The Realists vs. the Neocons

March 20, 2008

The Realists vs. the Neocons

There’s a battle raging for the foreign-policy soul of the Republican Party. Will realists regain their traditional dominance, or be permanently displaced by the upstart neocons?

It all started innocently enough. UCLA's Burkle Center hosted a conference last week on the best way to deal with rogue states. On a panel proffering advice for the next administration, I disagreed with the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka over policy priorities. Pletka urged the next president to emphasize democracy promotion and the spread of human rights among rogues. I suggested that counterterrorism and counterproliferation merited greater attention.

At this point, Pletka accused me of being on the far left. This amused my friends at the conference, since I am a Republican who acted as an informal advisor for the 2000 Bush campaign. When informed of my party status later, Pletka replied, "Well, he's not like any Republican I know!" Apparently, Brent Scowcroft, George H. W. Bush, James Baker, George Schultz, Robert Zoellick and Henry Kissinger are now barred from entering AEI.

This year's presidential campaign has highlighted the divide in Democratic foreign-policy circles between hawks and doves. My run-in with Pletka, however, reveals a split within the GOP as well, between realists and neoconservatives. It was not always so. When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he evinced a largely realist policy platform. His chief foreign-policy spokesperson, Condoleezza Rice, wrote a realpolitik essay in Foreign Affairs entitled "Promoting the National Interest."

Bush governed differently than he campaigned, however. The September 11 terrorist attacks led to a rethink of foreign-policy priorities. Neoconservative ideas-particularly democracy promotion-were placed at the heart of the Bush administration's grand strategy. By early 2008, Pletka's statement might very well be true. John McCain's foreign-policy team has not been terribly friendly towards GOP realists-which says something about the Republican Party's foreign-policy transformation.

To be fair to Pletka, some realists have responded to Bush by finding common cause with those on the left side of the political spectrum (who are attracted to realism because of its noninterventionist policy prescriptions for the United States). John Hulsman teamed with Anatol Lieven to coauthor Ethical Realism . Realists accused the Bush administration of lying its way into the war in Iraq. Academic realists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have argued that neoconservatives are part of an Israel lobby that is badly distorting U.S. foreign policy. The only GOP presidential candidate that espoused anything close to a realist foreign policy is Ron Paul-not the most savory of avatars.

Republicans have traditionally believed in competition as the best way to the best ideas to emerge. For the marketplace of ideas to thrive in foreign policy, GOP activists must avoid labeling some ideas as verboten. Realism served as a savvy foreign-policy guide for the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. The ideals of human rights and democracy promotion cannot and should not be jettisoned from U.S. foreign policy-but realist cautions about "ideological overstretch" are ignored at their peril.


Daniel W. Drezner is an associate professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at  Tufts University.