When it comes to conflict in world politics, realists are the peaceniks of post-Cold War America.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Once again, trouble is brewing in some corner of the world — this time it’s Ukraine — and neoconservatives and liberals are calling upon the United States to "do something" to stop the irrational predations of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the latest villain du jour. And once again, foreign policy realists are pointing out that 1) the United States has no treaty obligations to Ukraine, 2) U.S. vital interests are not at stake, 3) Russia’s behavior is not surprising given its history, its geographic location, and the past 20 years of NATO expansion, and 4) pursuing a confrontational policy with Moscow will undermine more important objectives. In other words, realists are telling Americans to keep their rhetoric under control and their powder dry.
This position might seem surprising, at least at first glance. Realism is a gloomy perspective on world politics. For realists, international politics takes place in a dog-eat-dog world, where states keep a wary eye on potential rivals and constantly seek ways to improve their own positions. Realists recognize that states do cooperate for mutual benefit, but they emphasize that these acts take place in the shadow of fear and amid a more-or-less constant competition for power and position. It is no accident that the subtitle of Hans Morgenthau’s famous realist textbook Politics Among Nations was "The Struggle for Power and Peace."
Wars may occur with declining frequency these days, but realists know the possibility of war is never absent and national leaders cannot afford to be overly idealistic, sentimental, or naïve. Foreign policy is not a philanthropic activity; it calls instead for careful judgment, hard-headed calculation, and a willingness to act ruthlessly when necessary. When responsible for their country’s well-being, even highly moral people may wind up doing some pretty nasty things, in order to make sure others don’t do the same nasty things to them.
Given this basic view of world politics, you’d think that realists like me (and others) would be pretty darn hawkish. After all, if anarchy forces states to compete whether they want to or not, then realists might be expected to favor the energetic use of national power — including military power — and to be dismissive of efforts to accommodate rivals or resolve persistent problems through diplomacy.
Yet for the past 40 years or more, realists in the United States have been among the most consistent and eloquent critics of not only naïve idealism but of threat-mongering, and the misguided military engagements that flow from both tendencies. In the 1950s, for example, George F. Kennan opposed a crash program to develop the hydrogen bomb and was alarmed by what he saw as the militarization of containment. In the 1960s, Kennan, Morgenthau, and fellow realist Kenneth Waltz were all early opponents of the Vietnam War — on strategic rather than moral grounds — well before opposition was in fashion.
Realists were skeptical of NATO expansion in 1994, wary of U.S. intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo in 1995 and 1999, and were among the loudest voices opposing the catastrophic decision to invade Iraq in 2003. They did not oppose the use of force in every instance; for example, virtually all U.S. realists supported the ouster of the Taliban and the pursuit of Osama bin Laden in 2002. But most realists did not endorse NATO’s long "nation-building effort in Afghanistan or the costly 2009 "surge.".
What’s going on here? Why are these supposedly hard-headed proponents of realpolitik so squeamish about flexing national muscle and knocking heads overseas when necessary? Why it is mostly the realists who consistently oppose the trigger-happy and feckless schemes dreamt up by Republican neo-conservatives and Democratic liberal hegemonists?
There are at least four obvious reasons why realists are inclined to be dovish, especially here in the United States.
First of all, realism encourages close attention to the material elements of power, and those elements have been stacked in America’s favor for decades. During the Cold War, everyone recognized that the Soviet Union was the United States’ main rival, but realists understood that Moscow was at a severe disadvantage and were insulated from the alarmism that infected most of the foreign policy establishment. The Soviet economy was much smaller and less efficient than America’s and its allies were also less powerful or reliable than ours. Marxism-Leninism fueled nasty doctrinal quarrels inside the communist world, and the Sino-Soviet split created additional enemies for Moscow and made winning the Cold War easier for us. Accordingly, realists from Kennan forward were confident about America’s ability to prevail, provided it didn’t squander its many advantages through bloated defense budgets or foolish foreign adventures.
Second, realists believe states tend to balance against threats rather than bandwagon with them. This belief discouraged overreacting to various dangers, because realists believed dangerous aggressors would provoke lots of opposition and it would be easy for the United States to find allies to help contain or defeat them if necessary (the powerful coalition that quickly formed to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 is a case in point). By the same logic, realists also understood that other states might take various steps to counter the United States if it threw its own weight around too often or too carelessly. Given America’s fortunate geopolitical position as the only great power in the Western hemisphere, the tendency for others to balance meant that United States could take a relaxed approach to most international developments.
Realists are also sanguine about U.S. credibility, and do not believe America has to fight wars in places that don’t matter in order to convince its allies and adversaries that it will fight in places that do. Indeed, realists understood that wasting resources on pointless wars might actually undermine your credibility, especially if it left the nation weaker or war-weary. Staying out of a quagmire like Syria and declining to intervene in Crimea tells the world precisely nothing about whether the U.S. commitment to defend its NATO or Asian allies or its other genuine interests; indeed, our other commitments will be easier to meet if we aren’t distracted by peripheral conflicts of little strategic importance.
Third, realists also understand that war was an unpredictable business, and even powerful states sometimes blunder into costly conflicts. Accordingly, realists object to wars fought on a whim, and favor the use of force only when vital interests are at stake and other alternatives were not available. This insight applies with particular force to the United States, given that it is already in such good shape and has little to gain from most conflicts, even when fought successfully. It isn’t pacifism or naiveté that leads realists to oppose a trigger-happy foreign policy; it’s just sound strategic judgment.
Finally, realists are less prone to demonize opponents because they recognize that all states face competitive pressures and that most countries will act ruthlessly in order to protect their interests. Accordingly, they are less likely to see wars as moral crusades or to see the removal of "evil" despots as a sufficient justification for using force. Today’s realists may not be happy about Russia’s seizure of Crimea, for example, but they understand why any Russian leader would be sensitive about Ukraine’s political orientation and they don’t rush to paint Putin as the latest incarnation of Napoleon or Hitler. Understanding the competitive pressure of world politics also makes realists less prone to blind xenophobia or myths of American "exceptionalism." They recognize, to their sorrow, that even supposedly peace-loving states like the United States are also capable of evil acts — including torture, war crimes, and the like — especially once they enter the brutal crucible of war.
For all these reasons, realists have repeatedly found themselves opposing most of America’s recent wars, and challenging the naïve idealism and paranoid threat-inflation that lay behind them. And need I remind readers that the realists’ track record on this score is infinitely better than that of the liberals and neoconservatives who have dominated U.S. foreign policy-making circles since the Cold War ended?
Realists were right about the essentials of containment, right about Vietnam, and right about which side was winning the Cold War. Their warnings about NATO expansion were prescient, and of course the realists were right about Iraq and the Afghan "surge." By contrast, neoconservatives and their liberal hawk fellow-travelers have kept the United States busy interfering in various corners of the world, but these efforts have made the United States neither safer, more popular, nor more prosperous. Nor have they led to a significant advance in democratic freedoms or human rights, including here at home.
The bottom line: contemporary American realists tend to be dovish because they take foreign dangers seriously and are wary of clever foreign-policy schemes that promise miracles at little or no cost. Foreign policy is too serious a business to be left either to those who want to save the world or to pad their own resumes as they reach for the next rung on the ladder. In this sense, realists have been the true conservatives of post-Cold War America; more appreciative of America’s many advantages, conscious of its admirable aspirations, yet ever-mindful of the pitfalls that hubris can bring to the unwary.