Out of School

Out of School

One of the admirable things about raspberries is that different sorts seem to get along pretty well with each other.

One of the admirable things about raspberries is that different sorts seem to get along pretty well with each other. A few weeks after moving my family into Chestnut Nook, I set out two dozen raspberry seedlings-six each of four different varieties with different fruiting seasons, to ensure a rolling harvest. Things have worked out fine: all the varieties have thrived, given good yields and, best of all, seem to respect each other's space. Conservatives focused on foreign policy and national security could take a lesson.

We have witnessed in recent weeks an eruption of antagonism-some of it uncharacteristically personal-between what is generically called the camp of neo-conservatives and the camp of conservative realists. Accusations of "appeasement" and "irresponsibility" have been flying, the subject closest to hand being policy toward Iraq. But, as everyone who pays attention to these matters knows, differences of attitude and temperament are at work here, and these differences, along with their personal and policy legacies, go back many years. Some characterize recent disputations as keepers of the Reaganite neo-conservative flame versus keepers of the Bush41 realist flame, the sharpness of contention explained by the fact that both set of keepers are represented in the Bush43 Administration-and that the President seems to have a genuinely open mind about several portentous, still-to-be-determined issues.

The recent eruptions, however, are dismaying for several reasons. First, when emotions invade logic in high places, there is a danger that the dispassion necessary to think effectively about consequential courses of action will be compromised. Second, whatever their differences, conservative realists and neo-conservatives still have far more in common with each other than either "school" does with know-nothing isolationists, "blame America" leftists, or liberals who only get excited about sending American soldiers into harm's way when they're sure no serious U.S. national interest is at stake. But the spleen spilling of late has led some writers to reify these schools of thought, when, in truth, "pure" realists or neo-conservatives are difficult to find. Thus, for example, a Wall Street Journal editorial, of August 19, read as follows:

Which brings us to. . .a point of view worth debating. . . . This view describes itself as realism. It upholds national interest narrowly defined, striving for balance of power in the old European sense. It resists a foreign policy with a strong moral component or one designed to expand U.S. principles and democracy. So it typically favors "stability," even when it's imposed by dictators, over democratic aspiration.

The editorial proceeds to declaim realism's supposedly poor track-listing the standard contentious judgments that have become the policy commentariat's version of the movie "Groundhog Day"-and then lambastes Secretary of State Colin Powell and the State Department with him:

Colin Powell was complicit in all of those mistaken judgments, as was the State Department over which he now presides and which is usually the home of such Realpolitik.


This description implies that there is a single one-size-fits-all conception of realism, one so programmatically inflexible that it leads all realists to the same conclusions on discrete policy issues. This is not true. The editorial suggests, too, that all realists today accept some realists' skepticism about the wisdom of a pre-emptive war against Iraq, and that if Henry Kissinger is not so skeptical about such a war, then it can only be because he is less a realist than he used to be. This is not true either.

Nor is the general description of realism, as stated, quite right. Idealists have always tried to appropriate the labels "moral" and "democratic" for themselves, and since Woodrow Wilson, if not before, American idealists have disparaged the "old European" concept of "the balance of power." This has always been, and remains, humbug. To an unvarnished idealist, something is "moral" when it is maximally abstract and worn on one's sleeve. Such idealism assumes that the task of attending in a stolid, quotidian way to the structure of relations among major powers (i.e., those powers capable of killing the maximum number of people should things go wrong with this structure) somehow lacks moral significance. A moment's reflection reveals how mistaken such an assumption is, but such moments, it seems, are rare in some lives.


As to democracy, our Enlightenment forbears and the Founding Fathers all understood that not all peoples are inclined to or are ready for democracy, but some idealists seem unable to imagine any downside to attempts at imposing a political system on peoples whose experience is antithetical to it. This is what can happen when one's grip on reality is loosened by what amounts to theology. Realists do not oppose the spread of democracy; they are just more circumspect about its prospects and the ancillary repercussions, amid concerns about other values, of trying to force it on people who may not want or understand it.

As for the balance of power, well, realists do not build altars to it; they simply acknowledge balance-of-power realities in circumstances where the only alternative to managing such balances is seeking hegemony. Hegemony, however, is rarely attainable and, particularly for democratic republics, not always desirable. Some idealists, however, seek what amounts to an open-ended, "moral"-based crusade whose criteria of tactical selectivity has yet to be detected. If old-fashioned "European" types blanch at the prospect of what such crusades can bring in their wake, it is not their fault; they are simple unable, the poor crusty old fellows, to forget the history lessons that many young idealists seem never to have learned. Of course, some conservative realists are conservative in the worst sort of way, meaning that they oppose change even when it is in their own interest. But that, I think, represents their conservatism gone astray, not their realism.


As for the State Department's being a citadel of rock-hard Realpolitik-Oh rapturous would be the day, should I live long enough to see it.

But if neo-conservatives sometimes unfairly describe realists, realists sometimes unfairly describe neo-conservatives-as I have nearly just done (such are the pitfalls of the polemical tense). How many neo-conservatives really fit an ideal-type description of oblivious crusaders wanting to spread democracy and the American way the world over, at the point of a bayonet if necessary? I cannot think of many. The result is that, for most practical purposes most of the time, we are talking about differences of emphasis, not of principle.

A good example, particularly as regards the debate over U.S. policy toward Iraq, concerns the role of domestic politics in foreign policy. A pure realist is supposed to believe that domestic politics is irrelevant to a state's foreign policy behavior; know a country's geography and power assets relative to those of its neighbors, and you can predict how that state will behave. There are a few formulaic academic realists who really believe this, but of those realists who have any significant experience in government, or otherwise in the so-called real world, there are none. Now, arguing that, all else equal, U.S. foreign policy should focus on a country's external behavior, rather than on how it treats its own people, is a time-honored and prudential principle among realists; but it does not depend on a theory that discounts the influence of domestic political culture on foreign policy. It merely recognizes the continuing wisdom of the essential Westphalian bargain.

On the other hand, I know of no neo-conservatives, despite their emphasis on the importance of domestic regimes, who would decide U.S. policy, in all cases and at all times, solely on the basis of how governments treat their own people. To do so would put the United States on or close to a war footing with several dozen countries simultaneously, and no one is that stupid.

One can go even further: each school's emphasis can flip in extreme cases. Any sensible realist knows that as one moves toward an extreme-like Ba'athi Iraq-regime character can become the issue. This is why it is inaccurate to claim that Henry Kissinger has suddenly changed his stripes in the face of the Iraqi challenge; people just as much realists as he recognized extreme cases before, in the face of Nazi and Stalinist threats. Any sensible neo-conservative, similarly, realizes that power considerations cannot be ignored as one moves toward an extreme; the Soviet government abused human rights, but it was too dangerous to risk war with the USSR solely on that basis. Neo-conservatives therefore concluded, rightly, that power politics had to take pride of place before anything conclusive could be done about Soviet human rights abuses. It did, and it was.

It is easy to be clever about these differences of emphasis; for example, I have written in the Fall 2002 issue of The National Interest that neo-conservatives are realists for whom all utopian ideologies are anathema, except their own. I do tilt toward the realist side; but in the same sentence I say that there are few ideal types, and that every reasonable realist and neo-conservative recognizes the benefits of listening to and learning from each other. The magazine has always published neo-conservatives, and been eager to host debates on a range of subjects, both philosophical and more policy-focused; and we always will.