Less is More: Minimal Realism in East Asia

Less is More: Minimal Realism in East Asia

Mini Teaser: Historically, in both practical and theoretical debates about American foreign policy, the great divide has been between proponents of liberal internationalism--sometimes called Wilsonianism--and realism.

by Author(s): Christopher Layne

Historically, in both practical and theoretical debates about American foreign policy, the great divide has been between proponents of liberal internationalism--sometimes called Wilsonianism--and realism. But today, although more or less pristine strands of
neo-Wilsonian liberal internationalism survive in the foreign policy discourse, the more important intellectual debate is taking place
within the realist camp itself. Today's realists are split into "maximalists" and "minimalists", with the latter often caricatured as
neo-isolationists. While both camps share fundamental assumptions about the forces that shape world politics, once it comes to
specifics the two generate very different views as to what U.S. grand strategy ought to be. One can therefore no longer speak meaningfully about a realist critique of liberal internationalism, for realism today does not offer a unified alternative to liberal internationalist policies.

To complicate things further, while their basic assumptions differ, maximal realists sometimes find themselves in accord with liberal
internationalists. To take one important current example, both have tended to favor American military intervention in the Balkans. On the other hand, minimal realists sometimes do find themselves more in accord with isolationists than with maximal realists--and again the Bosnia debate illustrates the point. Hence, the schism between maximal and minimal realists merits close attention.

The basic difference between the two camps, understood as ideal types, is not hard to state: It is between those who would trust in
hegemonism and those who would trust in the balance of power, these being the only two pure models of international stability that
scholars have ever gleaned from the study of history. Maximal realists put their money on hegemony--or as much of it as they can
get under specific circumstances--and assume that, as it will be American, it will be a benign hegemony. They seek U.S. security
through the preservation of maximum feasible American military and geopolitical dominance over the international system. Minimalists, on the contrary, advise that the United States should seek security by capitalizing on the dynamics of the balance of power in an emerging multipolar world. They do so because they believe that the United States lacks the resources to sustain its present predominance, and, more fundamentally, because they see hegemony as inherently unstable.

Both maximal and minimal approaches are realist strategies because they embrace the core assumptions of the realist paradigm: anarchy among states requires and justifies self-help; reasons of state predominate over conventional interpersonal standards of moral behavior; and power relationships predominate over internal political characteristics in determining state behavior. But maximal and minimal versions of realism today do not generate equally realistic strategies. The operational differences between them may be
demonstrated by considering their respective implications for future U.S. strategy in East Asia, and after first considering the two
positions--maximal and minimal realism--in general theoretical terms, I shall do this. It will be my contention that minimal realist
approaches offer by far the more realistic options for the United States.

Maximal Realism: The Strategy of Preponderance

Realism can best be understood by contrasting it with the liberal internationalism that represents the prevailing popular approach to
world politics among the elites of Western democracies. In its unadulterated form, liberal internationalism boils down to the
assumption that a virtuous cycle binds together democracy, economic interdependence, and peace. Its enemies are authoritarianism, narrow nationalism, and excessive reliance on the use of force as a policy instrument. It aspires to apply the rule of law to state interactions, and, while not necessarily utopian, is quick to spot and to advocate potential systemic change, presumably for the better.

Realists see things differently; in particular, they are skeptical of any easy prospect for benign systemic change. If history is "just one
damned thing after another", then for realists international politics is the same damned things over and over again. War, great power
security and economic competitions, the rise and fall of empires and great states, and the formation and dissolution of alliances are, in
this view, ceaseless and changeless at the same time. The number of permutations is virtually infinite, but the rules by which they are
generated are fixed by human nature and the hard realities of political life.

The realist paradigm explains why this is so. International politics is an anarchic, self-help realm because there is no central authority
to make and enforce rules of behavior on states. The absence of such an authority means that each state is responsible for ensuring its
own survival, free to define its own interests and to employ means of its own choosing in pursuit of those interests. International
politics is therefore fundamentally competitive. While this competition is not necessarily chaotic or disorderly, states cannot
escape the security dilemma, in which the fear and distrust of other states is normal and usually reciprocal. The imperative of survival
thus forces states to adopt strategies that maximize their military and economic power relative to their rivals.

Unlike liberal internationalism, realism is not an uplifting approach to international politics. Owen Harries has nicely captured its flavor:

"Realism is a dour and pessimistic doctrine, one that stresses the inevitability of conflict, the intractability of interests, the dangers of life in a world of sovereign states. The virtues it most strongly recommends are prudence and vigilance."

On this all realists agree, and therefore conclude that, international politics being the way it is, security must be the overarching goal of American strategy. But that is where agreement ends.

It is a commonplace, but nonetheless true, observation that the Soviet Union's collapse transformed the bipolar post-1945
international system into a unipolar one, with the United States as the sole great power. Maximal realists believe that U.S. post-Cold
War strategy should aim at perpetuating unipolarity by preventing the rise of new great powers. This is because, they further assume,
American hegemony will guarantee a stable international order based on America's power and its liberal values. Maximalists usually
combine realist concerns about power with liberal internationalism's core policy agenda. In other words, the stabilizing qualities of the
hegemon aside, maximalists assume that other states will accept the leadership of a more or less benign, liberal hegemon such as the
United States because of the collective goods--general security reassurance, predictable "rules of the game", and an open
international economic system--they would receive in exchange. Unlike true liberal internationalists, who believe that liberalism
inevitably will triumph of its own accord, maximalists believe that only American power can ensure that liberal principles will prevail.
And they view liberal internationalist principles instrumentally rather than ideologically: democracy and free trade are good because they are means to a desirable end--a high degree of security for the United States in the international system--not the other way around.

Essay Types: Essay