international analysis and commentary

US realism in foreign policy: the need for moral seriousness

Make no mistake about it, now is the winter of discontent for liberal Democrats. It is almost impossible to overstate what Scott Brown’s shocking victory in the Massachusetts Senate election has psychologically done to them.

Oddly enough, recently it is in the realm of foreign policy that liberals have looked to regroup. Forming the shock troops for the Wilsonian foreign policy school of thought, at least liberals—unlike their uncomfortable neoconservative allies on the right—have the benefit of ideological coherence. They are for social engineering at home (witness their never-ending efforts to increase the size and the sway of the federal government) as they are for social engineering abroad, through nation-building efforts, humanitarian interventions and a preoccupation with human rights issues, all intended to rather rapidly and relatively easily remake societies of which they know culturally little.

Under Obama things started badly for Wilsonians. While many in the White House may be Wilsonians at heart, their heads were heading in a more realist direction. In focusing on building a working relationship with great power Russia despite not always liking all the things it does, making closer economic coordination with Beijing the center-piece of the crucial Sino-American tie, rather than endlessly (and futilely) banging the human rights drum over Tibet, and realizing that in a multipolar world, great power relations with rising powers like Brazil, India and China were more important than whatever is happening in Darfur, the White House seemed to be rather firmly in the Harry Truman-Jack Kennedy realist wing of the Democratic Party.

But events, as Harold Macmillan worried, have a way of cluttering up and overwhelming such neat ideological characterizations in foreign policy. Recently, to the joy of disheartened Wilsonians everywhere, the President has been seen to move in their direction. In agreeing to meet with the Dalai Lama despite Chinese objections, and in focusing on giving aid to a desperately shaken (and decidedly non-great power) Haiti, hasn’t the White House at last discovered its inner Wilson?

Well, no, not unless one believes that realists are the cardboard cut-outs Wilsonians make us out to be.

Their general argument goes something like this: ‘We may be generally wrong about the way the world actually works and realists may well be generally right… but our heart is in the right place, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world did work as we imagine it? Anyway, realists are too repugnant to take seriously, let alone engage in a reasoned debate about foreign policy. Far better we look upon them as moral lepers.’

This strategy has served the utopian camp well, diverting attention from grave Wilsonian-neocon errors in Iraq (remember that half the Democratic caucus, and the vast majority of Wilsonians, supported the war). Indeed, the majority opinion in both major American parties remains dominated by utopian thinking, with Wilsonians remaining a majority (despite the Obama White House’s best efforts) in the Democratic Party, with neocons—incredibly despite Iraq—still dominating the GOP. Realism, while on the rise, remains the primary foreign policy schools of thought opposition in both parties.

And this will continue to remain the case until realists actively take on the Wilsonian-neocon manufactured stereotype that has so hampered them. For until the moral question is put to rest and the cartoon version of realism is slain, Americans (and the rest of the world) will remain rightfully leery of realist doctrine, no matter how persuasive it appears in its general assessment of how the world works.

But beyond even this, a degree of complexity, only illustrated over individual foreign policy issues, is required to showcase realism’s enduring value. Briefly take the two issues currently delighting despondent Wilsonians. Giving aid to a generally low-priority Haiti would seem to be something hard-hearted realists would scorn as a waste of time, despite the fact that 200,000 people have died there. This is simply not the case; however realists, as ever, would couch support for the humanitarian mission in more sustainable national interest terms.

Haiti sits next door to America; its geopolitical proximity makes what goes on there of direct importance to the country (for example, a refugee crisis leading to a mass exodus to Florida would be a disaster for the US). Further, in public relations terms, realists would argue that rather than talking about our moral superiority all the time—as Wilsonians and neocons are wont to do, to the irritation of the rest of the world—the best way to show it is to practically feed the hungry and shelter the devastated. As was true in the tsunami crisis, people on the ground remember who actually did what. America’s historical generosity is both morally right and a potent foreign policy advantage. So the vast majority of realists would agree with Wilsonians that Haiti must be helped, and quickly.

As for meeting the Dalai Lama, again no dice for the cartoon version of realism. A key realist tenet has long been that clear boundaries must be delineated between great powers to avoid diplomatic confrontations and misunderstandings that can so easily pervert their working together to advance shared interests. This issue is a case in point.

Just as America has been forced by power circumstances to tacitly accept that China has the sovereign ability to do as it pleases in Tibet, so it must be made clear to Beijing that such a reality does not mean the President cannot and should not meet with whomever he wishes to. We must accommodate China’s rise to great power status; but that certainly does not mean we must give them a veto over what we do, nor must they be allowed to think they have one. While (to paraphrase the great realist John Quincy Adams) America remains ‘the well-wisher to the freedom of all but the guarantor of only her own’, the first part of the statement is as important as the second. We, as a matter of principle and as a matter of statecraft, should always side with those pushing for their rights throughout the world. We must not let bullies, even those we know we must work with, emasculate us on this point.

However, where realists would part company with their more utopian brethren is that we also must not make a fetish of such sentiments, throwing out the moral imperative to do the best we can in an imperfect world, due to an unbalanced childish focus on futile moralizing, which realists see as itself unserious and thus, immoral. So yes, the President should meet the Dalai Lama; just not hold the Sino-American relationship hostage to the Tibet lobby. Further, he should firmly remind Beijing that just as it constantly urges us not to interfere in their sovereign decisions, so they should realize they must not be hypocrites about our sovereign rights as well. Again, realism is simply more complicated and nuanced than its enemies would wish you to know.

So rather than some sort of course-correction, what you have in Haiti and with the Dalai Lama is a rather standard case of all three schools of thought agreeing on the same foreign policy outcome, and that President Obama is right on both counts. Traditionally, it is precisely in such cases that American policy proves enduring and more often than not, successful. But what it does not show is that, yet again, cold-hearted realists are out of tune with the moral imperatives of the day.

Rather realism urges that these moral imperatives are best served and best sustained when they are actually tied to bonds of self-interest. Despite all its bad press, realism has survived for the very pedestrian reason that it actually works, as Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, John Adams, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and George Herbert Walker Bush have all found. What needs to change is that realists highlight the moral component of their thought (and it is surely there) more clearly. For once that battle is won, and realist policies are then judged on their merits, the rest becomes easy.

Consider this the first salvo. Cartoon realism is fun to mock, but in the new and deadly serious multipolar age we find ourselves in, a modicum of moral seriousness is in order.