Why Today’s American Foreign Policy is So UnRealistic
One of the main features of this misguided contemporary foreign policy debate is the corruption of the concept of Realism. In some ways, the school called Realism was simply a way of teaching principles long regarded as obvious in Europe to Americans, whose idealism about the world had both good and bad implications. Both isolationism and the idea that America’s mission is to spread democracy are typical non-Realist patterns of how American exceptionalism plays into foreign policy thinking. That’s why the concepts that made up Realism were introduced to the United States by Hans Morgenthau, a refugee from Germany, and most clearly practiced in office by Henry Kissinger, ditto.
But American policymakers–with notable and often disastrous exceptions–have mostly used a Realist approach in their work to the point that they take it for granted. At times, of course, ideology has overridden Realism, with the two most obvious cases being Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Republican presidents, for a reason we will see in a moment, have tended to be more universally Realist because they have accepted the idea of the predominance of national interest and power. The one who was probably least so was George W. Bush.
And, no, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan are not Realists or realists either.
This is a complex subject and one discussed at some length in my book, Secrets of State. It is important to emphasize that Morgenthau articulated ideas already widely held and practiced but never so effectively put into words. In his writings, Morgenthau stressed that the making of foreign policy lay at the juncture between human nature, the characteristics and views of leaders, and objective factors of geopolitics. The assumption of international affairs’ thinking was that strong countries want to stay strong and be stronger; weaker countries want to survive. They thus must analyze how to achieve these goals. A good Realist disregards ideology, which gets into the way of objectively viewing this situation.
The problem that many who claim to practice this view today don’t understand is that the Realist knows that ideology does get in the way of objective interest all the time. The first question a Realist asks is: asks “How does this policy affect the power and interests of the nation?” But the Realist knows that this is the way things should be done, not necessarily the way that things happen.
Today, Realism has been corrupted into a bizarre reversal of its principles which begins by asserting that it doesn’t matter who rules a country; they must follow a policy that maximizes the country’s interest. Note the distinction:
The Realist says, “If I were making policy this is what I would do….” Or: “This is what the government should do.”
The contemporary misunderstanders say that this is what a country will do.
A simple example. Egypt has national interests. These include maintaining peace with its neighbors, focusing on stability and development. It can seek Arab or Islamic leadership but what will that bring but instability, violence, and the waste of resources? That would be an ideological deviation from Egypt’s national interests. After all, Egypt tried such a policy (Arab nationalist version) for decades and it was a disaster. The Realist says: Egypt shouldn’t do it. The pseudo-Realists who control much of the Western debate today say: It is impossible for Egypt to be radical or governed by an ideology that runs against the objective national interests. Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood must become moderate. [For a picture of the Brotherhood that shows this isn’t true, see Eric Trager’s excellent lecture.]
At the same time, though, Realism understands that conflict is a natural part of the international environment and can be very useful for a regime. If you stir up people, get them obsessed with foreign enemies, and engage them in international adventures—as dictators including Hitler and Saddam Hussein understood—they are more likely to support the current government, excuse its failings, and ignore domestic problems. This is the role that the Arab-Israeli conflict has played in Arabic-speaking countries.
Wiser leaders like Egypt’s like Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein understood that the fanatical pursuit of this conflict was not in their country’s true interests. But such is the power of ideology, the opportunism of their opponents, and the value of such a policy for radical regimes that they received scant praise for their objective and pursuit of national benefits.
This is also why the Israel issue is so often misunderstood. The pseudo-Realist reasons: The national interests of Arab states dictate that they be peaceful, focus on development, and cultivate friendship with the West. But they don’t behave that way. Since it is impossible that internal forces can be to blame it must be because Israel’s existence and the conflict with it have derailed the natural course of things.
Such an analysis, of course, leaves out ideology, personal ambitions of leaders, the uses of demagogically stirring up xenophobia for gaining and staying in power, the Islamic factor, and lots of other things. Yet this is what we are faced with: the argument that if Arab or Muslim-majority or other states don’t act “normally” it must be the West’s fault. Arrogance, mistreatment, and imperialism have driven them into temporary insanity.
For example, there is a new book by Raymond Baker, a professor and consultant to the U.S. government which blames revolutionary Islamism on “our own reckless militarism and our blind support for the expansion of others [Israel];” why the September 11 attacks were caused by U.S. policies; an explanation of why the Muslim Brotherhood is centrist, and why Hamas and Hizballah aren’t bad at all.
If such things were merely academic discussions, it wouldn’t be so disturbing. If they became the hegemonic stance in Western foreign policy debates it would be disturbing. That such ideas govern the policies of most Western states is horrifying. Yes, it does matter what ideology governments hold in shaping their policies.
And, yes, internal forces generate revolutionaries (even in America!) who want to fundamentally transform their societies and are not just driven by foreigners treating them badly
And yes, too, centuries of Western history should have taught people about the drive of some to hold power, to conquer their neighbors, and to hate those who are different from them. Contrary to the implicit claims of Political Correctness, such things are not restricted to Western civilization. It was just better at these things for a whole than were others. Now the torch of being primary in national ambition, imperialism, aggression, and racial hatred has been passed.
In fact, though, as the–forgive the pun–real Realists know, the key factor governing countries’ international behavior is how their leaders perceive national interest. There are certain commonalities between Russia/USSR/Russia; Republic of China/People’s Republic of China (Maoist)/People’s Republic of China (revisionist); Imperial Germany/Weimar Germany/Nazi Germany; Federal Republic of Germany-German Democratic Republic/Germany; Iran/Islamic Republic of Iran, but the differences are rather significant, don’t you think? Here’s a quick example, chosen deliberately to be rather distant in time, and thanks to my esteemed colleague Dr. Wolfgang G. Schwanitz.
In 1880s Germany, the chancellor Otto von Bismarck warned that his country should focus on peaceful development at home and purely economic diplomacy abroad, avoiding aggression and imperialism. He pointed out—as a Realist—that Germany was surrounded by potential enemies: Britain, France, and Russia and could be attacked on three fronts. In geopolitical terms, for Germany to seek expansionism in Europe would lead to a losing war. Abroad, attempts to seize land as colonies would produce a reaction by the other strong powers, bringing them into alliance with each other and thus ending in a losing European war. That was a Realist assessment.
Then, Kaiser Wilhelm II came to the throne and disagreed. His policy led to World War One and German defeat. Adolph Hitler agreed with the kaiser and his policy led to World War Two and German defeat. Bismarck was correct; the kaiser and Hitler were wrong. But they were the ones who actually made policy and tens of millions died, much of the world was wrecked, Germany was defeated. Contemporary followers of mainstream thinking would say that such a history was impossible. That of course the kaiser and Hitler would pursue Germany’s real interests. Just as they would say that contemporary dictators—including Islamist ones—will face reality and become moderate. That view is neither realistic nor Realistic.
–Yes, I’m aware that one can say that the fact that Britain and France didn’t allow Germany a fair share of colonies before World War One and persecuted Germany afterward set up conditions forcing Germany to behave differently. Yet as Bismarck understood, the ultimate geostrategic realities still applied. Hitler’s policies ultimately didn’t sever German interests..
–And if U.S. policy is responsible for September 11 and radical Islamism it would be equally valid to assert that American policy was responsible for Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack or that Czechoslovakia’s policy was responsible for Hitler’s seizing it. That game can be played with any event in history.
–One of the things the contemporary pseudo-Realist thinking does is to drain all of the specificity out of every country’s society and history. Contrary to the claims of Multiculturalism, the same people who advocate that also act as if each country is identical, just a matter of different foods, languages, and clothing but with no basic difference in critical ideas and experiences.
–If a weak country’s policies fail that might well be because it was overwhelmed by the power of a stronger foe and never had any chance. But if a strong country’s policy fails it is more likely that its leaders did not perceive its true interests and carry out the best possible strategy and tactics.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.