Dan Drezner Is (Partly) Wrong about Realism

Dan Drezner Is (Partly) Wrong about Realism

Realists may still exist in the academy, but in Washington they are few and far between.

I read with interest both Robert Kaplan’s profile of John Mearsheimer and Dan Drezner’s response to it . Drezner centers on Mearsheimer’s idea that America is a uniquely antirealist place and calls baloney. According to Drezner, this is

a sloppy argument lacking in empirical foundation. Just for starters, even realists acknowledge that Ron Paul's campaign is doing well because it's sympatico with the realist critique of American foreign policy.

First, I have seen no evidence that Ron Paul’s campaign is doing well because of, rather than despite , his foreign-policy views, although it would be reassuring to someone like me if I could be convinced of this.

Dan points to his article about realism in American public opinion as a rejoinder, which to my mind did call into doubt that American public opinion is inherently antirealist. Then again, Marshall Bouton and Benjamin Page surveyed the same sort of data Drezner did and concluded that American public opinion is inherently liberal . Interestingly, both Drezner and Page/Bouton judged that American policy makers regularly defy public opinion. Why? Because they can. As Page and Bouton pointed out, when members of the Washington foreign-policy elite were asked what they thought the public believed about eleven international political issues, they were only able to correctly identify what a majority thought in two cases. For a massive, tremendously secure country like the United States, foreign policy just isn’t terribly salient except for in rare occasions.

And on the occasions when foreign policy does become salient , what happens? The public follows elite cues. And who are the elites sending those cues? Neoconservatives and liberal imperialists, not realists . John Zaller, call your office .


The point is that the public may have some inchoate, a priori opinions about foreign policy, but they don’t matter all that much when it comes to influencing foreign policy. As Drezner concedes, “it’s somewhat more accurate to say that America’s foreign policy elites are more hostile to realpolitik—though even here, things can be exaggerated.” I actually don’t think that’s exaggerated at all. Can Dan name three realists who served in senior policy-making positions in the last decade? I can’t.

He closes by saying academic realists possess a “strong, cultivated sense of victimhood” despite the facts that

There is a long intellectual lineage in the American academy—starting with Hans Morgenthau and continuing with Mearsheimer and his students—that evinces realist principles. There is an equally strong intellectual lineage of policy principals—starting with George Kennan and continuing with Brent Scowcroft and his acolytes—that walk the realist walk.

Dan is right to say that there are living, breathing realists in the academy, but he is wrong to imply that there are living, breathing realists among policy principals. Brent Scowcroft will be 87 years old in March, and I think his realist credentials are far from what would qualify in the academy . Perhaps a better question for Dan would be whether he could point to three or four realists under 60 years old who are movers and shakers in the Beltway foreign-policy community. Again, I can’t.

The vast majority of realists opposed the war in Iraq , opposed the surge in Afghanistan  and support pressuring the Israelis to stop expanding settlements and cut a deal with the Palestinians . Given the alleged prominence of realists in Washington, how come they’re constantly losing arguments? Why didn’t Barack Obama appoint one single person who opposed the Iraq War to a senior policy position? If Drezner is right, these are real puzzles.

But I think I know the answer. Paul Gigot, the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal , had a funny line about my Cato colleagues when we were futilely opposing the Iraq War before it started:

I don't look to the Cato Institute or any of their writers for instruction on foreign policy. Is libertarianism a school of thought, or is it four or five people in a phone booth?

The academy is a different story, but when it comes to Washington, you could probably fit the bona fide realists into a phone booth as well. To my mind, that’s a big problem that goes a long way to explaining how the country got into the mess it’s in.