To be clear, most realists agree that “nation building at home” is important to the prosperity that creates the foundation for America’s global power. But “nation building at home” is a goal, not a strategy, and it requires a foreign-policy strategy founded on engagement and leadership to succeed. Moreover, for all his criticism of “self-described realists” who don’t want to get too involved in other people’s problems, Obama himself is the one who is doing as little as is (politically) possible in international affairs. Obama’s response to security challenges usually appears intended to do enough to avoid severe domestic criticism while simultaneously avoiding doing so much that it becomes a distraction. Hence the surge in Afghanistan before the withdrawal, the “leading from behind” in Libya, modest support for Syria’s opposition, ineffective sanctions against Russia as a substitute for a real policy and a bare-minimum response in Iraq. The administration has tried to clothe all of these policies in realistic-sounding rhetoric, but in fact there was little realism involved because there is no serious strategy.
The president’s heavy reliance on drone strikes in combating terrorists—though attacks in Pakistan have slowed—is a clear demonstration and a direct result of his administration’s excessive political pragmatism that could come back to haunt the United States after Obama leaves the White House, if not sooner. Drone strikes have understandable appeal: when handled well, they can kill America’s enemies without putting troops on the ground or pilots in the air and with limited civilian casualties when compared to some other options. Yet, as a recent high-profile nonpartisan task force from Washington’s Stimson Center compellingly set out, widespread drone attacks also raise big strategic issues, including the risks of blowback among foreign populations, unintentional norm-setting for others possessing drones, a “slippery slope” to broader conflict and the lack of any clear standard for success. (On the last point, it should be obvious by now that Vietnam-style “body counts” tell us little. Another modern-day analogue, the number of Iraqi troops trained by the U.S. military, has evidently had very little to do with security and stability in Iraq.) Absent a well-defined strategic framework, narrowly focused pragmatism often leads to incrementalism, precisely as it has in the administration’s use of drones—and, for that matter, in its responses to Moscow’s involvement in eastern Ukraine. This is not realism.
WHAT WOULD a realist foreign-policy strategy look like? It would start with the recognition that maintaining America’s international leadership—without incurring costs that neither our political system nor our economy can sustain—is the best way to protect U.S. national interests. This is a core difference between realists and isolationists, who generally see global leadership as too expensive to last and want to conserve America’s resources to the maximum extent. However, realists also know the difference between genuine leadership and the pseudoleadership of exceptionalist rhetoric, which seeks to proclaim leadership rather than earning it. This distinguishes realists from many neoconservatives, who often assume that other governments and peoples will support us when we act—or that it doesn’t matter if they don’t—because America is exceptional. The policies they advocate often squander leadership, lives, money and other resources in vain.
In looking at the world, realists emphasize that relationships among the world’s key powers are a central factor in determining the number, extent and impact of international conflicts—something that can have serious consequences for U.S. national security in an age of failed states and terrorism. Wars between and within states can start for many reasons, but relations among major powers play a critical role in determining whether they escalate, expand or end. This, in turn, powerfully influences whether they create and sustain the lawlessness that terror groups seek, as well as how many innocent people are killed, maimed or displaced. Anyone looking for security, stability and peace should therefore start with ties between key states.
In addition to this, because America is the principal beneficiary of the international system that it has taken the lead in constructing, Washington should be highly motivated to maintain it. This has two components. The first is preserving relationships with U.S. allies, whose ongoing support and friendship are extremely important both at the systemic level and in implementing specific policies. The second is managing contacts with countries that are not its allies, most notably China and Russia, whose active opposition can do the most damage to the international order and to particular U.S. interests. This includes avoiding a China-Russia alignment, which is the greatest possible threat to the current world order and to America’s leadership of it. Being strong, firm and reliable in upholding our commitments and realistic in appraising others’ interests and objectives contributes to both of these goals. On the last point, realists know that successfully managing rivals requires both incentives and penalties, and that relying strictly on our ability to impose costs makes conflict more likely, not less—especially when we preemptively disavow force.
Within this framework, a realist foreign-policy strategy would give the greatest priority to threats to America’s survival, prosperity and way of life. This means preventing the use of nuclear or biological weapons against the United States, maintaining stable global financial and trading systems (including trade in energy and other key resources), ensuring the survival of U.S. allies, and avoiding the emergence of hostile major powers or collapsed states on our borders. The United States has many other important aims, but should not pursue them at the demonstrable expense of these truly vital interests or of an international system favorable to America. U.S. leaders must also establish priorities among significant but lesser interests.
The Obama administration has avoided short-term foreign-policy catastrophes, but has also made very costly mistakes. The consequences are less immediately visible than the Bush administration’s wars, but may prove more damaging over time—particularly with respect to China and Russia—by accelerating dangerous changes in the international system that encourage challenges to U.S. leadership and to the world order the United States and its allies built in the aftermath of World War II. This, in turn, threatens America’s long-term prosperity and increases the likelihood of serious confrontations and even wars. That isn’t realism—it’s a disaster in the making.
Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest.