Can Realism Be a Comprehensive Theory of American Foreign Policy?

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The controversy over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense has reminded us how diverse opinion called “conservative” really is.  Certainly “traditional conservatives” and “neoconservatives” have both become rather overwrought.  And the president must be smiling while watching the predictable effects of pushing key buttons.  The “neocons,” so it’s said, can’t stomach having someone that indifferent to the future of Israel, Iran becoming nuclear, and the military might and resolution required for America to be a leading force for good in the world.  The traditional conservatives—which, in this case, include many libertarian followers of Ron and Rand Paul—are thrilled that American foreign policy will finally become properly defensive—the foreign policy of a republic, not an empire.  The savings in blood and treasure—for ourselves and others—will be huge.  Some neocons—or “national greatness” conservatives—charge that Obama is really all about starving defense to fund health care and other domestic initiatives.  He’s about to make us another European country.  The problem with that is that the European countries can dispense with defense spending only because they’ve been parasitic on ours. 

But the traditionalists—who are often about using libertarian means to achieve non-libertarians ends (consider homeschooling and family farms)—and purer libertarians are hoping that cutting our unnecessary foreign policy responsibilities will be part of a draw-down of the unnecessary responsibilities assumed by government in general.  Our “live and let live” approach to the rest of the world will mirror the same sort of approach at home.  We won’t become a European country; we’ll become more like free and republican America was before the imperial hubris that produced the military-industrial combination of the New Deal and the garrison state.  Hopes such as these explain why the authors at The American Conservative magazine have been so fiercely protective of Hagel against “neocon” criticism.  They attacked me within a couple of hours for merely summarizing the neocon criticism at the end of a rambling blog post.

A very kind and patient conservative wrote me on why The American Conservative writers got so mad at me:

Well, they’re more excited about Hagel personally than I am. Still, it’s a symbolic victory for realist elements. Incidentally, nothing drives my colleagues crazier than being called isolationists, as you do in that remark. They really aren’t.

So obviously, if that’s the issue, I don’t want to drive anyone crazy. So let me replace “isolationist” with “realist.”  There are problems with these labels, of course.  One is that there are different understandings of what realism would be among anti-neocon conservatives.  Some, like Pat Buchanan, are “economic nationalists.”  They’re about protecting domestic production and so American jobs.  So they’re against the forces of globalization that undermine American virtue and our particular way of life.  The more libertarian anti-neocons are more about letting markets replace national borders, allowing prosperity and freedom to displace nationalism and militarism.  So we find anti-neocon conservatives defending the integrity of both American particularism—American culture—and celebrating the emergence of apolitical universalism.    The label of “isolationist” is easier to apply (or misapply) to the nationalist particularists than to the market universalists.

Having made that distinction, I do know what both sides can say they’re united by is their realism in foreign policy. Both the neocons and the purer libertarians oppose the American imposition on the world of political idealism, the “crusader” spirit that allegedly produced the misbegotten Iraq War.

A long, long time ago, I went to graduate school and mainly took courses in international relations.  That was during the Cold War, and I admit I enjoyed learning about the ideological and military dimensions of the superpower conflict.  But although the content of IR was fascinating, the attempts to “theorize” IR within the discipline were pretty feeble.  If I remember correctly, the big and somewhat simple-minded theoretical contrast was between realism and idealism. It was the contrast between a foreign policy based on defending one’s interests and one that projects one’s ideals. Hans Morgenthau, who was quite an able thinker, was studied as the realist guy. And Woodrow Wilson was the idealist guy. I wasn’t a fan of either–preferring the wisdom of Raymond Aron as the appropriate middle position.  From Aron’s view, both the cynicism of realism and the unbounded hopefulness of idealism turned our attention away from the classical—or genuinely realistic—virtue of prudence.

It always seemed to me that Reagan too found that middle position–projecting both a prudent concern for interests (and so avoiding major military interventions and dealing with “authoritarian” regimes that were friendly to us) and unapologetic idealism–calling the “evil empire” out for what it really was and having confidence that the truth represented (note the Voegelian use of represented) by our country would eventually set people free from the “lie” (see Solzhenitsyn and Havel) that was communist ideology. And of course he was realistic enough to see that one key to vanquishing evildoers—or even effective national defense—is military superiority.

That American idealism is actually true is viewed by some “traditionalist” or theoretically Eurocentric conservatives as gnostic pretentiousness that magically exempts us from the consequences of sin or not so different from communism. It does in fact–as in the case of Wilsonian progressivism at its worst–occasionally become close to that. And did some neocons (see Bush’s over-the-top Second Inaugural) lose their marbles for a while in talking about the impending victory of American “natural right” everywhere? Well, sure. (I refer you to Dan Mahoney and Pierre Manent for measured criticisms of this excess. I also remind you that I’m on record in not being “theoretically” a neocon or a Straussian or whatever.) But on the relationship between America and truth, I refer you to Chesterton on being “a home for the homeless”–a truth about who we are as equal persons under God.

Now today’s “realists” sometimes object that it might have made sense to view the Cold War as an ideological or even “existential” conflict.  But now that communism—and totalitarian universalism in general–have been consigned to the dustbin of history, it makes sense to think more exclusively in terms of interests again.  From a realistic view, neocons exaggerated a lot when they called the war against Jihadism or “Islamic fascism” World War IV (or yet another global, ideological war), just as they exaggerated—at this point beyond belief—the existential significance of 9/11.  And they embarked on a  bloody mission impossible when they acted on the thought that we could save ourselves from terror by imposing “regime change”—liberal democracy—on the terrorist-supporting nations.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to this kind of criticism of Bush’s policies, but only to a point.  For one thing, the critics seem incapable of avoiding exaggeration in the other direction.  It’s not true that 9/11 had no significance as a security threat, a threat that really did need to be countered aggressively and globally.  And it’s not true that Bush was wrong or even naïve to characterize the motivation of those who threatened us as fundamentally evil—or not mainly our adversaries in some clash of interests.  They think and act as deranged tyrants.

Imagine the blowback—in the name of universal human rights—if Israel were actually destroyed because we didn’t do what we could do.  And certainly it’s in our interest—in all nations’ interest—that the radical government of Iran—one fundamentally hostile not only to Israel but to us and our understanding of who we are—not go nuclear.  The “realist” idea that the self-interested calculus involved in the theory of nuclear deterrence could actually keep the peace in a militantly religious region isn’t so realistic.  What we do for Israel and about Iran are matters of prudence, but they aren’t, as Hagel has suggested, matters that can we can view with realistic indifference.

From a genuinely prudent or Reaganite point of view, we have to get beyond criticisms of the Iraq war based on “Bush lied, thousands died” or some neocon/Straussian conspiracy based upon an elitist application of the Platonic “noble lie” to contemporary American circumstances.  I can’t emphasize enough how stupid and slanderous those criticisms are; no one could make them who’s actually read Strauss’ interpretation of the Republic.  Bush, we can readily concede, meant well and was responding to a real foreign-policy crisis.  But the invasion of Iraq was lacking in prudence on many fronts.

The president did not reflect sufficiently on how risky an invasion of that magnitude was, and how little we really knew about the facts on the ground in Iraq.  He did remarkably little, in fact, to solidify domestic support for the war, certainly not for the far too unexpected protracted and bloody war.  Given how unstable or inevitably transient that consensus was, he should have given more thought to the consequences of its collapse.  The result was devastating for America’s ability to project its interests and, yes, in some measure its principles throughout the world.  It squandered the confidence in our capacities and our mission that had been restored so effectively by Reagan both at home and throughout the world.  It also, of course, eroded our real military power in many ways. Finally and very significantly, the failure of the war to achieve its goals was exploited by the Democrats on the domestic front.  People couldn’t help but lose confidence in Republican policies—the Republican version of what prudence is—in general. (This paragraph is indebted to my dialogue with the threader Daniel Fish at the Postmodern Conservative blog.)

Let me add that some Straussians (such as West Coaster Charles Kesler) have been big critics of neocon Wilsonianism in foreign policy. They have the merit of developing a coherent theory of Wilson as an evildoing progressive idealist, a theory that, like most theories, depends on dogmatic exaggerations. But they’re not as “realist,” I think, as the TAC writers. Those West Coasters go much further than I would in praising our country by calling it “the best regime,” one that deserves to a model for all men and women everywhere. Kesler did encourage Romney to distance himself–in the name of prudence–from Bush’s idealistic screw-ups. I sure wish he had.