Shadow Government

A “rebirth of realism” offers few answers for the GOP

By Philip Zelikow One short supplement to Will Inboden’s good post on GOP foreign policy futures. The tendency to divide foreign policies into "idealist" and "realpolitik" is a telltale warning that frothy, superficial thinking lies ahead. For example, reflect briefly on the recent portrayals of the George H.W. Bush administration as one that exemplified "realpolitik." ...

By Philip Zelikow

One short supplement to Will Inboden’s good post on GOP foreign policy futures. The tendency to divide foreign policies into "idealist" and "realpolitik" is a telltale warning that frothy, superficial thinking lies ahead. For example, reflect briefly on the recent portrayals of the George H.W. Bush administration as one that exemplified "realpolitik."

Of course officials of that administration regarded themselves as capable and practical people. Elderly folks like me well recall when Republicans like George Shultz or Brent Scowcroft or Bob Gates or Dick Cheney (back then) regarded themselves, whatever their other differences, as the party of competence. Back then it was the Democrats who seemed trapped by shibboleths, harried by zealots, and uncomfortable wielding power.

Competence, though, did not mean indifference to deep political convictions or a commitment to preserving the status quo. The Bush administration’s push for German unification and the transformation of Europe was hardly a play it safe approach. Contrast, for instance, the Bush administration’s course in its European strategy with the quite different path recommended at the beginning of 1990 by Henry Kissinger himself (or George Kennan, for that matter) — and those two men represented cautions then found across the spectrum of editorial and public commentary.

Or, perhaps there are those who think the obvious "realist" path in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was to put 500,000 U.S. troops in the Arabian desert where before there had been none. Remember, this was the war that passed the Senate, after a real cliff-hanger debate, by a mere five votes. (Authorization for the 2003 war, the one that is now regarded as so much more discretionary, passed the Senate by fifty votes.)

As a historian, I think one of the more remarkable things about the Nixon-Kissinger approach to great power relations and détente is actually how anomalous it was in comparison to the record of America’s international rhetoric and goals. That administration’s relative indifference to the character and governance of the other states in the international system has no equal in any other other U.S. administration of the last 120 years.

The reasons for the Nixon-Kissinger anomaly are probably to be found more in the Vietnam War challenge and the upheavals around the world bucking the general ossification of the cold war system. There was a global retrenchment among governing elites across the globe in the early 1970s (a thesis Jeremi Suri has introduced in the last chapters of his Power and Protest). These more particular explanations seem more useful than arguments finding in this period the recurrent flowering of some long-running but dormant "realist" strain in America’s collective thought. And the domestic base for the "détente" policy of that era had eroded almost to the vanishing point even by the end of 1974, eaten away from both left and right.

For at least the last hundred years, most full-throated critiques of how America should approach the world regard their views as realistic, whatever their argument. They all regard their foes as naïve or venal, people who either bury their heads in the sand or exaggerate threats to chase imaginary monsters. Arthur Link wrote quite thoughtfully of the "higher realism" of Woodrow Wilson.

So as Republicans wonder where they will find a foreign policy, please don’t think the problem will be solved if only Republicans will be "realists" once more. On the other hand, there is a certain nostalgia in recalling a team that took so much pride in professional competence …

Philip Zelikow is the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He is also a former government official, having held posts in five previous administrations.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola