Realism and Its Rivals

Realism and Its Rivals

Mini Teaser: To see realist strategies adopted even as they are denounced would be, in our view, no small success.

by Author(s): Owen HarriesMichael Lind

In the premier issue of this magazine, we stated the assumptions its editors shared:

--that the primary and overriding purpose of American foreign policy must be to defend and advance the national interest of the United States (an interest that encompasses the values and aspirations of the American people, as well as their security from external threat and their material well-being);

--that, for better or worse, international politics remains essentially power politics, and that the efficacy of military power in the conduct of foreign policy remains undiminished;

--that the Soviet Union constitutes the single greatest threat to America's interests, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

When the third of these assumptions was invalidated, The National Interest inaugurated the post-Cold War debate with a series of essays (later collected as a book, America's Purpose). Since then, the evolution of that national debate has not been encouraging. All too often defenders of foreign-policy activism have misidentified its critics (for example, describing as "isolationists" people who clearly are not); attacked their motives; and relied on a tendentious misreading of American history, according to which either generations of foolish isolation suddenly gave way to heroic internationalism in 1941 or 1945, or an unbroken tradition of high-minded idealism from the time of the Founding Fathers on effectively rules out realism as an approach to American foreign policy. The essays by Alan Tonelson and Jonathan Clarke in this issue on current and historic realignments in U.S. foreign policy viewpoints will, we hope, help to combat the simplifications and distortions of the debate as it has evolved.

Readers of this magazine are familiar with the views of its editors, but a clarification might be helpful nonetheless. While open to a variety of views, The National Interest is particularly concerned to promote what is best described as classical realism. All too often, realists tend to be labelled, along with what Tonelson calls foreign policy "minimalists," as "isolationists" by proponents of ambitious efforts to promote global democracy and human rights. Realists are also frequently accused of isolationism by those who claim that the distinction between the national interest of the United States and the good of humanity in general is being rendered invalid by the alleged phenomenon of "interdependence." True, in questioning the premises of democratism and the interdependence school, classical realists and minimalists tend to agree. But that limited agreement may serve to disguise the very real differences between foreign policy minimalism and classical realism, at least as we understand it.

To begin with, there is the fact that classical, balance-of-power realism is a theory, not only about how states behave and how they should behave to protect and advance their interests, but about world order--not a "just" world order, but a reasonably safe world order. In any division of foreign policy positions between those who attach importance to world order and those who do not, classical realism belongs--however uncomfortably--alongside the democratists and the interdependence school in the family of "world-order" theories. A pre-eminent goal of foreign policy for realists is the preservation of a multipolar world of independent great powers (whether independent states, alliances, or blocs).

The modern global state system is quite different from its predecessor, the European state system, but the premise of equilibrist thinking in both has been the same--that the genuine long-term interest of all great powers is best served by a world order in which no power, and no combination of powers, strives for hegemony or empire. (This puts classical realists at odds with proponents of a Pax Americana or a Pax Universalis, however much the latter may invoke realist reasoning).

The careful attention paid by classical realists to the distribution of power in the world leads them to give an interpretation of the national interest which is more expansive than that of the minimalists. In the realist view, it is a mistake to identify "the national interest" only with a list of particulars, such as core territorial security, while leaving out any consideration of whether the alignments of power in the world are favorable or unfavorable in their implication. In the twentieth century, the United States, like Sweden, might have preserved its territory from invasion and maintained a high level of prosperity by choosing not to challenge Imperial German, Nazi or Soviet predominance in Eurasia, but it could have done so only at the cost of great insecurity, and the loss of leverage in world politics--a factor that is as vital an interest of the state, properly understood, as preserving the beaches from invasion.

The paramount concern of classical realists with preserving a balance among the great powers also leads them to be less suspicious of alliances than foreign-policy minimalists. Realist theory both predicts and prescribes coalitions of states organized against would-be hegemonic powers; in other words, participation in alliances is, and always has been, an integral part of realist strategy. The distinction minimalists make between "rigid" and "ad hoc" alliances is beside the point; the nature of the alliance must depend on circumstances, and particularly on the nature of the threat. To have expected an ad hoc alliance against the Soviet Union to have done the work of nato for more than forty years would have been as misguided as institutionalizing the ephemeral Gulf War alliance would have been.

Realists, like internationalists, tend to believe that change should be orderly and gradual, and that convulsive and violent change in world politics is dangerous. In addition, the realist conviction that the interests of the United States must be pursued not only directly and by individual effort but through alliances and by maintaining the general equilibrium of the system parallels the internationalists' belief in salvation by systemic reform (which is emphasized in Alan Tonelson's article). But the content of the two beliefs is radically different, and the kind and extent of intervention envisioned by them leads to very different policies. Realism takes for granted the continuing centrality of power and conflict and seeks to control and manipulate them to the extent necessary to further American interest. When the system's stability is not under serious threat, the need for intervention diminishes. Liberal internationalists, on the other hand, are always and necessarily in favor of maximum activism, for their ultimate purpose is to transform the whole system, root and branch.

The foregoing assumes that, while "economic power" and "soft power" may figure more prominently in the currency of world politics, military power will continue to be of decisive importance. Here classical realists depart from proponents of "geo-economics" like Edward Luttwak (reviewed in this issue). There is no doubt that "geo-economics" (what used to be called mercantilism) exists; but the proposition that geo-economics is replacing geo-politics is at best very premature and dubious. Balance-of-power reasoning is concerned with economic strength mainly to the extent that it is actually or potentially translated into military power; in any contest between money and munitions, the latter will win (as the hapless emir of Kuwait discovered).

Among the great powers of the past, some were among the leading commercial powers of their day (Athens, Venice, the Netherlands, France, Britain, Germany, the United States); others, however, were backward regimes with impoverished populations and large and capable militaries--the Macedonians, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Ottoman Turks, the Spanish, the Russians. Any list of today's great powers would include China and Russia, countries which remain quite poor compared to the United States, Japan and Germany.

Public discussion of realism involves a paradox: those who hold office cannot speak publically in unadorned realist terms, while those who use realist reasoning in public may disqualify themselves from holding office. This is particularly a problem in the United States, in which "in-and-outers" form a large and valuable proportion of those engaged in both the making and discussion of foreign policy, and in which realist foreign policies are disguised by moral or ideological language to an even greater extent than they are in other countries. One of the important functions of a magazine like The National Interest is to serve as a forum for the discussion of ideas and beliefs which policymakers, at least in public, may be forced to disavow. To see realist strategies adopted even as they are denounced would be, in our view, no small success.

Essay Types: Essay