Polaris | America’s Divided Realists

The United States’ realist policymakers are today deeply split, adhering closely to other traditions of American foreign policy. So is American realism dead? Or simply dormant?

Given that the Takshashila Institution and its magazine Pragati publicly espouse—among other things—a foreign policy based on realism, I’ve spent much time over the past three years dwelling on what exactly that means in an Indian context. I refer, of course, not to the structural realism (or neo-realism) that remains the leading paradigm among scholars of international relations (if only just), but to the school of foreign policy practice from which it stems. Those who have documented intellectual trends in U.S. foreign policy—including Francis Fukuyama and Walter Russell Meade—have often described realism as one of four schools, the other three being Wilsonian liberalism (with its emphasis on institutions and values), neo-conservatism (which also stresses values but retains a healthy scepticism of international institutions), and the somewhat more isolationist strand of Jacksonian populism.

Although realists can claim at least partial credit for their contributions to United States’ victory in the Cold War, their role in the post-Cold War era in response to the events that shaped that period—from Rwanda, Kosovo and 9/11 to Iraq, Afghanistan and the rise of China—has been less evidently successful. Rather, realists themselves have been deeply divided as to how to address these and other threats to U.S. interests and values. In fact, it is possible to tease out three different strands among realists, each closely allied (perhaps not coincidentally) to one of the other three traditions of American foreign policy.

A first group of self-identified realists might include the poster-boys of Cold War-era realist statecraft, such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft. All of them have lately expressed a distaste for American unilateralism. On the question of China’s rise—perhaps a touchstone, given its position as a potential rival pole to the United States in the international system—all three have advocated, to varying degrees, some form of U.S. engagement over out-and-out balancing. Scowcroft, as National Security Advisor, advocated keeping links open with Beijing during the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Kissinger supports greater engagement in his latest book On China. And Brzezinski has argued in favor of a U.S.-China duopoly, or “G-2“. All of this finds resonance in the Obama administration’s concept of “leading from behind” in a new multipolar world and is in accordance with the belief—often associated with liberal internationalism—that concessionary engagement might give potential adversaries a stake in the stability of the international system and acculturate them to shared norms and values.

A second group of self-proclaimed realists—in which I would place the likes of Stephen Walt and Andrew Bacevich—appear particularly influenced by what they see as unnecessary U.S. adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are also mindful of the United States’ limitations, particularly the weakening of its economy and the decrease in resources relative to other major states and emerging powers. Their position has consequently been one favoring U.S. disengagement from regions and countries deemed secondary to U.S. national security interests, or, to use their word, “restraint“. But the line between restraint or prudent disengagement and isolationism is blurry, and their arguments might easily find resonance and support among Tea Party activists and other products of the Jacksonian tradition.

The final group—perhaps exemplified by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—consists of realists who might today be considered apostates. But they may in fact be the truest inheritors of their Cold War-era realist forbearers. In their view, American interests and values are today too closely intertwined for one to be advanced at the expense of the other. Thus maintaining a balance of power favourable to American interests, particularly in Asia, requires supporting fledgling liberal democracies and allying or partnering with more established ones. It should therefore be no surprise that efforts by the Bush administration to partner India were motivated as much by balance of power considerations as anything else. While merging realism and idealism remains conceptually clunky, this strand of realism remains difficult to distinguishable from neoconservatism.

Amid this fractured response to new foreign policy challenges, there is little room for ‘traditional’ realists. And that should be no surprise. Neither unipolarity nor globalization, or even the absence of clear and credible threats, lends itself easily to realist foreign policy responses. Who is one to balance against in a unipolar system? How does one contain in a globalized world? Can sub-conventional conflict be easily deterred? The question, then, is whether American realism is, in effect, dead? Or is it simply dormant, awaiting circumstances that might restore its relevance?

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.