What Would a Realist World Have Looked Like?

From Iraq and WMDs to Israel and Palestine to Syria and Russia, how the United States could’ve avoided some of its biggest mistakes.

Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
<> on May 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.
<> on May 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.
<> on May 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Here’s a puzzle for all you students of U.S. foreign policy: Why is a distinguished and well-known approach to foreign policy confined to the margins of public discourse, especially in the pages of our leading newspapers, when its recent track record is arguably superior to the main alternatives?

Here’s a puzzle for all you students of U.S. foreign policy: Why is a distinguished and well-known approach to foreign policy confined to the margins of public discourse, especially in the pages of our leading newspapers, when its recent track record is arguably superior to the main alternatives?

I refer, of course, to realism. I’m not suggesting that realism and realists are completely marginalized these days — after all, you’re reading a realist right now — but the public visibility and policy influence of the realist perspective is disproportionately small when compared either to liberal internationalism (among Democrats) or neoconservatism (in the GOP).

This situation is surprising insofar as realism is a well-established tradition in the study of foreign affairs, and realists like George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, and others said many smart things about U.S. foreign policy in the past. Realism also remains a foundational perspective in the academic study of international affairs and with good reason. At a minimum, you’d think this sophisticated body of thought would have a prominent place in debates on foreign policy and that card-carrying realists would be a visible force inside the Beltway and in the world of punditry.

Furthermore, realism’s predictions over the past 25 years are clearly better than the claims of liberals and neoconservatives, which have dominated U.S. foreign policymaking since the Cold War ended. Yet time and time again, presidents have pursued the liberal/neoconservative agenda and ignored the counsels of realism. Similarly, major media outlets have shown little inclination to give realists a prominent platform from which to disseminate their views.

The results, alas, speak for themselves. When the Cold War ended, the United States was on good terms with all of the world’s major powers, al Qaeda was a minor nuisance, a genuine peace process was underway in the Middle East, and America was enjoying its “unipolar moment.” Power politics was supposedly becoming a thing of the past, and humankind was going to get busy getting rich in a globalized world where concerns about prosperity, democracy, and human rights would increasingly dominate the international political agenda. Liberal values were destined to spread to every corner of the globe, and if that process didn’t move fast enough, American power would help push it along.

Fast forward to today. Relations with Russia and China are increasingly confrontational; democracy is in retreat in Eastern Europe and Turkey; and the entire Middle East is going from bad to worse. The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars fighting in Afghanistan for 14 years, and the Taliban are holding their own and may even be winning. Two decades of U.S. mediation have left the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” in tatters. Even the European Union — perhaps the clearest embodiment of liberal ideals on the planet — is facing unprecedented strains for which there is no easy remedy.

All of which raises the following counterfactual: Would the United States and the world be better off today if the last three presidents had followed the dictates of realism, instead of letting liberals and neocons run the show? The answer is yes.

To remind you: Realism sees power as the centerpiece of political life and sees states as primarily concerned with ensuring their own security in a world where there’s no world government to protect them from others. Realists believe military power is essential to preserving a state’s independence and autonomy, but they recognize it is a crude instrument that often produces unintended consequences. Realists believe nationalism and other local identities are powerful and enduring; states are mostly selfish; altruism is rare; trust is hard to come by; and norms and institutions have a limited impact on what powerful states do. In short, realists have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint, no matter how appealing it might be in the abstract.

Had Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama been following the realist playbook, how would U.S. foreign policy since 1993 been different?

First, and most obviously, had Bush listened to Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, or some other notable realists, he would not have invaded Iraq in 2003. Bush would have focused solely on eliminating al Qaeda, instead of getting bogged down in Iraq. Thousands of U.S. soldiers would not have been killed or wounded, and several hundred thousand dead Iraqis would still be alive. Iran’s regional influence would be substantially smaller, and the Islamic State would not exist. Thus, rejecting sound realist advice has cost the U.S. taxpayer several trillion dollars, along with the obvious human price and the resulting geopolitical chaos.

Second, had American leaders embraced the wisdom of realism, the United States would not have pushed NATO expansion in the 1990s or would have limited it to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Realists understood that great powers are especially sensitive to configurations of power on or near their borders, and thus experts such as George Kennan warned that NATO expansion would inevitably poison relations with Russia. Expanding NATO didn’t strengthen the alliance; it just committed the United States to defend a group of weak and hard-to-defend protectorates that were far from the United States but right next door to Russia. Ladies and gentlemen: This is a textbook combination of both hubris and bad geopolitics.

A better alternative was the original “Partnership for Peace,” which sought to build constructive security ties with former Warsaw Pact members, including Russia. Unfortunately, this sensible approach was abandoned in the idealistic rush to expand NATO, a decision reflecting liberal hopes that the security guarantees entailed by membership would never have to be honored.

Realists also understood that trying to bring Georgia or Ukraine into “the West” was likely to prompt a harsh reaction from Moscow and that Russia had the capacity to derail these efforts if it wished. Ukraine would still be a mess if realists had been in charge of U.S. foreign policy, but Crimea would still be part of Ukraine and the fighting that has taken place in eastern Ukraine since 2014 would probably not have occurred. Had Clinton, Bush, and Obama listened to realists, in short, relations with Russia would be significantly better and Eastern Europe would probably be more secure.

Third, a president following the realist playbook would not have embraced the strategy of “dual containment” in the Persian Gulf. Instead of pledging to contain Iran and Iraq simultaneously, a realist would have taken advantage of their mutual rivalry and used each to balance the other. Dual containment committed the United States to opposing two countries that were bitter rivals, and it forced Washington to keep large ground and air forces in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. This long-term military presence became one of Osama bin Laden’s major grievances and thus helped put the United States on the road to the 9/11 attacks. A realist approach to Persian Gulf politics would have made that attack less likely, though of course not impossible.

Fourth, realists also warned that trying to “nation-build” in Afghanistan was a fool’s errand — especially after the invasion of Iraq allowed the Taliban to regroup — and correctly predicted that Obama’s 2009 “surge” was not going to work. Had Obama listened to the realists, the United States would have cut its losses in Afghanistan a long time ago and the outcome would be no different than what we are going to get anyway. Countless lives and vast sums of money would have been saved, and the United States would be in a stronger strategic position today.

Fifth, for realists, the nuclear deal with Iran shows what the United States can accomplish when it engages in tough-minded but flexible diplomacy. But Washington might have gotten an even better deal had Bush or Obama listened to the realists and conducted serious diplomacy back when Iran’s nuclear infrastructure was much smaller. Realists repeatedly warned that Iran would never agree to give up its entire enrichment capacity and that threatening Tehran with military force would only increase its desire for a latent weapons capability. Had the United States shown more flexibility earlier — as realists advised — it might have halted Iran’s nuclear development at a much lower level. More adroit U.S. diplomacy might even have forestalled the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and moved the two countries toward a more constructive relationship. Perhaps not, but the United States could hardly have done worse.

Sixth, realists of various stripes have been critical of America’s “special relationship” with Israel and warned that it was harmful to both countries. Contrary to the smears directed at them by some of Israel’s more ardent defenders, this position did not stem from any intrinsic hostility to Israel’s existence or to the idea that the United States and Israel should cooperate when their interests align. Rather, it stemmed from the belief that unconditional U.S. support for Israel was undermining America’s image in the world, making the terrorism problem worse, and allowing Tel Aviv to continue its self-destructive effort to create a “greater Israel” at the expense of the Palestinians. Realists also argued that achieving a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians required that the United States pressure both sides instead of acting as “Israel’s lawyer.” At this point, can anyone seriously question the accuracy of this view, given the repeated failures of alternative approaches?

Finally, had Obama listened to his more realistic advisors (e.g., Robert Gates), he would not have helped topple Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, creating yet another failed state in the process. Qaddafi was a despicable ruler, to be sure, but advocates of humanitarian intervention both exaggerated the risk of “genocide” and underestimated the disorder and violence that would follow the collapse of Qaddafi’s thugocracy.

A realist would also have warned Obama not to say “Assad must go” or to draw a “red line” about the use of chemical weapons. Not because Bashar al-Assad should be defended or because chemical weapons are legitimate instruments of war, but because U.S. vital interests were not involved and it was clear from the beginning that Assad and his associates had little choice but to try to cling to power by any means necessary. For realists, the overriding task was to end the civil war quickly and with as little loss of life as possible, even if that required doing business with a brutal tyrant. Had Obama listened to realists a few years ago, the Syrian civil war might — repeat, might — have been shut down before so many lives were lost and the country was irretrievably broken.

In short, had realists been at the helm of U.S. foreign policy over the past 20 years, it is likely that a number of costly debacles would have been avoided and some important achievements would have been realized. One might question some of these claims, but on the whole realists have a much better track record than those who keep insisting the United States has the right, responsibility, and wisdom to manage virtually every important global issue, and who have repeatedly urged Washington to take actions that now look foolish.

So here’s the puzzle: Realist advice has performed better than its main rivals over the past two-and-a-half decades, yet realists are largely absent from prominent mainstream publications.

Consider the regular op-ed columnists at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. These three newspapers are arguably the most important print publications in the United States, and their coverage and commentary set the tone for many other publications. Columnists at each paper are also widely sought out for lectures and other media appearances and routinely hobnob with influential figures in the policy worlds. All three publications are essentially realism-free zones, and the Post and the Journal are, if anything, openly hostile to a realist view of international politics and U.S. foreign policy.

At the New York Times, the list of columnists regularly writing on foreign affairs includes one neoconservative (David Brooks) and several well-known liberal internationalists (Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, and Roger Cohen). Ross Douthat is a more traditional conservative, but he rarely writes on foreign affairs and is certainly not a realist. Despite certain differences among them, all of these writers are eloquent defenders of U.S. interventionism all around the globe for all sorts of reasons. The Washington Post employs four hard-line neoconservatives—editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan, and Jackson Diehl–and used to feature William Kristol as well. Its regular columnists also include former Bush administration speechwriters Marc Thiessen and Michael Gerson and far-right blogger Jennifer Rubin, along with the more centrist  David Ignatius and the increasingly bellicose Richard Cohen. Needless to say, none of these writers is a realist and all of them strongly support an activist U.S. foreign policy. As James Carden and Jacob Heilbrunn observed in The National Interest last year, Hiatt has in effect “turned the paper into a megaphone for unrepentant warrior intellectuals,” and now leads “the most reckless editorial page in America.”

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving these writers a prominent platform, and many of the people I just mentioned are worth reading. What is bizarre is the absence of anyone presenting a more straightforward realist view of contemporary world politics. On rare occasions, all three papers will publish a guest op-ed reflecting a more realist perspective, but there’s nobody on the regular payroll who comes close to advocating for a realist approach. You can find a few realists at specialized publications like this one (or at the National Interest), but not at the commanding heights of American journalism, let alone big broadcast outlets like Fox, CNN, or even MSNBC.

Why are these three elite outlets so allergic to realist views, given that realists have been (mostly) right about some very important issues, and the columnists they publish have often been wrong? I don’t really know, but I suspect it is because contemporary foreign-policy punditry is mostly about indulging hopes and promoting ideals, rather than providing hardheaded thinking about which policies are most likely to make the United States more prosperous and more secure. And because the United States is already so strong and safe, it can afford to pursue unrealistic goals again and again and let the unfortunate victims of our good intentions suffer the consequences.

So here’s my challenge to Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos, the Sulzberger family, and anyone else who runs a major media operation: Why not hire a realist? If you’re looking for some suggestions, how about Paul Pillar, Chas Freeman Jr., Robert Blackwill, Steve Clemons, Michael Desch, Steve Chapman, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, Andrew Bacevich, or Daniel Larison? Give one of them a weekly column, and then you could genuinely claim to be offering your readers a reasonably comprehensive and balanced range of opinion on international affairs. I mean: What are you folks so afraid of?

Image credit: Alex Wong/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

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