The Skeptics

In Defense of Realism

My issue of Perspectives on Politics arrived just before I left town for the holidays, which gave me just enough time to look over John Schuessler and Sebastian Rosato's article "A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States." [Paywalled.]

Regular Skeptics readers will recognize Schuessler from his posts here, so we know where he is coming from. Both Schuessler and Rosato deserve enormous credit for knocking down some of the most common criticisms of modern realism and substituting instead a more positive (and I think accurate) vision of realism's core precepts. They also offer clear policy prescriptions flowing from that vision. The entire article is worth a read, but I enclose below the abstract followed by a few observations.

What kind of policy can the United States pursue that ensures its security while minimizing the likelihood of war? We describe and defend a realist theory of foreign policy to guide American decision makers. Briefly, the theory says that if they want to ensure their security, great powers such as the United States should balance against other great powers. They should also take a relaxed view toward developments involving minor powers and, at most, should balance against hostile minor powers that inhabit strategically important regions of the world. We then show that had the great powers followed our theory's prescriptions, some of the most important wars of the past century might have been averted. Specifically, the world wars might not have occurred, and the United States might not have gone to war in either Vietnam or Iraq. In other words, realism as we conceive it offers the prospect of security without war. At the same time, we also argue that if the United States adopts an alternative liberal foreign policy, this is likely to result in more, rather than fewer, wars. We conclude by offering some theoretically-based proposals about how US decision makers should deal with China and Iran.

These are some pretty bold claims, but the article supports them quite well. Schuessler and Rosato note the conventional wisdom that realism is more prone to war than competing theories, despite the fact that nearly all of the leading realist scholars opposed the Iraq war. They note a number of realists who have been similarly vociferous in warning against war with Iran They move beyond descriptive realism (the world as it is) and offer a prescriptive vision based on three core assumptions—international anarchy, the inability to discern the intentions of others and the unpredictability of war—that help to shape policy as it should be. "The fundamental prescription that flows from these premises is that states should be attentive to the balance of power." They should avoid minor wars and seek ways to deter or prevent large ones. They point out that balancing against great powers "does not imply that they should build up their capabilities without limit, [which] would be a prescription for bankruptcy." They stress the importance of nuclear weapons and of allies (no nation wishes to fight on multiple fronts).

It isn't enough to show how realism, properly conceived, is likely to lead to fewer wars. Their article also takes on the task of showing how the other dominant theory, liberalism, often pushes in the opposite direction. Their arguments are sure to raise hackles, but I think that liberals will be hard pressed to refute them. In order to do so, they should explore the historical cases in the article—World Wars I and II, Vietnam and Iraq—and offer a competing explanation for how realism, not liberalism, was the driving force behind them.

The remaining critique that liberals might offer is that our only goal shouldn't be to minimize war and maintain stability, especially at the expense of justice. But even wars undertaken with the best of intentions have led to horrific ends, so a presumption against war seems a wise course. At a minimum, it is incumbent upon the critics of Schuessler and Rosato's approach to explain why a more permissive attitude toward the use of force would have served humankind well and would do so in the future.