Realists Have Problems with Realism

Realists Have Problems with Realism

A furor over a recent article highlights an uncomfortable truth: American realists demonstrate remarkable and unexpected blindness in their views.

One of the more interesting developments over the past decade has been the “return” of realism in U.S. foreign policy and international relations. The framework was (popularly) considered to have been overthrown by liberalism, which in the eyes of many was destined to reign eternally over a perpetual age of peace and progress. History, though, had other plans.

Yet realism’s “return” has not gone over well. In fact, despite strong grounds for success—especially after neoconservatives’ failures in the Middle East and the significant pushback against neoliberals by populist and nationalist forces—realists mostly remain outside the halls of power. At this point, it is not unreasonable to suspect that something is wrong with realists themselves. This is increasingly manifesting in foreign policy discourse.

Take, for instance, a withering-but-well-intentioned critique put out late last week by Malcom Kyeyune, an essayist and columnist at Compact magazine. In his article, Kyeyune goes after realism through Elbridge Colby: the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development (2017–2018), a central figure in the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, and perhaps Washington’s foremost realist (at least, in terms of public influence and direct political influence). Both the critique, and the response to it by Colby himself, illustrate how American realists struggle to grasp the current historical circumstances in which we live.

From Promised Land to Crusader State

Kyeyune’s critique is composed of two arguments, which must be examined in turn.

The first is his contention, expanding upon John Mearsheimer’s recurring axiom that “America is not a realist nation,” is that “America is a country that cannot run on, legitimate itself by, understand itself through, or inspire a sense of genuine national cohesion through realism.” It should be noted that Kyeyune does not think that the realist framework is itself incorrect; if anything, he asserts that it is “better equipped to explain today’s world than liberal internationalism ever was or could hope to be,” and expresses a great deal of sympathy (if not admiration and praise) for Colby. But his point remains: America cannot function with realism as its underlying ideological basis.

Colby disagrees, stating that while the United States “may not legitimate or understand itself through Morenthau-style realism” (emphasis his), it can run on it. As evidence, Colby draws upon America’s long and proud history of realist policies: leveraging foreign powers to assist in the revolution, the formation of the federal government, Washington’s Farewell Address, its relationships with Europe and its own hemisphere throughout the late eighteenth and must of the nineteenth century, and so on, all the way through the Cold War. In short, Colby summarizes:

…the biggest deviation from this tradition of practical, actual American statecraft has been the last thirty years. Why? The realist in me says we have been spoiled and made hubristic by unipolarity. But it does not need to be this way! American political culture will demand a more elevated rhetoric. But this does not require forfeiting an actually realist foreign policy. There is a tension, to be sure, but I think American history shows it can be reconciled.

Colby certainly has a point that America has a noble and proud realist tradition. But this defense is built on a notable assumption: that one can separate the underlying ideological basis and self-conception of a country from how it’s run.

This is where problems occur, and what Kyeyune is alluding to: you cannot separate the two.

Instrumental in understanding this is are the arguments put forward by Walter A. McDougall in his magisterial 1997 book, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter With the World Since 1776. In brief, McDougall contends that, for much of its history, the United States understood itself as a promised land—a new nation of new beginnings and unbound aspirations, uniquely blessed, and destined towards the maintenance of liberty and greater triumphs. Traces of this can be seen as early as 1783, only weeks after the Revolutionary War had been won, with the preacher Ezra Stiles proclaiming in a sermon—notably named “The United States Elevated to Glory and Honor”— that “the Lord shall have made his american Israel, high above all nations which he hath made, in numbers, and in praise, and in name, and in honor!” (emphasis his). As McDougall observes, “In short, Americans were a chosen people delivered from bondage to a Promise Land, and can’t get more exceptional than that.”

This early American self-conception of a promised land was congenial towards the realist framework; when you, as a people, understand your nation as a promised holy land that is at risk from foreign enemies and must never be lost, you are far more inclined to take its protection seriously. This means making judicious use of limited power and resources, entering deals with foreign powers, compromising here and there, and the like. In other words, the application of a realist foreign policy.

This national self-understanding, however, evolved over time towards that of a crusader state; a nation that purposely goes out to the world and seeks to change it. Consider, in contrast to Stiles’ sermon, a speech given by Senator Albert J. Beveridge (R-IN) in 1898—notably named “March of the Flag”—to defend the annexation of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and Hawaii:

Fellow citizens–It is a noble land that God has given us; a land that can feed and clothe the world; a land whose coast lines would inclose half the countries of Europe; a land set like a sentinel between the two imperial oceans of the globe; a greater England with a nobler destiny. It is a mighty people that He has planted on this soil; a people sprung from the most masterful blood of history; a people perpetually revitalized by the virile workingfolk of all the earth; a people imperial by virtue of their power, by right of their institutions, by authority of their heaven-directed purposes, the propagandists and not the misers of liberty.

The shift in tone is unmistakable. While elements of the old self-understanding (a promised land) are still present, America was now a nation that could go forward and materially help the world, with a “heaven-directed purpose” to serve as “the propagandist of liberty.” And fulfilling this greater mission, obviously, requires a new foreign policy approach: one that is certainly not as congenial towards realism, and is more oriented towards liberal internationalism.

It is here that Colby’s defense runs dry: the (liberal internationalist) flaws with America’s foreign policy are not limited to the last thirty years. Rather, the foreign policy of the last thirty years is both the culmination and the inevitable political outcome of a shift in how America sees and understands itself dating back more than a century. While elements of the old realist approach to foreign policy still remain (as was evident in the Cold War), it is, to borrow McDougall’s usage of religious references, the Old Testament. Today, it is the New Testament of liberal internationalism that reigns.

This is the real thrust of Kyeyune’s first argument: that a number of realists—at least, a number of the more politically active ones—do not understand this seismic shift is an indictment. How can supposed realists, who formulate policy by evaluating the world as it is, not as they wish it to be, have a hard time grasping the changed political and cultural environment in which they find themselves? Do they not see that they are in the cultural minority, and are therefore hard-pressed to make change happen?

Colby, by all measures a good strategist and thoughtful thinker, is certainly aware of this. What then explains the gap?

The Magic Runs Out

It is Kyeyune’s second argument, which Colby notably does not reply to, that is perhaps the stronger and the more significant of the two, and illuminates the real problem realists face.

States, Kyeyune explains, run on “magic,” which if lost results in the eventual collapse of the state in question. The term can thus be understood as a shorthand for political legitimacy, yet it is more than that. It can also be described, perhaps, as the sort of transcendental and metaphysical belief upon which human societies are built. Rome existed through the mos maiorum. The European kingdoms depended upon divine right. Chinese dynasties lived and died by the will of heaven (天, tian). The dynamic, one could argue, also exists in religion: Christ’s eternal and universal empire runs on love and the promise of eternal salvation, for which millions are willing to die for to this very day. This is, after all, why an institution like the Catholic Church has been able to outlast kings, empires, revolutions, schisms, technological upheavals, and more.

Kyeyune’s “magic” critique thus has two layers. On the political legitimacy layer, he means that realist attempts to reform U.S. foreign policy—and perhaps, more broadly, the country’s government—are doomed to fail. This is simply because a broad swathe of the population no longer regards Washington DC as being “legitimate”—not an unreasonable charge given historically low levels of public trust in government, institutions, contemporary political leadership, and so forth. Talk of “national divorce” and even civil war appear in the mainstream. These are symptoms of a country where the center, both in the political and the institutional sense, is weak.