We are All Realists, We are All Neoconservatives, We are All Liberal Internationalists

Once of the interesting themes discussed at last night's dinner with Francis Fukuyama (see the description of that dinner also included in this week's issue) was what precisely constitutes a "neoconservative" in foreign policy terms.

Once of the interesting themes discussed at last night's dinner with Francis Fukuyama (see the description of that dinner also included in this week's issue) was what precisely constitutes a "neoconservative" in foreign policy terms. Can a neoconservative have opposed the Iraq war, or, as Fukuyama noted in his remarks, is it possible to start from neo-conservative premises yet come to an entirely different conclusion about what should have been done in Iraq or how the trans-Atlantic relationship should have been handled? Or, if, as nearly all observers conclude, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney are not "neoconservatives" (certainly not in the sense of being liberals 'mugged' by reality), but traditional "Great-Power" conservatives--what distinguishes them from the neo-conservatives as far as the Iraq war was prosecuted? Is there really, in the end, such a thing as "neoconservatism" or is it just good old-fashioned "liberal internationalism" that got mugged by the European Union?

 

In the correspondence section of the August 9th issue of The New Republic, meanwhile, there is an interesting exchange between John J. Mearsheimer, Christopher Preble and Stephen Walt, on the one hand, and Lawrence Kaplan, on the other. In this exchange, Senator John Kerry, G. John Ikenberry and Charles Kupchan (the latter two will be co-authoring a piece provocatively entitled "Liberal Realism" for our Fall 2004 issue) are all enrolled in the realist camp.

 

And, of course, there is Charles Krauthammer's speech at AEI earlier this year (and an article which will respond to Fukuyama's critique which also will appear in the Fall issue of The National Interest) in which he presented his vision of "democratic realism."

 

So what gives? Are John Kerry and Charles Krauthammer now comrades-in-arms, sharing the same vision for American foreign policy?

 

A continuing problem is conflating "realist" with "realistic."  Most Americans are "realistic" when it comes to foreign policy--they support aims and goals that are achievable. And the pursuit of "realistic" policies can forge broad coalitions. Ensuring that Iraq develops a stable government that is more pluralistic and liberal than what preceded it is a realistic goal--but does that make anyone who endorses it a realist?

 

Labels should not be caricatures or straight-jackets. Traditional "Metternechian" realism has never found much of a base within the American body politic; most Americans who subscribe to realism as a guiding principle for the development of foreign policy acknowledge that the internal character of a state is relevant to some extent in assessing the type of relationship it should have with the United States.  Similarly, the liberal interventionist who declines to go to war with China over Tibet is not being hypocritical in recognizing that such a course of action would be suicidal (and would do nothing to benefit the Tibetans).

 

But realism is not an amorphous trend or a catch-all phrase for "pragmatism" in foreign affairs, but an organizing principle, based on several ideas. The first is a skepticism about utopian projects, no matter how noble in inspiration.  The second is an appreciation for the limits as well as the uses of power; that lacking unlimited energy or resources, power must be used selectively. In keeping with this realization, a country's interests must be prioritized--with the greatest effort reserved for averting threats that first and foremost affect a country's very survival.

 

And to argue that because of various admixtures there are no real difference between various schools of thought on foreign policy--that, in essence, idealistic realists are the same as realistic idealists--impoverishes the debate.

 

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.