The Realist Playbook Is Perfect, Except for One Thing. Reality.

Michael Mandelbaum’s latest tome of hardball IR theory is stuck in Westphalia. Realist or not, President Obama isn't buying it.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - APRIL 07: President Barack Obama (2nd-L) listens to a question from an attendee at the University of Chicago Law School April 7, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama addressed his U.S. Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland as he hopes members of the Republican party will give Garland a hearing and a vote in Washington. (Photo by )
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - APRIL 07: President Barack Obama (2nd-L) listens to a question from an attendee at the University of Chicago Law School April 7, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama addressed his U.S. Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland as he hopes members of the Republican party will give Garland a hearing and a vote in Washington. (Photo by )

Thanks to his series of interviews with the Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg, President Barack Obama is at last out and proud: He’s a realist — or at least, he thinks he is. (Others, including FP’s Stephen Walt, beg to differ.) Obama believes that the United States must stop setting itself hopeless tasks, like reforming the Middle East, and he boasts of having defied the “playbook in Washington” that reflexively prescribes intervention as the solution to every problem. The hard lessons of America’s past failures have taught him the wisdom of restraint.

If that really is the playbook, then Obama’s right. At the very least, experience has shown that many of the plays (regime change, counterinsurgency, elections-as-panacea), need to be retired. What, then, would an alternative playbook look like? Obama himself does not sketch out a rival theory. For that, however, we may turn to a recently published book, Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, by Michael Mandelbaum, a leading realist theoretician.

Like all realists, Mandelbaum sees the state as the unit of international affairs; states, in turn, operate within an international system. Both the nature of the system and the distribution of power within it perpetually shift as states struggle to protect and advance their interests in the face of the conflicting interests of other states. Those interests, in turn, are determined by the states’ objective circumstances at a given moment. As Mandelbaum wrote in The Fate of Nations, his foundational 1988 work, “Two states that are similarly situated in the system but have different domestic orders will tend to pursue similar security policies.” Thus the behavior of the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War was determined more by the fact that each was a superpower than by the fact that one was democratic and the other Communist. Ideology matters much less than the ideologues themselves think.

In Mission Failure, Mandelbaum argues that, with the end of the Cold War, America was abruptly freed from the iron law of necessity that impels states to defend their interests. Ideological competition, the defining feature of global affairs since the 1930s, had come to an end, or so said Francis Fukuyama. America had won. What, then, was it to do with its power? In this brief interval between a defunct pattern of power politics and a new one not yet born, as Mandelbaum sees it, the United States indulged its national faith in a missionary calling to reform the world. The administration of President Bill Clinton plunged into “humanitarian interventions” in the Balkans and Haiti and devoted itself to the futile task of democratizing China and Russia. Again and again, it failed — as did Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, who sought to remake the Middle East by diktat. Realism stipulates that changing the inside of other countries will do very little to change its external behavior; what Mandelbaum adds here is the observation that the United States had set itself a task that was not only unnecessary but impossible.

Conventional opinion holds that Clinton, Bush, and Obama pursued three very different approaches to the post-Cold War world; Mandelbaum installs himself at a point sufficiently remote that he can see what binds them together. All of these presidents acted in ways made possible only by American hegemony; all entertained the hope of remaking a refractory world. All failed. And then the party ended, and the luxury of choice gave way once again to necessity, with the return of the adversarial power — Russia and China, and to a lesser extent Iran and North Korea — and thus of the familiar world of power politics. (Mandelbaum views the “war on terror” as the opposite of necessity — a relatively modest threat to which successive American leaders have wildly overreacted.)

Mandelbaum is quite right about the illusions that made possible Clinton’s democracy promotion in Russia, Bush’s in Iraq, and perhaps even Obama’s in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, he has to do a lot of shoehorning to fit all this diverse reality into his single explanatory device. He exaggerates the expectations of the Clinton administration that China could be coaxed toward reform, and of the Obama administration that a nuclear accord with Iran could reconfigure the Middle East. Neither was quite as naïve as he would have it. Bizarrely, he treats the Middle East peace process as another example of naïve nation-building, since he believes that the Palestinians are so unalterably opposed to Israel’s existence that only a change in their “political culture” could lead to a peace deal. He also cherry-picks from available evidence to argue that intervention in Rwanda would have saved few lives, and that the air war over Kosovo did more harm than good. Mandelbaum apparently does not want to put himself in the position of saying that humanitarian action is morally right but strategically wrong. That’s why people think realists don’t have a heart.

Still, my problem with Mission Failure as an alternative playbook is not chiefly that Mandelbaum holds out too little hope for America’s peculiar brand of mission civilisatrice. How hopeful can we feel about a record that includes Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya? The problem isn’t intervention but the aftermath. In this respect, Mandelbaum makes the very important point that the kind of “soft power” that leads political cultures to change over time “operates like the force of nature” rather than like an instrument of statecraft; it works not by steady application but through inadvertence and slow accretion.

As he has in previous books like The Frugal Superpower, Mandelbaum argues that the United States can make the best use of inevitably limited resources not by meddling with the insides of other states but by policing the international order against rivals who profit from disturbing that order. That means preserving the South China Sea against Chinese encroachment, though it also means avoiding needless provocations of Russia, which has legitimate concerns about its frontier. Mandelbaum calls the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe “one of the greatest blunders in the history of American foreign policy.” Only someone who truly believes that great-power maneuvering is the essence of international relations could make such a startling accusation.

But is it true that the United States is no more threatened by what happens inside other states than it was when Hans Morgenthau was laying out the axioms of realism in the 1950s? I think not.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration asserted in its 2002 National Security Strategy that “the United States is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.” Since that time, conquering states have plainly made a comeback; Mandelbaum is surely right about the return of power politics. But failing states have not become less of a problem — think Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. State-building is not a hobby, or a hobbyhorse, but a matter of national security — even if the United States has proved hopelessly ineffective at doing something about it. The fact, as Obama keeps saying, that America must be modest about how it can help fortify other states does not mean that it can afford to abandon the enterprise.

But tending to the inside of places is not only a matter of warding off catastrophe. Citizens increasingly insist on having a voice in the national definition of foreign policy interests — and not only in democracies. American diplomacy can, at times, amplify that voice. By combining punishing sanctions against Iran with the offer of a deal on nuclear material, the Obama administration helped create the conditions that led to the election of President Hassan Rouhani, who promised to seek such a deal in order to end those sanctions and thus deliver the economic opportunities that ordinary Iranians craved. Mandelbaum describes Obama’s diplomacy as an abdication of traditional American national security goals (the book was finished before the deal was concluded), completely missing the way the U.S. president managed to leverage Iranian public opinion. Of course, Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps continue to control national security policy. But even the supreme leader must take account of what the market of public opinion will bear.

The astringent realism that descends from Morgenthau to Samuel Huntington and Henry Kissinger to Mandelbaum and John Mearsheimer and Walt is an important corrective to American moralism. Too often, we complacently imagine that democracies seek peace and harmony while autocracies play hardball. In fact, interest rules the world, as John Quincy Adams, the father of realism, wrote more than two centuries ago. But democracies do tend to believe that more democratic, or at least rule-oriented, international systems protect their interests better than anarchic ones do. And they thus have good reason to seek to nurture democracy, or rule-orientation, in other countries. Mandelbaum reminds us of why that effort almost always fails; but he does not convince us that the goal is too marginal to justify the effort.

And this brings me back to Obama. The president shares the realist skepticism about America’s capacity to remake the world in its own image. He does not, however, believe that we have re-entered the realist world of power politics. When Goldberg asked him what problems worried him most, Obama did not mention Russia or China. The answer, he said, was climate change, followed by terrorism and failed states. These are global problems that require global solutions. They will require a redefinition of national interest that will not happen unless citizens press their leaders to change course. Above all, they require state-building. If Mandelbaum is right that outsiders can do little or nothing to help foster that process, we’re in even bigger trouble than we seem to be.

Photo credit: JOSHUA LOTT/Getty Images

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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