A Realist Rally

A Realist Rally

Mini Teaser: As featured in the IHT: Realism can lead the way out of our foreign-policy shambles. But first the camp’s heavyweights need to bridge the partisan

by Author(s): Leslie H. Gelb

NOW IS the moment to forge a new, broader, politically potent coalition of realists to shape U.S. foreign policy, if the high priests of the realist camp would only grasp it.

The two main alternatives to traditional realism for half a century have now discredited themselves. The Clinton administration-fixated on domestic politics and overawed by the curative powers of globalization-squandered American power. The Bush administration-blind to the limitations of military force and carried away by the idea of democratizing heathens-plunged America into its deepest international hole ever.

The first step toward a new coalition is for the keepers of the realist flame-such as James Baker, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger-to stop searching for partners in the wrong places. Time and again, they turn to their fellow Republicans, especially the conservatives on the right, only to rediscover that the right-wingers are latent isolationists with dogmatic slants on good-and-evil in the world. There is no way that realists can share a harness with those who reject the necessity for engagement and diplomacy with adversaries. Traditional realists also foolishly keep trying to bond with neoconservatives, only to relearn that neocons treat them almost as poorly as they treat liberals. No one can build working arrangements with those whose foreign policy boils down to staying every course, exerting will power and waiting for the world to bend to Washington's wishes.

Second, and after facing up to whom their friends can't be, traditional realists have to open their eyes to their natural allies-the Truman-Acheson Democrats. These are Democrats who think we do face real threats, and that these threats must be countered with American power, allies and partners, diplomacy, and sometimes military force. And these are also the basic principles of traditional realists. Where they differ, the Democrats bring strength to the table: They believe in pursuing American values abroad, but over time and consistent with power realities. The traditional realists need credibility on just this front because most Americans believe they slight American values.

Contrary to what some traditional realists believe, there is a vibrant stable of Truman-Acheson Democrats. I'm thinking here of Joseph Biden, Richard Holbrooke, Michèle Flournoy, Sam Nunn, William Perry, Joseph Nye, John Hamre and a slew of pragmatic foreign policy Democrats in their thirties and forties. Admittedly, their ranks shrunk over the years. But they still have the numbers and voices to make winning partners.

The point is that there are two groups of foreign policy realists, not one-the traditional Republican variety and the Truman-Acheson Democrats. And they do largely share a basic philosophy of foreign affairs, far more than each does with its own political party brethren.

To see what the two realist groups accomplished when they cooperated, just look at the three most creative strategic periods in U.S. policy since 1945.

The most creative and effective period, of course, was the years of the Truman administration. America had demobilized after World War II, and there was no changing that for a long time. Nor did an ascending Soviet Union display much willingness to resolve differences through negotiations.

So, Truman, Acheson and, of course, George Marshall fashioned their famous two-pronged strategy: First, they built situations of strength, stabilizing especially Germany and Japan economically and politically. These countries were our rocks during the cold war; second, the Truman team established multilateral institutions such as the gatt, the United Nations, the World Bank and NATO. These institutions were not silly peons to knee-jerk liberals or fraternities for foreign slackers. They were hard-nosed means to both cooperate with other key countries and to exercise American leadership. These strategies had the support of realists across the political board, and they succeeded.

The next great American strategy was conceived by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. At the very moment when they were warning that failure in Vietnam would reduce the United States to being "a pitiful helpless giant," they were contriving to prevent such an eventuality.

Their strategic insight amounted to drowning the effects of Vietnam in a worldwide demonstration of U.S. diplomatic power. They stitched together the Egyptian-Israel deal that still underpins Mideast peace. They put themselves at the pivot point of the triangle with the Soviet Union and China, a role which reminded all of America's centrality. And they rebuilt the foundations of American power in Asia by understanding that Asians didn't want us to appear the losers, and that they needed the United States as a regional counterweight to China.

George H. W. Bush, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft maneuvered to the end of the cold war, not with a bang, not with a war, but with a brilliant diplomatic strategy. They knew that if they pushed and humiliated Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet hard-liners likely would react by digging in their heels and perhaps resorting to force to retain their empire. Instead, the Bush trio effectively transformed Gorbachev into a world leader and thereby made his compromises appear to be great statesmanship.

The neocons and right-wingers, it should not be forgotten, fought this "pro-Gorby" policy fiercely, arguing it was strengthening Soviet rule. Support came from Truman Democrats and yes, liberals. In fact, political and intellectual support for all three strategies that won the cold war came mainly from realists on both sides of the aisle. Differences among them on key policies were trivial.

Finally, the bridges of cooperation were also there undeniably in both the Baker-Hamilton commission on Iraq and the recent Baker-Warren Christopher commission on war powers. Even those realists who disagreed with some of the recommendations could readily sign on to their thrust and strategic direction.

The foundations for a realist coalition are unmistakably present in the writings, speeches, and actions of key Republican and Democratic realists.

Start with an unpublished memo written in 1991 by then-Secretary of State Eagleburger and recently quoted in a piece in TNI. A core proposition of this memo was that the United States needed to become the "provider of reassurance and architect of new security arrangements . . . [and] a builder and leader of coalitions to deal with problems in the chaotic post-Cold War world."

Brent Scowcroft developed these themes most skillfully in a TNI editorial in July 2007. "Increasingly, power . . . resides more in the collectivity of states rather than in the hands of any individual power," he wrote and continued: "The world is not susceptible to U.S. domination-but without U.S. leadership not much can be achieved." No one has put this core point better, and no Truman Democrat would disagree with it.

Senator Biden's innumerable speeches reflect the same good common sense. He is neither afraid of the United States applying hard pressure on other states nor of sensible compromises. Like his Republican counterpart, Senator Richard Lugar, Biden wants to solve problems as best we can rather than allowing them to fester. Ambassador Holbrooke's forthcoming article in Foreign Affairs on an overall foreign policy for Democrats should suit most traditional Republican realists as well.

The two groups of realists should seek common ground on the issue of humanitarian intervention. It is unacceptable for the United States to do nothing about genocide, and it is foolhardy to try to tame the problem through nation building. Our experience, as in Bosnia, shows we have a good chance to stop or abate the violence through limited military actions like arming the victims and surgical air strikes. In Rwanda, we could have done as the Pentagon proposed and sent troops to the border region just to set up a safe haven for the internal refugees. Americans know they can't be true to themselves and do nothing about genocide. Failure to act against this particular evil corrupts society and inspires deep cynicism, something genuine conservatives always feared.

Of course, Republican realists and Truman Democrats are not going to stop supporting their respective parties-even though they are each other's best allies on substance. Nor would anyone be foolish enough to ask for such saintly behavior. But realists in power can gain political support if they appoint a few of the out of power realists to key foreign policy jobs. Similarly, the realists out of power can and should give much greater support to realist policies of those in power. They used to, far more than in recent years. Like most others, however, they have become excessively partisan.

Realists are all forever trumpeting that we should set national interest above partisan interests. No better time to deliver even partially on this homily than now, when the United States is mired in two wars and drowning in a sea of other security and nonsecurity challenges.


Leslie H. Gelb is a Board Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, its president emeritus, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official. He is also a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.

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