The United States, Henry Kissinger once noted, may be “the only country in which the term ‘realist’ can be used as a pejorative epithet.” Here we go again. The Center for the National Interest, which was founded by Richard M. Nixon in 1994, is being criticized for its embrace of realist principles, including outreach to Russia based on a combination of diplomatic and military strength. The last media frenzy that occurred surrounded the Center’s sponsorship of a foreign policy speech by Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. Now that the Mueller investigation has given the Center a clean bill of health, the critics are working overtime to invent new charges in the hope that something sticks.
Realism, long associated with authoritarian European statesmen such as Otto von Bismarck and Klemens von Metternich, has been consistently portrayed as antithetical to American democratic traditions. During the Cold War, statesmen such as Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski were depicted as amoral or even harboring, in the case of the latter, loyalties to Poland rather than America. But in one form or another, no matter what the detractors may claim, realism is at the very heart of American foreign policy. It is what helped America to emerge as the dominant power after World War II and during the Cold War.
The realist approach served as a bipartisan foundation for Washington’s approach to the world, providing a common framework for identifying threats and defending American interests abroad. Everyone from Harry Truman and Dean Acheson to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to George H.W. Bush and James Baker espoused a strategic realism that played a decisive role in ending the Cold War on American terms. Even Ronald Reagan, who talked about battling an evil empire, ended up signing sweeping arms control treaties with the Kremlin and consigning the Cold War to the dustbin of history. These statesmen helped to establish a stable balance of international power that safeguarded Western prosperity and freedom while allowing for the peaceful internal transformation of the Soviet bloc.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, realism fell into disrepute. Headier doctrines that amounted to old wine in new bottles now found favor. The United States found itself alone at the top of the international pyramid and became convinced that its security could be based on transforming non-Western nations in America’s image. The two major strands of American foreign policy that dominated during the post-Cold War period—neo-conservatism and liberal internationalism—may have disputed the appropriate mix of force and diplomatic persuasion, but they were united in pursuing a missionary foreign policy. They advocated what George Kennan once referred to as “the smug myopia which views American civilization as the final solution to all world problems; which recommends our institutions for universal adoption and turns away with contempt from the serious study of the institutions of people whose civilizations may seem to us to be materially less advanced.”
This approach has failed. It has led to debilitating wars in the Middle East that have sapped America’s treasury. It has helped turn competitors into enemies. Regions that once enjoyed the strategic benefits of a balance of power have been thrown into disorder and disarray. The world order that prevailed in 1989 is now in shambles.
Enter the Center for the National Interest. It has consistently warned against the perils of a crusading foreign policy. Nixon’s marching orders were that the Center should not be another pedestrian Washington think-tank that regurgitated conventional wisdom, but one that challenged orthodoxies, whenever and wherever it could. Otherwise, its contribution to any foreign policy debates would be null and void right from the very beginning. In that spirit, the Center has consistently challenged liberal international and neocon thinking to advocate a foreign policy based on a prudent combination of diplomacy, economic and military strength to defend American national interests.
Who got it right? The answer seems self-evident. But at the very moment that realist doctrines should be ascendant, a media backlash is taking place that is directly targeting the Center, principally for its pursuit of a dialogue with Russia. The idea seems to be that it is illegitimate, even unpatriotic, to advocate anything that defies foreign policy conventional wisdom.
To be sure, previous foreign policy debates, whether over Vietnam or the second Iraq War, have been marked by fierce vitriol. But those debates took place within a commonly agreed framework of seeking to advance American interests. Today, the debates have curdled into vitriol and character assassination, pure and simple. None of this will deter the Center from pursuing its mission. In fact, they only make it even more imperative.
The Center has always been a leading voice in Track II dialogue with a variety of countries—including, yes, Russia—in the belief that outreach is in the national interest. The Center has sought to attract the best and the brightest for its dialogues, ranging from everyone from Zalmay Khalilzad, who is now the American representative to Afghanistan, to Graham Allison, until recently the head of the Belfer Center at Harvard University. The notion that talking to countries such as Russia is inherently suspect flies in the face of reality. During the Cold War it helped to avoid a nuclear confrontation. Today, a new détente may be a pipedream, but a modicum of mutual understanding remains imperative.
This is why the head of the center, Dimitri K. Simes, is serving as a co-host of the television show aired on Channel 1 in Russia called “The Great Game.” In informing the board of the center about the show, chairman Charles Boyd explained that “although a different method than we’ve used before, this project strikes me as what our Center was established to do. … It well may be one of the most effective channels to present U.S. perspectives in Russia at this point, especially since U.S. media have less reach inside Russia, and there seems to be little diplomatic or unofficial dialogue underway.”
The show features contrasting stands. One viewpoint is articulated by Russian Duma committee chairman Vyacheslav Nikonov and with Simes explaining an American viewpoint, and that explanation included saying on a number of occasions that there was serious and real interference in American elections, including in face to face appearance with foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. He also warned Russia to be careful about confronting America in Venezuela and “The Great Game” was the only television outlet in Russia to broadcast an interview with prominent opposition politician Juan Guaido. What’s more, Simes called on the Russian government to display new flexibility in dealing with Ukraine and its new president Volodymyr Zelensky.
The bottom line is that the show provides a valuable opportunity for prominent Americans who have served in government or are think tank experts or journalists to address tens of millions of Russians and the country’s elite in real-time with no fear of censorship. It also provides an open source channel to learn what makes Russian political elites tick. By the logic of the critics, Nixon should never have traveled to Moscow and engaged in the so-called Kitchen Debate with Nikita Khrushchev in 1959.
According to former Council on Foreign Relations president Leslie Gelb, who is a member of the board of the Center and who served in the Carter administration as Assistant Secretary of State, “Simes plays a key role in the ongoing debate about what our Russia policy should be. His knowledge of what’s going on inside the Kremlin is ferocious. He goes there regularly, talks to people, and I’ve found over the years what he comes back with tends to be borne out by Russian behavior. And that’s the best test of whether or not he’s a reliable commentator.”
Whether they are doing so consciously or not, our critics, more often than not, are doing something worse than Russia could ever accomplish with its interference in American elections. They are sowing doubt about what constitutes legitimate debate and patriotism in America. In purporting to defend democracy, they are undermining it. They might want to recall Abraham Lincoln’s admonition that “If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” For our part, we pledge to redouble our efforts to defend them.