — that so long as foreign governments don’t endanger American interests on the geopolitical chess board, their domestic affairs don’t concern us. In an age when Americans are threatened by overseas bioweapons labs and outbreaks of flu, by Chinese pollution that enters lungs in Oregon, by imploding African states that could turn into terrorist havens, by authoritarian Arab governments that push young men toward radicalism, the classic realist indifference to the interiors of nations is untenable.

In that sense progressive realists look a lot like neoconservatives and traditional liberals: concerned about the well-being of foreigners, albeit out of strict national interest. But progressive realism has two core themes that make it clearly distinctive, and they’re reflected in two different meanings of the word “progressive.”

UPDATE: Larison’s piece is up at Doublethink


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