Realism: It's High-minded...and It Works

A morality of results trumps a morality of intentions every time.

THE REALIST approach to foreign policy--to which The National Interest is largely but by no means exclusively devoted--has always met with a certain suspicion in the United States; it is variously viewed as too cynical, too European, and too dismissive of America's unique mission in the world. Nevertheless, the importance of realism to advancing and defending American interests and values may never have been greater.

During the bad old days of the Cold War, the structure of the international system imposed a measure of reality on both American leaders and the American people. The United States had a clear foreign policy priority--to contain and, when possible, to defeat the Soviet empire--and it also had clear limits, in that few U.S. objectives justified risking nuclear Armageddon. Thus, notwithstanding the frequent use of the rhetoric of liberation, Americans understood why Harry Truman did not attempt to achieve total victory in Korea (where a land war with China was also feared), why Dwight Eisenhower refused to help rebellious Hungarians fight Soviet tanks and why John E Kennedy supported the continued independence of West Berlin but did not attempt to destroy the Berlin Wall--or why he demanded the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba but was unwilling to act directly to remove Fidel Castro from power.

But when the collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the world's sole superpower--and a victorious superpower at that--it became almost the conventional wisdom to dismiss foreign policy realism as "old-think" or as a deplorable and defeatist worldview that did not adequately incorporate America's unquestioned supremacy. Many now felt that the Cold War handcuffs on America's freedom of action had been removed and that it was time to unleash American power on the world. Barry Goldwater's 1964 statement that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" increasingly seemed to shape Americans' views of the world on both ends of the political spectrum.

But extremism in the defense of liberty, or anything else, is still extremism. In the words of the 20th-century Russian dissident philosopher Grigory Pomerants, "the devil begins with froth on the lips of an angel entering into battle for a holy and just cause." Those who are obsessed with the nobility of their own views have a tendency to dismiss the views of others and to allow their ends to justify their means. They also do not always recognize the full costs of their actions, which can be significant even for a country with America's unparalleled military, political, economic and cultural power.

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, high-minded realism does not differ from the Boy Scouts of the Left or the crusaders of the Right in the 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 pre-emptively 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 that affect America's core interests, above all its 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.

The challenges facing American foreign policy begin with managing our relations with the Muslim world so as to destroy anti-American terrorist networks and their sanctuaries while avoiding a clash of civilizations and promoting long-term stability. This requires the ruthless and relentless pursuit of those who have made themselves America's mortal enemies. However, it also requires recognition that U.S. handling of the Palestinian issue is a litmus test of American intentions for most governments of predominantly Muslim states--not to mention their publics. It also involves careful and informed thinking about how many of these governments the United States can afford to attack, even if they have been mis-behaving like Iran and Syria, before the threats we are removing no longer outweigh the backlash that could result in the Islamic world. 

At the same time, America must deal with a resurgent Russia and China; strengthen and transform the foundations of its relationships with traditional but disgruntled allies such as Germany, France, Japan and South Korea; and deal with emerging powers like India, which are bound to ask for greater international roles.