Critique of "realism" as political approach in which state interests guide political action

Reason Magazine
December 2, 2004

Stale Mates
The realists are counterattacking, God help us!
Michael Young

Looking back through the cumulonimbi of the years, I still recall how it was de rigueur at my graduate institution (and "vocational school" for the U.S. government, as a fellow student sourly put it)—the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies—to embrace "realism." Not for us was its weepy antithesis, the "liberal paradigm", which was vaguely associated with the odd minority in the Latin America program, or the certified bizarros in Social Change and Development.

What is realism, to those who couldn't care less? It is essentially an approach to politics that holds that the interest of the state should be the prime mover of political action. A product of the emerging European state system—a founding father was French Cardinal Richelieu—its most enduring mechanism is the notion of equilibrium through a balance of power. To quote the first sentence of that Teutonic realist gospel, Hans Morgenthau's Politics Among Nations (1949): "International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power." Realism, whose pillar is state sovereignty, is not so much immoral (since morality can be used as a cudgel to increase power and advance national interests) as amoral, with the balance of power presuming floating alliances, so that the enemy of today can be the ally of tomorrow.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States employed a constantly shifting formula that blended realism and Wilsonian liberal internationalism. The strategy of containment, for example, was very much a product of high Wilsonian optimism, based on an avowed willingness to embark on an open-ended struggle against a perceived evil; it also rested on a realist reading of the balance of power, since the U.S. and Western Europe created NATO, the largest peacetime alliance ever, to "counterbalance" Soviet influence.

This ecumenical legacy took a sound beating after 9/11. (I readily admit to being a late convert away from the realist canon, though a convinced one.) The culprits were the neoconservatives. Yet there is sometimes an erroneous assumption that the neocons represent something fundamentally new in American foreign affairs, that they are the offspring of post-Cold War American supremacy (for a tour through the neocon maturation process, James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans is indispensable). In fact, neocon ideas predate the end of the Cold War, and the movement hardly represents an alternative to the realist-Wilsonian admixture, only a radically different dosage of the two components: like realists, the neocons refuse to shudder when contemplating force; like Wilsonians, they can embrace grand projects that supposedly advance the greater good, even if that means ignoring state sovereignty.

When the Bush administration began preparing for war in Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, it quickly became obvious that the only serious intellectual opposition it faced was that put up by the realists. Liberals were at sea on how to react to the mass murders, while our own libertarian brotherhood, always uneasy with overseas ventures, had to wrestle with criticism that it supported liberty at home, but couldn't be bothered to do so overseas. The issue was made no simpler by the fact that key administration figures—National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney—were realists, even if they temporarily changed their spots when realizing that Iraq and sweeping Middle Eastern change were presidential priorities.

For a time, the realists grumbled. Several prominent figures, such as former national security advisors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former State Department official Richard Haass , who was then still in the administration, all had their doubts about an Iraqi campaign, and more particularly about the administration's alleged unilateralism. Henry Kissinger, another old realism merchant, was more supportive publicly, but is far too wedded to the ways of the "balance of power" to go for what he surely regards as a grand transformational mirage in the Middle East. Indeed, the good doctor never showed any interest in regional democracy, having always considered politics as largely the preserve of the palace.

Now, with the Bush administration stumbling in Iraq, the realists have recovered their growl. At a recent gathering in Paris organized by the European defense company EADS and the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, a turntable of realist alligators pronounced on the Middle East. This included Kissinger and Brzezinski, as well as Robert Blackwill, the former National Security Council official responsible for Iraq (a realist and defender of the war). Columnist David Ignatius summed up the deliberations: "The Paris discussions yielded a rough consensus: Stay the course in Iraq through January's elections and then evaluate the situation; frame a clear outline of what an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would involve, before pushing negotiators to the table; engage Iran in a broad dialogue, to see if a lasting compromise can be reached to head off its nuclear weapons program; and avoid glib talk about democratization in the Middle East that might backfire."

The last sentence evokes ancient mandarin heads shaking in weary unison at the preposterousness of the venture. Among the most vocal critics of the administration on democratization (and much else in the Middle East) is Scowcroft, whose voice is doubly heard as his own and that of his former boss, the president's father, George H.W. Bush. As a reporter from the New York Observer put it after interviewing Scowcroft last summer: "Most of all, Mr. Scowcroft reiterated his skepticism about the prospects for gunship democracy in the Middle East—outlining the kind of realism for which George W. Bush's father was known around the world."

In a phrase abounding with Hobbesian skepticism, Scowcroft said: "It's not that I don't believe Iraq is capable of democracy. But the notion that within every human being beats this primeval instinct for democracy has not ever been demonstrated to me."

All this raises a number of doubts about the realists, whose credibility has soared since developments in Iraq confirmed their direst predictions. The first is why on earth are realists, people essentially wedded to stalemate, so highly rated? Yes, there is much experience there, but in a world where national sovereignty is gradually eroding (even if it won't disappear), where liberty and democracy are increasingly perceived as inalienable, and where American supremacy has demanded a fresh consideration of interstate relations that far surpasses a traditional mechanistic approach to balance of power theory, aren't the realists in danger of becoming a trifle anachronistic—in fact downright old hat?

A second question has to do with the details. Realist reasoning is often circular, where the assumptions prop up a superstructure propping up these assumptions. Scowcroft's phrase caught this well. Here's what he really said: We don't believe that democracy beats in everyone's breast, and because of that we continue to support autocratic regimes, even though such support is sure to suffocate liberal voices and help deny us any proof that democracy beats in everybody's breast.

In fact, even that opportunistic validation was both shoddy and inexcusable. Scowcroft apparently doesn't recall how Eastern Europe, denied democracy for generations, saw communism collapse in a historical millisecond under his boss's "watch." If that wasn't proof of an ingrained longing for liberty, then Scowcroft is as dim as a Soviet light bulb. But then again, we remember well how he and Bush initially greeted the collapse of the Berlin Wall with darkened mien, as the prospect of fundamental change threatened to break the familiar tedium with which they were on easy terms.

Finally, what do the realists offer that is valid? Constant violent motion and global trigger-happiness are hardly acceptable foreign policy substitutes for the deadening "prudence" of realism. Nor is that what neocons advocate. Still, in that sense, the realists may be of use by warning against the pull of hubris, which is why there is something to approve of in recent statements by Scowcroft and Brzezinski.

But where the edifice collapses is when it comes time to explain how realism addresses deeper human needs. A product of a pre-20th century state system, where social hierarchies were more rigid and mass politics at their beginning, authentic realism is inadequate in our age. Wilsonianism (and, today, neoconservatism) are its contradictions, but also its stepchildren, as they seek to move beyond the management of power to ponder how foreign affairs can also disseminate humanistic values.

Realists (no less than liberals and libertarians one hastens to add) have yet to resolve the question of how to simultaneously advance national interests and liberty. These aims always seem to crash into one other, and perhaps no magic formula exists to avoid this. But such recognition means we can look at the overvalued realists and tell them: "You're just as lost as the rest of us; stop being so conceited."

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.