A Realistic View
Because doing what is right in international politics often comes at a high price, as it is in Iraq, realists tend to insist not only that proposed actions are sound on their merits, but also that their benefits outweigh their costs, including potential unintended consequences. Every American administration faces pressure to act as if the United States were responsible for the affairs of others. Realists often argue that succumbing to this pressure is both arrogant and dangerous. It is arrogant because it presumes that we always understand the circumstances of others and are well equipped to offer indispensable guidance on how they should conduct their affairs. Cicero offered useful counsel along these lines to Roman leaders, urging that they "do not recklessly and presumptuously assume something to be true" when they do not know it to be so with certainty.
Though realists are by no means monolithic in their approach to America's contemporary foreign policy challenges, most realists are skeptical of radical utopias (as noble as they may sound). Similarly, they generally view faith as a source of insight, strength and conviction rather than a guide to specific policy. Yet, realists do not differ from the Boy Scouts of the left or the crusaders of the right in their belief that the United States should do good at home and abroad-whenever possible. Nor are most realists, at least the conservative realists, timid about using U.S. military power to accomplish American foreign policy objectives or about using that power preemptively if necessary. What is different about realists is their tendency to insist that U.S. foreign policy be based on a hierarchy of American priorities rather than a long and therefore meaningless laundry list incorporating objectives, preferences and hopes. And realists generally believe that in the long run, the laws of history work against the indefinite and easy predominance of a single power-particularly if this power desires not only to pursue its political and economic interests, but also to exert hegemonic influence over the destinies of other states (which naturally do not uniformly react warmly to this notion).
America's priorities in the short and likely the medium term are combating terrorism and limiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons. These are the threats which affect America's core interests, above all her survival as a liberal and prosperous nation. How other states fit into U.S. efforts to deal with these priorities should be the principal determinant of American relations with them absent truly genocidal practices.
This calls for both focus and flexibility. The U.S. needs to adopt policies that support our interests and not be confined by ideological straightjackets. Certainly, many Americans do not approve of various developments occurring among our partners. They are concerned by authoritarian trends in Vladimir Putin's Russia, by Communist Party controls in China, by French insolence in resisting American leadership and by South Korean ingratitude. Realists value the freedom of individual Americans and their elected representatives to express their opinions about the conduct of foreign governments. But they also tend-more than some others-to appreciate the differences between editorial commentary and foreign policy.
Realists generally have few illusions about American partners like China and Russia. Both countries remain somewhere between being friends and rivals, and realists do not want to encourage either to become involved in coalitions against the United States that neither would welcome but each could do under certain circumstances.
More specifically, most realists are well aware that China remains a one-party state with limited freedom of expression. Nevertheless, realists generally also appreciate that China has made remarkable progress in expanding both its citizens' well-being and their ability to control their lives. Realists further appreciate that China's influence in Asia is growing, particularly under Beijing's pragmatic new leadership, and that constructive relations with it are essential both to maintaining America's presence in the region without unnecessary conflict and to addressing the challenges of terrorism and proliferation, most notably in dealing with North Korea's attempted nuclear blackmail. Accordingly, realists from Richard Nixon onward have been inclined to believe that the U.S. should maintain its commitment to Taiwan's security without allowing Taiwan to define America's relations with the prc. Democratic Taiwan has a legitimate right to decide whether it wants to be fully independent from China-but that right can be exercised unilaterally only to the extent that Taipei can afford to make the decision on its own, without involving the United States in a conflict with the most populous nation on Earth (and a growing economy) that few other U.S. allies in the region would welcome. At that price, formal rather than de facto sovereignty is a luxury.
With regard to Russia, there is no need to overstate President Putin's commitment to democracy as President Bush did recently at Camp David. Actually, to Putin's credit, he is prepared to acknowledge that today's Russia does not have a truly independent judiciary, a free press or political checks and balances. The selective use of law enforcement against oligarchs like Mikhail Khodorkovsky demonstrates the current limits of Russian democracy. Still, realists typically understand the complexity of Russia's situation and believe that no self-respecting state can allow politically ambitious tycoons to privatize political power the way Russia's oligarchs privatized the country's resources and enterprises under Yeltsin.