Stephen M. Walt

What if realists were in charge of U.S. foreign policy?

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has been largely run by a coalition of neoconservatives and liberal internationalists. Both groups favor a highly activist foreign policy intended to spread democracy, defend human rights, prevent proliferation, and maintain American dominance, by force if necessary. Both groups are intensely hostile to so-called "rogue ...

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

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has been largely run by a coalition of neoconservatives and liberal internationalists. Both groups favor a highly activist foreign policy intended to spread democracy, defend human rights, prevent proliferation, and maintain American dominance, by force if necessary. Both groups are intensely hostile to so-called "rogue states," comfortable using American power to coerce or overthrow weaker powers, and convinced that America’s power and political virtues entitle it to lead the world. The main difference between the two groups is that neoconservatives are hostile to international institutions like the United Nations (which they see as a constraint on America’s freedom of action), whereas liberal interventionists believe these institutions can be an important adjunct to American power. Thus, liberal interventionists are just "kinder, gentler neocons," while neocons just "liberal interventionists on steroids."

The liberal/neoconservative alliance is responsible for most of America’s major military interventions of the past two decades, as well as other key initiatives like NATO expansion. By contrast, realists have been largely absent from the halls of power or the commanding heights of punditry. That situation got me wondering: What would U.S. foreign policy have been like had realists been running the show for the past two decades? It’s obviously impossible to know for sure, but here’s my Top Ten List of What Would Have Happened if Realists Had Been in Charge.

#1. No war in Iraq. This one is easy. Realists like Brent Scowcroft played key roles in the first Bush administration, which declined to "go to Baghdad" in 1991 because they understood what a costly quagmire it would be. Realists were in the forefront of opposition to the war in 2003, and our warnings look strikingly prescient, especially when compared to the neocons’ confident pre-war forecasts. If realists had been in charge, more than 4,500 Americans would be alive today, more than 30,000 soldiers would not have been wounded, and the country would have saved more than a trillion dollars, which would come in handy these days. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive too, and the balance of power in the Gulf would be more compatible with U.S. interests.

#2: No "Global War on Terror." If realists had been in charge after 9/11, they would have launched a focused effort to destroy al Qaeda. Realists backed the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a realist approach to the post-9/11 threat environment would have focused laser-like on al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that were a direct threat to the United States. But realists would have treated them like criminals rather than as "enemy combatants" and would not have identified all terrorist groups as enemies of the United States. And as noted above, realists would not have included "rogue states" like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea (the infamous "axis of evil") in the broader "war on terror." Needless to say, with realists in charge, the infamous 2002 National Security Strategy calling for preventive war would never have been written.

#3. Staying out of the nation-building business. A third difference follows from the first two. Realists understand that transforming foreign societies is a difficult, costly, and uncertain enterprise that rarely succeeds. It is especially hard to do in poor countries with deep internal divisions, no history of democracy, and a well-established aversion to foreign interference. By avoiding the long-term occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States would have had little need to invest in counter-insurgency or "nation-building," and could have focused instead on more serious strategic challenges.  Which leads us to #4.

#4. A restrained strategy of "Offshore Balancing." Since the end of the Cold War, prominent realists have called for the United States to adopt a more restrained grand strategy that focuses on maintaining the balance of power in key areas (e.g., Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf) but reduces America’s global footprint and keeps the U.S. out of unnecessary trouble elsewhere. Such a strategy would also force U.S. allies to shoulder more of the burden and discourage them from either "free-riding" or "reckless driving" (i.e., adventurism encouraged by overconfidence in U.S. support). For instance, realists would never have adopted the Clinton administration’s foolish strategy of "dual containment" in the Persian Gulf, or the Bush administration’s even more reckless effort at "regional transformation." Instead, realists would have maintained a robust intervention capability but kept it offshore and over-the-horizon, bringing it to bear only when the balance of power broke down (as it did when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990). Had we followed this approach from 1992 onward, it is even possible that al Qaeda would never have gotten rolling in a big way or never tried to attack the United States directly.

#5. No NATO expansion. Realists weren’t surprised when the United States decided to move NATO eastwards; it’s typical of victorious great powers to try to press their advantage. But they were skeptical about the whole idea, fearing (correctly) that it would poison relations with Russia and that the U.S. was taking on commitments that it might not be willing to meet and that would make NATO increasingly unwieldy. A realist approach would have stuck with the "Partnership for Peace" initiative, a much smarter move that enabled many useful forms of security cooperation and kept the door open to a more constructive relationship with Russia. Over time, realists would have pressed Europe to take on the main burden of its own defense, fully aware that Europe faces no security problems at present that it cannot handle on its own.

#6: No Balkan adventures. If realists had been in charge, the United States and its allies would have taken a different approach to the Balkan war in the 1990s. The United States might have stayed out entirely — as former Secretary of State James Baker seemed to want — because its vital interests were not at stake. Or it might have pushed for a partition plan for Bosnia, as John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape, and Stephen Van Evera proposed here and here. What would not have happened was the Rube Goldberg effort to cobble together a multi-ethnic "liberal" democracy in Bosnia (an effort that has largely failed and is likely to unravel if outside forces ever withdraw) or the subsequent ill-conceived war in Kosovo (which inept U.S. diplomacy helped provoke). Reasonable people can disagree about whether the world is better off for the U.S. having intervened, but it’s by no means clear that the results were worth the effort.

#7. A normal relationship with Israel. Realists have long been skeptical of the "special relationship" with Israel, and they would have worked to transform it into a normal relationship. The United States would have remained committed to helping Israel were its survival ever threatened, but instead of acting like "Israel’s lawyer," Washington would have used its leverage to prevent Israel from endlessly expanding settlements in the Occupied Territories. An even-handed U.S. approach would have taken swift advantage of the opportunity created by the 1993 Oslo Accords, and might well have achieved the elusive two-state solution that U.S. presidents have long sought. At a minimum, realists could hardly have done worse than the various "un-realists" who’ve mismanaged this relationship for the past 20 years.

#8: A more sensible approach to nuclear weapons. Realists have long emphasized the defensive advantages conferred by nuclear weapons, and have opposed the excessively large nuclear arsenals built up during the Cold War. Realists appreciate the deterrent value of nuclear weapons and believe complete disarmament is impractical, but they would have been much bolder in reducing the U.S. arsenal and would have focused more attention on securing nuclear materials world-wide. At the same time, realists would have acknowledged the technological futility of strategic missile defense as well as its dubious strategic rationale (i.e., even if missile defenses worked perfectly, an adversary could always deliver a warhead to U.S. territory through covert means, thereby making it harder to know where it came from).

#9. No Libyan intervention. Realists (and some others) were skeptical of the wisdom of overthrowing the Qaddafi regime in Libya. This position wasn’t based on any sympathy for Qaddafi or his supporters, but rather on a hard-headed calculation of the interests involved and the potential pitfalls. In particular, realists worried that Qaddafi’s fall would lead to a prolonged power vacuum (it has), and that the groups we were supporting were unknown and unreliable. The intervention also set a bad precedent: Not only did the U.S. and its allies run roughshod over the Security Council resolution authorizing military action to protect civilians (but not regime change), but we were toppling an autocrat who had previously succumbed to Western pressure and given up his WMD programs. It’s possible that Libya will settle down and become a success story for liberal interventionism, but the jury is still out.

#10. A growing focus on China. Realists focus mostly on power and believe that the anarchic structure of world politics encourages powerful states to compete with each other for security. Not necessarily because they want to, of course, but because powerful states cannot take each other’s benevolent intentions for granted. Accordingly, realists are skeptical of the claim that Sino-American rivalry can be avoided by "engaging" China, by fostering tight economic ties, or by enmeshing Beijing in institutions designed and led primarily by the United States. Accordingly, realists would focus on strengthening security ties in Asia (while getting our Asian allies to pull their weight), and work to establish clearer "red lines" with China’s leadership. Over time, making it harder for China to translate its economic wealth into military power will be in order as well.  Realists don’t seek a war with China or regard it as inevitable, but they believe that avoiding it is going to take a lot of careful attention to Asian security issues.

To be sure, both the Bush and Obama administrations have moved in this direction, as exemplified by the "strategic partnership" with India and the recent "pivot" to Asia. These shifts occurred in part because there were a few realists involved (e.g., former U.S. ambassador to India Robert Blackwill), and partly because the structural forces were impossible to ignore.

Not all realists would subscribe to every item on this list, of course, and one could add other items to it. For instance, if the EU member-states had been led by realists in recent decades, their ill-fated experiment with the Euro would never have been tried and Europe would be in much better economic shape today. Similarly, realists would have followed a different approach toward Iran, and would almost certainly have tried to follow up on earlier Iranian efforts to improve relations with a "grand bargain" that acknowledged Iran’s right to nuclear enrichment but put stringent safeguards in place to discourage weaponization. (That seems to be where we are headed right now, but it remains to be seen if Washington and Tehran have the patience and political will to get there).

As noted above, realists may have wrong about some of these items (e.g., the interventions in the Balkans and in Libya) and it’s possible that U.S. leaders ultimately did the right thing in those cases on humanitarian (as opposed to strategic) grounds. I’ll concede that possibility, but on the whole, I’d argue that both the United States and some key parts of the world would have been far better off if the United States had used its power in a more realistic fashion. It’s too late to avoid the past mistakes, of course, but at least we can try to learn from them.

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