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 ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
581826_090827_walt2b2.jpg
581826_090827_walt2b2.jpg

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.  

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.  

(Continue reading…)

ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.