Disadvantage: Realism

Disadvantage: Realism

Pragmatic foreign-policy voices are always being upstaged by grandiloquent pronouncements from those promising to stand up to dictators and spread democracy. Too bad that what realists have to say is usually more sensible.

In a war of bumper stickers, thoughtful commentary on foreign policy gets crowded out.

Realists are asked "yes or no" questions and we respond with paragraphs of nuance (usually to explain why a yes or no answer is not possible nor sufficient). We tend not to be comfortable with certainty. We believe that relations with other powers-both ones friendly to us and those that aren't, those that empower governments through democratic means and those than don't, are complicated, multilayered, textured affairs.

Just look at this exchange as an example, back in 2001, after the incident with China over the spy plane. A simple, clear declarative on one side, and a complex answer on the other:

[Tucker Carlson]: When China flexes its muscle, you flex back and say, no dice, pal.
[Steve Clemons]: I don't think tit-for-tat strategies work among great powers. I think well-conceived national strategies that take into account the economic dimensions of interests as well as the security dimensions of interests that plays within our interests in the Asia-Pacific region, how we approach Taiwan and our relationship with China, that is what's going to be secure. Otherwise, you have a tit-for-tat escalation over ego issues. That's very dangerous.

"No dice" is a great bumper-sticker quote. "Well-conceived national strategies" isn't.

And when the bumper sticker doesn't work out, we get the continual bleat: "Unanticipated developments. Unforeseen consequences." That's when, it seems, the realist critique gains more salience.

So the big tent that might be described as "the American realists"-libertarians, paleocons, business conservatives, communitarians, FDR realists-all those who share Walter Lippmann's concern that foreign-policy ends are balanced by available means as well as Hippocrates' admonition to "first do no harm"-find themselves largely on the outside. What is even more surprising is that a broadly realist approach to foreign policy is the one that the majority of Americans, in opinion polls, seem to endorse.

But the opinion-poll data suggests that Americans become "more realist" only after reflection and consideration of events. Support for the Iraq war, for instance, was highest when it was promised to be a "liberation" that would "pay for itself."

And herein lies the rub. American realists have found it increasingly difficult to capture the imagination of the American people. And part of the problem is that realists have difficulty coming up with slogans and providing simple, clear answers. Realists talk about setting priorities, having to make choices, learning to live with glass-half-full scenarios. It is not the rousing rhetoric of "changing the world."

So, realism doesn't seem to be the preferred first choice. Perhaps that is because we offer compromises for an imperfect world. We seem like the uncompassionate Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who leaves the man who fell among the thieves lying in the road, explaining why we aren't able to "do something." And our response-to point to a long record where well-intentioned interventions produced even worse results-is dismissed with a "this time, we can do it better/will do it right."

Part of the problem may be that most Americans, with no real experience in what instability can bring, find the realist insistence on stability as a precondition for further development to sound like nothing more than a justification for authoritarianism. Espousing the slogan "America First" sounds like isolationism or a withdrawal from global affairs-even if that is not a fair characterization.


Nikolas Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.