The Ethics of Realism

The Ethics of Realism

Mini Teaser: Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr--the fathers of American realism--understood that good intentions do not excuse failure.

by Author(s): John C. HulsmanAnatol Lieven

With the passing of George Kennan, the last living member of the most successful foreign policy team in modern American history has left the stage. Kennan, Charles Bohlen, Robert Lovett, George Marshall, Dean Acheson and Harry Truman--these are the giants who set the United States on the road to victory in the Cold War. The containment doctrine they developed was followed in one form or another until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rarely in history has such analytical brilliance led to such wise policy recommendations being followed over such a long period of time.

However, the Truman Administration's greatest gift has been lost in the accolades: their political achievement of knitting together a bipartisan coalition determined to promote containment regardless of which party was in power. The Truman Administration succeeded in politically isolating the left wing in the Democratic Party that favored some form of accommodation with the Soviet Union, epitomized by former Vice President Henry Wallace. The hard-line, preventive-war wing of the Republican Party, symbolized by General Douglas MacArthur, was likewise marginalized, a state of affairs reinforced by President Eisenhower, who essentially continued his predecessor's approach well into the Cold War. It is this successful combination of toughness, pragmatism and moderation that we must recall today in seeking a new national consensus on how to conduct the struggle against Islamist terrorism and revolution. Any approach to foreign policy that hopes to recreate an intellectual consensus among Americans must embrace certain elements of both traditional realism and morality, as the mass of the American people understand these terms.

On the one hand, a majority of Americans have demonstrated repeatedly throughout history their aversion to strategies based purely on criteria of international morality or humanitarianism. There has long been an insistence that U.S. policy instead serve the interests and above all the safety of the United States--witness the widespread suspicion of the interventions in Somalia and Kosovo.

At the same time, many Americans have always shown a strong aversion to policies devoid of moral constraints and aims. Repeatedly during the Cold War, American public opinion was deeply uneasy with the United States supporting ruthless dictatorships, even when there were compelling reasons of national interest to do so. Morality in U.S. foreign policy has long been associated by Americans not only with the means employed by the United States, but also with the goal of spreading democracy.

However, in the years since 9/11, both neoconservatives and Democrat hawks have sought to make this specific moral notion the central element of American foreign policy, particularly in the case of the Muslim world. As President Bush's inaugural address demonstrates, they have achieved tremendous success, at least at the level of public discourse. This has created momentum in support of more adventurous and interventionist strategies, against a much larger range of perceived "enemies" than have actually been associated with the 9/11 attacks or the world of Islamist extremism from which they sprang.

A great many Americans are deeply concerned by the seemingly limitless ambition of this project and the severe geopolitical risks to which it could lead. However, the general American aversion to classical realist approaches, with their supposedly "immoral" nature and "foreign" origins, has allowed this ultra-idealist approach to depict itself as the moral one, which is why it has gained a predominant position in the national debate and has undermined and even marginalized realist positions. It is striking that in this regard the Democrats have sought to outflank the Republicans on international morality by being even more messianic, by harshly criticizing, for example, the Bush Administration's policy toward Russia and calling for a much tougher line against Vladimir Putin in support of "democracy."

Niebuhr and Morgenthau

Yet, as the intellectual background to the "Truman moment" itself demonstrates, the portrayal of realism as a purely cynical intellectual position divorced from ethics and morality is a highly misleading one. The intellectual consensus forged in the late 1940s was largely anchored in what has been called "ethical realism", as formulated (albeit in different ways) by Reinhold Niebuhr and Hans Morgenthau.

The principles underlying this approach largely point in diametrically opposite directions to those advocated by today's liberal interventionists and still more by the neoconservatives. Ethical realism stands for an international strategy based on prudence; a concentration on possible results rather than good intentions; a close study of the nature, views and interests of other states and a willingness to accommodate them when possible; and a mixture of profound American patriotism with an equally profound awareness of the limits both on American power and on American goodness.

In an essay for the New Republic in December, Peter Beinart tried to summon the Truman moment in support of a progressive version of neoconservative positions. He joined other "liberal hawks" in calling for the Democrats to make the spread of democracy--in opposition to what he and others have called "Islamist totalitarianism"--the heart of their own foreign policy strategy. He linked this to a call to revive the memory of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and its role in reshaping the Democratic Party to meet the communist totalitarian threat.

The role of the ADA in rallying American intellectuals to oppose Stalinist totalitarianism was indeed vital. Niebuhr and other founders of the ADA had previously played a key part in calling for war against Germany and Japan in the years before Pearl Harbor, and this tradition of opposition to totalitarianism and aggression then fed their determination to resist Stalinist communism. They rejected communist wiles and pacifist naivety, opposed Henry Wallace's campaign for president in 1948, called for increased vigilance against communists within America, and helped promote the Marshall Plan, the war in Korea and the creation of NATO.

However, the legacy of the ADA is far more complex than Beinart supposes. The ADA did not view communist countries as if they were all identical. It opposed preventive war against China. Many of its members expressed a measure of understanding for the anti-colonial aspects of leftist movements in Asia and Africa, for they were profoundly skeptical of the West's ability to reshape other societies according to its own model. As a result of this, Niebuhr and Morgenthau ended up opposing the great American idealistic crusade of the early 1960s, the Vietnam War. It is not difficult to imagine how they would have regarded phrases like the "Axis of Evil", or attempts to lump radically different and opposed forces like Al-Qaeda, the Ba'ath Party and the Iranian theocracy together as "Islamo-fascists."

Yet, their skepticism about the limits of American power in no way altered their belief--held in different ways by both Niebuhr and Morgenthau--that America remained morally vastly superior to its rivals. Moreover, both believed that American actions and America's example were critical to the preservation and spread of progress on earth. Niebuhr in particular yielded to no one in his American patriotism, demonstrated during both the First and Second World Wars. But he also had an acute sense of how an exaggerated view of American innocence and goodness could lead America into terrible danger. In his great work, The Irony of American History (1982), he wrote,

"Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous. . . . If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits--in all such cases the situation is ironic."

Unfortunately, Niebuhr's prophetic warning has not been heeded by those who today claim the mantle of morality in formulating American foreign policy, especially those who advocate democratization--by force if necessary--as the core of U.S. strategy in the War on Terror.

Why Realism is Moral

For realists, then, there is no avoiding the morality debate if they are to prevail politically. Nor should there be. Any foreign policy without a moral component should be anathema to a country that aspires to stand as "a shining city on a hill" to the rest of the world. So realists must beat the utopians at their own game. Fortunately they can, because realism itself is inherently moral. To update ethical realism, these moral principles can be distilled into one common-sense phrase about the state of the country and the world: America is good, but it is not perfect. Neoconservatism emerges as immoral in failing to live up to either of these precepts.

The ethical realist response to those who would claim the moral high ground in foreign policy was sharply phrased by Morgenthau:

"The equation of political moralizing with morality and of political realism with immorality is itself untenable. The choice is not between moral principles and the national interest, devoid of moral dignity, but between one set of moral principles divorced from political reality and another set of moral principles derived from political reality."

For those who see the possibility of a utopian world within the reach of America's power and influence, this seems a bleakly negative view. And indeed, neoconservatives have a point in criticizing realists for positing that America behaves merely as any other great power in pursuing its national interests. Thus, in a crude realist formulation, all other states should automatically begin to balance geostrategically against America, as such states inevitably fear the threat of encroachment by stronger countries. There is one problem with this theory, however: It has not so far generally applied to the United States. For all that they criticize America, Canada and Mexico--not to mention continental Europe--do not fear America's might turning on them militarily.

There is little doubt, therefore, that the world is fortunate that the United States stands as the ordering power at the century's end. A strong America is the bastion of the present civilized political order. Preserving it as such remains the truest form of American internationalism. However, neoconservatives, through their policies of expending blood and treasure for problematic gains such as Iraq, are significantly retarding America's ability to act against the true barbarians at the gate--Al-Qaeda and Islamist extremists.

It is precisely because America is good--is in many ways the last, best hope for mankind--that a frittering away of its military, economic and diplomatic power is so immoral. It is not neoconservative intentions, but their wrong-headedness, that is corroding America's ability to do good in the world. Being a good steward of what one has been given, in order to leave the world as good or better for one's children than one found it, is at the bedrock of the ethical realist creed, separating what is morally convenient from what is essential.

Essay Types: Essay