Is Realism's Home on the Right?

The claim that Obama is a realist is an insult to realists, and the claim that realism has no place on the right is an insult to the right.

“Barely a month ago, there wasn’t even a plan” for dealing with the Islamic State, reports the Washington Post. President Obama had said in August that his administration didn’t “have a strategy yet.” With bombs now blasting the bearded beheaders’ bunkers, that strategy is still nowhere to be found—the Post catalogues an impressively diverse collection of tactics, yet no overarching theme. Micah Zenko has noted that the White House doesn’t even seem to agree with itself about what it is trying to do in Syria.

We’re being reminded, in other words, that Barack Obama is not a foreign-policy realist.

That’s hardly news. Obama’s allies have been eager to stick the “realist” label on him, but the president has only appeared to be a realist if one views “realism” as some midpoint between crusading interventionism and austere isolationism rather than a distinct tradition of foreign-policy thought rooted in a distaste for ideology and emotion and a belief that power is the primary force shaping international relations. In this vein, I argued in June that Obama’s “simultaneous antagonization of both Russia and China, the only two powers who could join the capacity to thwart America with a desire to do so” betrayed a dangerous obliviousness to the balance among the great powers. More recently, Paul J. Saunders charged the administration with strategic errors whose

consequences are less immediately visible than the Bush administration’s wars, but may prove more damaging over accelerating dangerous changes in the international system that encourage challenges to U.S. leadership and to the world order the United States and its allies built in the aftermath of World War II. This, in turn, threatens America’s long-term prosperity and increases the likelihood of serious confrontations and even wars.

Elbridge Colby recently joined the fray in the pages of National Review, rattling off a string of Obama decisions that realists find suspect. In Syria, “no realist would so cavalierly draw a red line, especially over such a peripheral interest, only to do nothing when the line is crossed.” And a realist would not “have pursued the uneven, unpredictable, and often contradictory approach toward the ‘Arab Spring’ that this administration did...vacillat[ing] between a starry-eyed idealism about the prospect for a liberal revolution and a ham-fisted effort at realpolitik.” In Ukraine, says Colby, Obama “sleepwalked into a major conflict with Moscow over an interest few would construe as vital,” pursuing “an assertive strategy in Russia’s near abroad,” backed only by a fragile, euro-crisis-wracked NATO that hardly seems up to the task of staring down Putin. And the president has indifferently acquiesced to China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea—the world’s most vital sea lane.

Hear, hear. The public ought to be reminded at every opportunity of the administration’s cack-handed foreign policy. Yet what’s truly valuable about Colby’s contribution is its attempt to link the intellectual foundations of realism with the intellectual foundations of conservatism:

Practical realism (like conservatism) denotes a persuasion more than a clear doctrine....In their policy prescriptions, realists tend to emphasize maintaining power and advantage, implementing a strategy to exploit strengths and mitigate weaknesses, pursuing the stable and satisfactory rather than the ideal, and sticking to the axiom that good fences make good neighbors.

If this sounds a good bit like what most people understand by conservatism, that is no accident. One can credibly argue that realism, with its Burkean focus on the achievable rather than the transformational and the prudent rather than the ideal, is nearly a synonym for conservatism.

In spite of this, realism’s conservative credentials have been under attack for some time. Neoconservatives—many of them former leftists and even former Communists—charged the realists with cowardice in the face of the enemy du jour, advocating for a confrontational and ultimately idealistic foreign policy. They successfully tapped into nationalist instincts in the Republican mind, and insinuated that those on the right who deviated from their line were blame-America-first, McGovernite softies at heart. Though the term “neoconservative” acquired a pejorative cast as the Iraq War began to fall apart, the neoconservatives adapted and survived, reducing their emphasis on grand adventures for democracy and increasing their emphasis on standing firm in the face of implacable foemen swarming in every corner of a world that is, in the words of one prominent neoconservative senator, “literally about to blow up.”