Realism: It's High-minded...and It Works

Realism: It's High-minded...and It Works

A morality of results trumps a morality of intentions every time.

THE REALIST approach to foreign policy--to which The National Interest is largely but by no means exclusively devoted--has always met with a certain suspicion in the United States; it is variously viewed as too cynical, too European, and too dismissive of America's unique mission in the world. Nevertheless, the importance of realism to advancing and defending American interests and values may never have been greater.

During the bad old days of the Cold War, the structure of the international system imposed a measure of reality on both American leaders and the American people. The United States had a clear foreign policy priority--to contain and, when possible, to defeat the Soviet empire--and it also had clear limits, in that few U.S. objectives justified risking nuclear Armageddon. Thus, notwithstanding the frequent use of the rhetoric of liberation, Americans understood why Harry Truman did not attempt to achieve total victory in Korea (where a land war with China was also feared), why Dwight Eisenhower refused to help rebellious Hungarians fight Soviet tanks and why John E Kennedy supported the continued independence of West Berlin but did not attempt to destroy the Berlin Wall--or why he demanded the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba but was unwilling to act directly to remove Fidel Castro from power.

But when the collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the world's sole superpower--and a victorious superpower at that--it became almost the conventional wisdom to dismiss foreign policy realism as "old-think" or as a deplorable and defeatist worldview that did not adequately incorporate America's unquestioned supremacy. Many now felt that the Cold War handcuffs on America's freedom of action had been removed and that it was time to unleash American power on the world. Barry Goldwater's 1964 statement that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" increasingly seemed to shape Americans' views of the world on both ends of the political spectrum.

But extremism in the defense of liberty, or anything else, is still extremism. In the words of the 20th-century Russian dissident philosopher Grigory Pomerants, "the devil begins with froth on the lips of an angel entering into battle for a holy and just cause." Those who are obsessed with the nobility of their own views have a tendency to dismiss the views of others and to allow their ends to justify their means. They also do not always recognize the full costs of their actions, which can be significant even for a country with America's unparalleled military, political, economic and cultural power.

Though realists are by no means monolithic in their approach to America's contemporary foreign policy challenges, most realists are skeptical of radical utopias (as noble as they may sound). Similarly, they generally view faith as a source of insight, strength and conviction rather than a guide to specific policy. Yet, high-minded realism does not differ from the Boy Scouts of the Left or the crusaders of the Right in the belief that the United States should do good at home and abroad whenever possible. Nor are most realists, at least the conservative realists, timid about using U.S. military power to accomplish American foreign policy objectives--or about using that power pre-emptively if necessary.

What is different about realists is their tendency to insist that U.S. foreign policy be based on a hierarchy of American priorities rather than a long and therefore meaningless laundry list incorporating objectives, preferences and hopes. And realists generally believe that, in the long run, the laws of history work against the indefinite and easy predominance of a single power--particularly if this power desires not only to pursue its political and economic interests, but also to exert hegemonic influence over the destinies of other states (which naturally do not uniformly react warmly to this notion).

AMERICA'S priorities in the short and, likely, the medium term are combating terrorism and limiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons. These are the threats that affect America's core interests, above all its survival as a liberal and prosperous nation. How other states fit into U.S. efforts to deal with these priorities should be the principal determinant of American relations with them absent truly genocidal practices.

The challenges facing American foreign policy begin with managing our relations with the Muslim world so as to destroy anti-American terrorist networks and their sanctuaries while avoiding a clash of civilizations and promoting long-term stability. This requires the ruthless and relentless pursuit of those who have made themselves America's mortal enemies. However, it also requires recognition that U.S. handling of the Palestinian issue is a litmus test of American intentions for most governments of predominantly Muslim states--not to mention their publics. It also involves careful and informed thinking about how many of these governments the United States can afford to attack, even if they have been mis-behaving like Iran and Syria, before the threats we are removing no longer outweigh the backlash that could result in the Islamic world. 

At the same time, America must deal with a resurgent Russia and China; strengthen and transform the foundations of its relationships with traditional but disgruntled allies such as Germany, France, Japan and South Korea; and deal with emerging powers like India, which are bound to ask for greater international roles.

This calls for both focus and flexibility. The United States needs to adopt policies that support our interests and not confine itself with ideological straightjackets. Certainly, many Americans do not approve of various developments occurring among our partners. They are concerned by authoritarian trends in Vladimir Putin's Russia, by Communist Party controls in China, by French insolence in resisting American leadership and by South Korean ingratitude. Realists value the freedom of individual Americans and their elected representatives to express their opinions about the conduct of foreign governments. But they also tend--more than some others--to appreciate the differences between editorial commentary and foreign policy.

Every American administration faces pressure to act as if the United States were responsible for the affairs of others. Realists often argue that succumbing to this pressure is both arrogant and dangerous. It is arrogant because it presumes that we always understand the circumstances of others and are well equipped to offer indispensable guidance on how they should conduct their affairs. Cicero offered useful counsel along these lines to Roman leaders, urging that they "do not recklessly and presumptuously assume something to be true" when they do not know it to be so with certainty.

Iraq is a case in point. Despite constant attention to Iraq for over a decade, the United States has experienced regular surprises there--most recently the level of opposition to the American occupation among Iraqis and the speed, extent and sophistication of foreign terrorist infiltration of the country. This suggests that greater humility may be in order in making judgments about what is happening in other countries to which we have paid less attention, and in deciding what is "right" for them (not to mention our judgments about the costs of making it happen).

The pressure to assume responsibility for others is also dangerous. While removing Saddam Hussein from power was not immediately necessary, the war was on balance a correct response to an untenable nowar, no-peace situation. Still, the temptation to transform Iraq into a successful democracy implies an American commitment that could overwhelm our ability to pay attention to other challenges, strain our resources and undermine other U.S. objectives. For example, the United States is hardly in a position to apply credible military pressure on North Korea while it is preoccupied militarily, financially and politically with Iraq. This leads to a situation in which America is very specific about what it is unwilling to accept from Pyongyang but rather vague about the consequences of defiance. Kim Jong-il may be more irritated than intimidated and other nations may feel that disciplining his regime has little urgency.

BECAUSE doing what is right in international politics often comes at a high price, as it is in Iraq, realists tend to insist not only that proposed actions be sound on their merits, but also that their benefits outweigh their costs, including potential unintended consequences. The Clinton Administration's "optional war" to liberate Kosovo is a dramatic illustration. Realists do not dispute Serbian brutality, the contribution of NATO's victory to Slobodan Milosevic's electoral defeat or the benefits to Serbs and their neighbors of this villain's removal. Still, the Clinton team undermined the moral clarity of the effort by failing to level with the American people about its pre-war ultimatum to Serbia to allow free access for NATO troops throughout Serbia, something that few sovereign states would be expected to accept without offering armed resistance--and something that Milosevic was not actually forced to accept even after weeks of NATO air strikes. General Wesley Clark's increasing insistence on attacking civilian infrastructure targets, like bridges, was also problematic, especially in light of the comparatively limited destruction of infrastructure during the current administration's much more essential war in Iraq. Finally, the inaction of NATO forces in the face of massive ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's Serbs by the victorious Albanians--often led by Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) thugs--raises serious questions. Some U.S. officials had accused the KLA of committing terrorist acts before it was recast as the Clinton Administration's proxy.

Still, these contradictions were not the main deficiency of the Clinton Administration's moralpolitik. In fact, perhaps the most significant damage done by the pursuit of the war against Serbia was done to what should be any American administration's number one responsibility: the security and well-being of the people of the United States. The war over Kosovo happened after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and after the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. It was becoming more and more apparent that Al-Qaeda--protected by Afghanistan's Taliban regime--was a direct threat to the United States and its people.

Yet, Al-Qaeda's efforts were not directed solely against the United States, and others were concerned about the Taliban. The Russian government viewed Al-Qaeda and the Taliban as a source of considerable instability in Central Asia and as a direct danger to Russia due to the terror network's involvement in the war in Chechnya--something dismissed by the Clinton-era officials but now acknowledged by the Bush Administration. As a result, Russia was the principal supporter of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

In fact, Russia was prepared to go considerably further in combating the Taliban and sought cooperation from the Clinton Administration toward that end. One of the first planned Russian overtures on this topic unraveled when then-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov ordered his plane to return to Moscow in mid-air after NATO began air strikes against Serbia in early-1999. Even modest intelligence-sharing became difficult in the immediate aftermath of the Russian-American estrangement triggered by Kosovo.

Still, because Moscow was deeply concerned by the problem and saw common interests, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin approached the Clinton Administration with a proposal for joint action. In an interview shortly after September 11, Putin said, "I talked with the previous administration and pointed out the bin Laden issue to them. I was surprised by their reaction. They wrung their hands so helplessly and said: 'the Taliban are not turning him over, what can one do?'" In fact, the Clinton team was bitter over the differences exposed by Kosovo and reluctant to "legitimize" Russia's second intervention in Chechnya--which followed the invasion of neighboring Dagestan by Chechen militants--or to strengthen Russian influence in Central Asia (though this very influence allowed Russia to assist the Northern Alliance and could have made it a valuable partner).

Even after the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, the Clinton Administration was not interested in pursuing the Russian proposal. Putin acknowledged in an interview with Barbara Waiters that he did not "know whether it would have been possible to prevent these strikes on the United States by the terrorists", but added that "at that time, we certainly were counting on more active cooperation in combating international terrorism." The fact that this option was not even pursued due to American preoccupation with peripheral concerns is impossible to justify either morally or strategically.

REALISTS generally have few illusions about American partners like China and Russia. Both countries remain somewhere between being friends and rivals, and realists do not want to encourage either to become involved in coalitions against the United States that neither would welcome but each could enter under certain circumstances.

More specifically, most realists are well aware that China remains a one-party state with limited freedom of expression. Nevertheless, realists generally also appreciate that China has made remarkable progress in expanding both its citizens' well-being and their ability to control their lives. Realists further appreciate that China's influence in Asia is growing, particularly under Beijing's pragmatic new leadership, and that constructive relations with it are essential both to maintaining America's presence in the region without unnecessary conflict and to addressing the challenges of terrorism and proliferation, most notably in dealing with North Korea's attempted nuclear blackmail.

Accordingly, realists from Richard Nixon onward have been inclined to believe that the U.S. should maintain its commitment to Taiwan's security without allowing Taiwan to define America's relations with the PRC. Democratic Taiwan has a legitimate right to decide whether it wants to be fully independent from China. That right, however, can be exercised unilaterally only to the extent that Taipei can afford to make the decision on its own, without involving the United States in a conflict with the most populous nation on earth (and a growing economy) that few other U.S. allies in the region would welcome. At that price, formal rather than de facto sovereignty is a luxury.

With regard to Russia, there is no need to overstate President Putin's commitment to democracy as President Bush did recently at Camp David. Actually, to Putin's credit, he is prepared to acknowledge that today's Russia does not have a truly independent judiciary, a free press or political checks and balances. The selective use of law enforcement against oligarchs like Mikhail Khodorkovsky demonstrates the current limits of Russian democracy. Still, realists typically understand the complexity of Russia's situation and believe that no self-respecting state can allow politically ambitious tycoons to privatize political power the way Russia's oligarchs privatized the country's resources and enterprises under Yeltsin.

Similarly, America has an interest in protecting the newly independent states against Russian bullying. However, as with everything in life, too much of a good thing can also be a problem. As Richard Nixon wrote in his last book, Beyond Peace, we should be realistic about our limited leverage in Russia's backyard and should avoid creating the impression that the United States wants to proceed with a new encirclement of Russia. It would be contrary to our interests to give Moscow the impression that we are prepared to help only as long as Russia remains on its knees.

If we want Russian help dealing with Iraq, Iran, North Korea and other issues affecting vital American interests, we must ask ourselves what perverse logic would lead one to believe that America can treat Putin as an opponent and work to preclude Russia from playing a role in its own neighborhood while expecting the Kremlin to accommodate American priorities. Moscow's current rulers are obviously not quite so altruistic.

Very few realists are opposed to the idea that morality should be an important component of foreign policy, but most believe in the morality of results rather than the morality of intentions. This means, first and foremost, doing the best possible job of promoting U.S. interests and then assisting others as we are able. History will ultimately judge American leaders by what they were able to accomplish for the American people, not by the purity, of their hearts or the number of their military victories. Otherwise, Jimmy Carter would have been America's best foreign policy president and King Pyrrhus would be renowned as a great strategist.

Dimitri K. Simes is president of The Nixon Center and co-publisher of The National Interest.