Dr. Drezner’s Bad Medicine

July 15, 2014 Topic: Realism Region: United States Blog Brand: The Buzz

Dr. Drezner’s Bad Medicine


Dear Professor Drezner,

Thank you so much for vividly reminding me in your little Washington Post parody “What if realpolitik were marketed like a prescription drug?” about why I am happy that I am no longer a college student. Not because I’m uninterested in foreign policy or don’t like to learn about new things. Quite the contrary. If anything, international relations theory was always my favorite subject.


Still, I must confess that the topic always left me frustrated by its inability to provide practical solutions. But of the competing theories, it always seemed to me that realism had the most to offer and, contrary to your gloomy assessment, is actually selling pretty well these days, as Sen. Rand Paul’s surge in the GOP might seem to indicate. But in your post, you suggest that realism needs some marketing help and that it might be effectively marketed as a drug called Realaxil. That Americans can just tune out difficulties. But is this really a realistic message about what constitutes foreign policy realism?

Not a chance.

Realism isn’t about ducking for cover or numbing the senses. Rather, a prescription, of any kind, should be about establishing priorities. Does your foot hurt? There is a pill for that! But wait, you might experience severe nausea and become temporarily suicidal. At this point, you should be asking yourself how much does my foot really hurt? Is it worth these side effects? If you answered yes or no, then congratulations, you just established a set of priorities.

Foreign policy is about prioritizing interests on a national level based on the situation at hand. Establishing a set of priorities requires an accurate diagnosis of the problem. Realism in this regard has always provided the best framework for describing and understanding conflicts because it holds that each country operates on its own set of national interests. Many of the international conflicts that the Obama administration has been faced with recently are better understood from this realist standpoint.

Ukraine is not a little thing gone wrong. The Ukrainian crisis raised several major issues, which should have the US reassessing its foreign policy in the region and beyond. For example, state sovereignty, legitimate use of force, and reconciling opposition forces. Questions such as how to ensure a democratic transition of power or how to deal with a country when hard power is not an option and soft power is not working just touch the tip of the iceberg. Iraq and Syria are not little things gone wrong. China’s decision to quietly incorporate several disputed territories into an official map, is not a little thing gone wrong. These are all issues that touch at the heart of how the United States prioritizes its national interests.

The wonderful thing about democracy is that these issues are up for debate, but absent of an informed analysis most arguments boil down to knee jerk reactions, which can hurt our overall interests as a nation and lead to much more serious ailments (hopefully none involving radiation as a treatment). Following the Hippocratic oath--first do no harm--is probably the most sensible path we can follow. For there is no such thing as a miracle drug. Every decision has side effects or opportunity costs. If the patient resists advice or refuses to change his habits, there’s little to be done. The best we can do is inform the public. Intervention, medical or otherwise, should be a last resort. Anything else amounts to false advertising.

Katrina V. Negrouk is a Program Associate at the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Creative Commons.