Stephen M. Walt

REAL Realism

It is easy to understand why Paul Wolfowitz dislikes “realism.” On the most significant foreign-policy decision since the end of the Cold War — the ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the realists who opposed it were right and Wolfowitz and the other architects of the war were dead wrong. No wonder he begins his article ...

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It is easy to understand why Paul Wolfowitz dislikes “realism.” On the most significant foreign-policy decision since the end of the Cold War — the ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the realists who opposed it were right and Wolfowitz and the other architects of the war were dead wrong. No wonder he begins his article by saying that this “is not the place to reargue the Iraq War.” I’d try to exclude Iraq from discussion if I were him too, because that tragedy demonstrates the virtues of realism and the follies of Wolfowitz’s own worldview.

On the whole, Wolfowitz’s discussion of “realism” in the Sept./Oct. issue of FP is about as accurate as his 2002 estimates about the troop levels needed to occupy Iraq and the overall costs of the war. He implies that realists are uninterested in moral issues and claims “there is a serious debate” between realists and their critics regarding the peaceful promotion of political change. But this is a caricature of realist thinking and a nonexistent debate, and it is telling that he never offers any evidence to support his description. The only “realists” he bothers to mention are Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and he never quotes or cites other prominent realist scholars or policymakers. Having decided to expose realism’s alleged limitations, in short, apparently he couldn’t be bothered to do some research and read what they had to say.  

What do realists believe? Realists see international politics as an inherently competitive realm where states compete for advantage and where security is sometimes precarious. So, realists emphasize that states should keep a keen eye on the balance of power, which makes them wary of squandering blood or treasure on needless military buildups, ideological crusades, or foolish foreign wars. Realists cherish America’s commitment to democracy and individual liberty, but they know that ideals alone are no basis for conducting foreign policy. They also understand that endless overseas adventures will inevitably provoke a hostile backlash abroad and force us to compromise freedoms at home.  

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ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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