In recent years, I’ve increasingly suspected that when it comes to foreign policy, the realists offer some of the most sane observations.
These suspicions were confirmed earlier this year when after the election of Donald Trump, John Mearsheimer, one of modern realism’s current standard bearers, wrote in The National Interest that Trump should “adopt a realist foreign policy” and outlines a far better foreign policy agenda that what we’ve seen coming from Washington.
And what is this realist foreign policy? For Mearsheimer, some main tenets include:
- Accepting that the US attempt at nation building in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen “has been an abject failure.”
- “Washington [should] respect the sovereignty of other states even when it disagrees with their internal policies.”
- “Spreading democracy, especially by force, almost always fails.”
- Understanding that “America’s terrorism problem … is fueled in part by the U.S. military presence on Arab territory as well as the endless wars the United States has waged in the greater Middle East.”
- “The Trump administration should let local powers deal with ISIS.”
- Recognizing that Russia poses no real threat to the United States: “Even if Russia modernizes its economy and its population grows in the years ahead — big ifs — it will still be unable to project significant military power beyond eastern Europe.”
- “A Syria run by Assad poses no threat to the United States”
- “The new president should also work to improve relations with Iran. “
- “Encourage the Europeans to take responsibility for their own security, while gradually reducing the remaining U.S. troops there.”
There are some specific recommendations, but in a larger context, Mearsheimer is reflecting what has been building for years among realists led by Barry Posen, Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Harvey Sapolsky, among others: an opposition to so-called “liberal hegemony”
What is liberal hegemony? It’s ably summed up by William Ruger:
Liberal hegemony is an activist grand strategy that aims to assertively maintain U.S. dominance and the “unipolar moment” in the service of liberalism and national security. Posen explains that it has been the reigning U.S. grand strategy since the end of the Cold War and remains the consensus view of the foreign-policy establishment of both major parties — of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives alike. Yet he believes it is “unnecessary, counterproductive, costly, and wasteful,” and ultimately “self-defeating.”
The movement against liberal hegemony was crystallized somewhat in 2014 when Posen published Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, which is a detailed condemnation of liberal hegemony, and instead suggests a policy of “restraint.” Restraint, as the name implies, favors far less enthusiasm in using American military force on every political and societal problem in the world, and instead focusing on what constitutes an actual military threat to the US. The ideology of restraint assumes that peace is superior to war, and that constant foreign interventionism is unlikely to bring peace, stability, or justice.
As Ruger notes, this opposition to the current foreign-policy zeitgeist in Washington centers largely around scholars within MIT’s political science program, and has few adherents among the top brass in the military or among politicians on Capitol Hill.
Last week, Commentary magazine, a long-established mouthpiece for hard-line interventionist and neoconservative views issued a denunciation of these realists in a piece titled “Saving Realism from the So-Called Realists.”
For the authors, Hal Brands and Peter Feaver, today’s realists are a disaster: “Today’s most prominent self-identified realists — Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, and Christopher Layne— advocate a thoroughgoing U.S. retrenchment from global affairs.” Abandoning their traditional anti-populism, the authors go on to sneeringly denounce realism and restraint as “academic” and as “some of the most misguided doctrines of the ivory tower.”
For interventionists, “retrenchment” is just another word for “isolationism,” which of course is the great bogeyman of interventionist foreign policy. Realists have lost their way, we’re told, because they no longer support “forging a stable international order” by which the interventionists mean “non-stop intervention in every region on earth.”
For Brands and Feaver, what is really needed is a return to the good ol’ days of “Cold-War realism” in which realists favored far greater level of interventionism in the name of countering the assumed Soviet threat.
But even in the Cold War, many realists were far better than idealist Wilsonian regime-change advocates like President Lyndon Johnson. Realist George Kennan, for instance, denounced the Vietnam War and objected to viewing the war in terms of “fighting for freedom.”
But even among those realists who were gung ho on military intervention, many were wrong because they were laboring under a mountain of bad information about the Soviets and their economic system. As nearly all the policymakers of their day, the Cold War realists assumed — wrongly — that the communist world was an economic powerhouse, poised to overtake the US in terms of wealth and technology in the near future. They failed to read up on their Ludwig von Mises and understand that the socialist economy was doomed from the start, and would self-destruct from within. Instead, the old realist Cold Warriors accepted the CIA’s “intelligence” on the Soviet economy which vastly overstated the state of the Communist economies.
At the same time, the Cold War realists were also influenced by hysterical ex-communists like Whittaker Chambers who published jeremiads about how the West was doomed because lazy Westerners could never compete against the communists who were not like ordinary humans. The communists — we were told — ate, slept, and breathed the idea of the communist revolution and would stop at nothing to impose their ideology on the rest of the world, even if it meant certain death for themselves. This then implied that nuclear deterrence would not work, and thus relentless intervention and foreign policy adventurism — such as that in Vietnam — was necessary to overwhelm the Soviet threat.
Today, it may be that modern realists have learned from the mistakes of their grandparents. Contrary to claims tha communists would happily throw their lives away in service to the party, it appears communists of old behaved like most everyone else. Many of them were too busy taking bribes and running black markets to busy themselves with taking over the world. It’s now clear that authoritarian regimes — especially hard-core socialist ones — tend to undermine their own power with their backward economic systems. Experience suggests that nuclear deterrence has worked even with history’s most deranged dictators. It’s now clear that wars such as those in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan have done nothing to enhance the safety of Americans.
So, it’s hard to fault the realists for learning something from history.
For the advocates of liberal hegemony, on the other hand, there’s nothing to be learned, and it’s heresy to suggest that decades of non-stop American interventionism has not been a success. For them, all this talk of “restraint” is just the ramblings of the “ivory tower.” Instead, we must recover the fervor of the Cold War, listen to the generals, and plan for a third war, a fourth war, and more. No place on earth ought to be considered beyond the reach of American politicians.
After all, bad things happen in the world, so the US must be forever ready for new invasions, for nation building, and for “humanitarian” efforts, no matter what side effects and opportunity costs these actions may bring. In his essay “Invade the World” Murray Rothbard mocked these ideas — which at the time were gaining currency in the wake of the Cold War. He concluded:
We must face the fact that there is not a single country in the world that measures up to the lofty moral and social standards that are the hallmark of the U.S.A.: even Canada is delinquent and deserves a whiff of grape. There is not a single country in the world which, like the U.S., reeks of democracy and “human rights,” and is free of crime and murder and hate thoughts and undemocratic deeds. Very few other countries are as Politically Correct as the U.S., or have the wit to impose a massively statist program in the name of “freedom,” “free trade,” “multiculturalism,” and “expanding democracy.”
And so, since no other countries shape up to U.S. standards in a world of Sole Superpower they must be severely chastised by the U.S., I make a Modest Proposal for the only possible consistent and coherent foreign policy: the U.S. must, very soon, Invade the Entire World! Sanctions are peanuts; we must invade every country in the world, perhaps softening them up beforehand with a wonderful high-tech missile bombing show courtesy of CNN.
Fundamentally, the ideology of liberal hegemony is the ideology of total global political centralization. A global system of multiple sovereign states — a situation far preferable to a single world state — is to be tolerated only in name. For the advocates of liberal hegemony, the de facto world order ought to be one in which a single government — the US government — is entitled to intervene anywhere in the world that it doesn’t like the local regime or doesn’t approve of another state’s internal policies.
The realists, to their credit, understand that there are limits to this view of the world; that perhaps a single global hegemon is not, in fact, a recipe for an enduring world order. Moreover, the long-term cost of these efforts may prove crippling for US taxpayers both in terms of money and in terms of domestic freedoms.
While far from perfect, the realists have put up some barriers to the US’s non-stop drive to “invade the world.” Needless to say, Commentary magazine and its friends in Washington would rather these realists all go away.