The Rebirth of Realism: The Kantian Trap--Utopianism in International Affairs

November 13, 2002

The Rebirth of Realism: The Kantian Trap--Utopianism in International Affairs

Since the end of the Cold War, political theorists have been scrambling to define the nature of the new world order.

Since the end of the Cold War, political theorists have been scrambling to define the nature of the new world order. Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, and Joseph Nye, among others, have all made varyingly successful contributions to the ongoing debate.(1) However, even the most insightful efforts have been overly academic, with no serious attempt made to link the nature of this new world to practical policy initiatives.

In this spirit, it is past time to discard a number of academic illusions about the international system. The greatest danger comes from schools of thought that differ in practice but derive their essence from Kantian utopianism. They proclaim that our system of universal values consigns us to an undiscriminating, open-ended foreign policy, even after the debacles of Somalia, Kosovo, and Haiti. Surely the recent October Bosnian elections, where nationalists, many of whom advocate secession from Bosnia proper, easily triumphed over their Western-sponsored moderate foes, must close the curtain regarding the efficacy of such nation-building endeavors.

There are the heirs of Woodrow Wilson, who ignore global power realities in favor of bringing the world to a "natural" state of democratic peace and harmony. They view history in much the same way as Marxists, substituting liberal democracy for the inevitability of a communist utopia. Peace and stability, Wilsonians claim, are not merely desirable but wholly natural; the butchery and rapine perpetrated throughout history are the result of socio-political pathologies that can be remedied just as a doctor can cure a sick patient.

Specifically they believe that the great evils of the world primarily stem from poverty. For instance, the Wilsonian response to the September 11 attacks was to advocate an increase in humanitarian aid in order to alleviate economic destitution and promote education, despite the fact that Osama bin Laden is a multimillionaire and the hijackers themselves, like the Bolshevik and Jacobin leaderships, were well-educated members of the middle class. If the Wilsonian analysis is true, third-world sub-Saharan Africa would be a bastion of terrorism, while the first-world Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof Gang should have been neighborhood watch groups rather than terrorist organizations. (2)

Wilsonians prefer employing diplomatic tactics over using coercive power. By ignoring power realities, they are ill equipped to deal with those who do not respond to gentle pleas. The same failing affects their understanding of international institutions. Since they view the world as inherently interdependent, only by pooling sovereignty through international organizations can problems truly be addressed. As such, multilateral organizations themselves become the guarantor of international order, rather than expressing the collective interests of their membership. They fail to see that the international system itself, dominated by states, promotes the stability that international institutions need to flourish; their success is a symptom of global stability, but not a primary cause.

There is, of course, the more muscular brand of Wilsonianism, which is prepared to use force as a function of multilateral coalitions. However, Wilsonians have no solution to the age-old dilemma of multilateralism: the unequal military capacities of the involved nations and consequently the unequal burdens that they assume. An alliance that grants relatively equal power to all nations involved, but distributes the bearing of burdens to a mere few, is clearly untenable. Furthermore, it demands that the nation with the greatest military capacity, presently the U.S., place its power at the service of the international community. Now, one might even suggest (wrongly) that we have an obligation to do just that for the good of the world. But to believe that all democracies, much less all nations, share universal commonalties that trump national interests in terms of policy-making is to live in a world recognizable only to the cast of Hair.

At the more hawkish, unilateral end of utopianism, are the neoconservatives. They too espouse a philosophy of universal democracy, one that needs to be brought about by force of will and arms. They envision a world remade in America's image by the carrot of economic aid and the stick of military power. They routinely and erroneously compare our capacity for global hegemony with Rome's. This is far from being an abstract mistake.

What neoconservatives fail to recognize are the inherent structural differences between the world we now live in and the one dominated by Rome two millennia ago. The pax Romana was a system that had no need for diplomacy in the modern understanding of the term. Other than the Parthians, there were no other states - only barbarians at the gates. This is hardly the case with America. There remain other legitimate nations, many of whom will conceivably attempt to vie with the U.S. for primacy. As such, there are genuine limits to American power - limits not always recognized by the neoconservatives.

The same neoconservative theorists who see us as the most recent incarnation of Rome forget that it was not a great rival, but a host of lesser powers combined with its own overly peripatetic foreign policy that eroded the very advantages Rome possessed. In their belief in unfettered power, the Romans overextended their sway as they recognized no limits to their capabilities. The same danger awaits the neoconservatives who acknowledge our national interests but misread them.

Finally, like all utopians, the neoconservatives stumble over the problem of nation-building. The effort to artificially transplant democratic ideals to foreign, and frequently hostile, soil is rightfully rooted in the notion that liberal democracy is the best and most just form of government. However, these most ardent supporters of nation-building merely trumpet their lack of understanding of what democracy truly is. One cannot force an individual, much less a nation, to be free. The growth of a viable democratic structure is an organic process, intimately connected with local culture and tradition. It arises from the bottom up; it can almost never be successfully imposed from the top down.

What becomes apparent through examining these competing schools of thought is that in both cases there is an underlying belief in the structural harmony of the world that can be realized, either through proper discourse or, conversely, force. If peace truly is a natural state, then the Wilsonians would be correct; it would flower if the unfortunate obstacles to it are removed. The only problem is that there is no remedy for evil. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union could no more be redeemed by diplomatic measures than Hitler and Stalin could be cured by psychotherapy; they could only be eliminated.

The neoconservatives go wrong in that a world of democratic regimes peacefully interacting with one another can only be brought about by force. It is doomed to disintegrate without the permanently applied pressure of the United States. This pressure would lead to a hyperactive foreign policy that in turn would erode the advantages of America's superpower status.

What, then, is the nature of the third millennium? Samuel Huntington rightly diagnoses the post-Cold War era as being uni-multipolar. It is this structural characterization that is causing the diagnostic problem U.S. intellectuals have in describing America's role in the new world. America's global position does not fit naturally into the multipolar world of the Wilsonians or the unipolar world of the neoconservatives. The U.S. is primus inter parus; chairman of the board of all power indices, be they military, economic, political, or cultural. In focusing on the chairman's role, neoconservatives miss the salient fact that there are other board members. In focusing on the board members, the Wilsonians miss the key point that the United States is always the chairman. Ironically, other countries have quickly realized the nature of this new order, even if American foreign policy intellectuals have not. Tony Blair is certainly maximizing British diplomatic power by working from the assumption that he would like the UK to be deputy chairman of the board. Such an aspiration (and perhaps a desire to seat Moscow in the deputy's seat) also helps explain Vladimir Putin's goal in pursuing a policy of rapprochement with Washington.

In all the turbulence of a changing world order, one particular paradigm has been almost totally neglected. Ironically, we have abandoned realism - the one doctrine that can best navigate our role in the uni-multipolar world we find ourselves in. For if we hold that the attempt to remake our global history of conflict and chaos into a hopeful future of peaceful order is an illusion, then we must accept the anarchic nature of our world and attempt to live in it as best we can. Specifically, we must create policies that recognize and place our national interests above all other priorities--and not draw the wrong lessons from history in conceptualizing the future.

The authors are all affiliated with The Heritage Foundation ( Dr. Hulsman is a Research Fellow In European Affairs at Heritage's Davis Institute.


(1) The National Interest has been one of the places in which this debate has been conducted. See, among others, Samuel P. Huntington's, "No Exit: The Errors of Endism" (Fall 1989), Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?" (Summer 1989), and Joseph S. Nye's "Seven Tests: Between Concert and Unilateralism" (Winter 2001/02).