Foreign-Policy “realism” has never been an easy sell in America. Its emergence as a mature school of thought in the early years of the cold war is generally credited to Hans J. Morgenthau, a German-Jewish refugee whose self-assigned task was to cure his adopted country of its inveterate and, to his mind, reckless idealism. As Morgenthau argued in his classic Politics Among Nations (1948), the U.S. could no longer afford to indulge the “crusading” mentality of Woodrow Wilson, especially when confronted by the no less dangerously universalistic claims of Soviet Communism. In dealing with the USSR, American resistance had to be tempered by compromise and engagement, by a concern for stability and order. Both superpowers had legitimate interests, the mutual recognition of which, Morgenthau insisted, was the only hope for survival in the nuclear age.

Realist prudence prevailed often enough during the long decades of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, but, to Morgenthau's dismay, it proved impossible to exorcise the ideological dimension of the conflict from American politics and discourse. In a nation persuaded of the world-historical significance of its own democratic principles, statesmen might practice realpolitik but would hesitate to avow it. Realism's directives were what gifted advisers like Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and Henry Kissinger whispered to Presidents behind closed doors (or urged in their own writings), not the stuff of stump speeches and party platforms.

This is not to say that realism has lacked American constituencies. In the academic field of international relations, self-proclaimed “neorealists” have flourished for decades, tracing their intellectual roots to Morgenthau and, more distantly, to the bleak, unforgiving analyses of Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. Being modern political scientists, they have tried to put their work on a properly scientific footing; “rigor” and “parsimony” are their tests of excellence. Where others see great variety in the motives of states, academic realists dwell on the unrelenting demands of power and survival. Scholars who share this approach have produced an enormous and (as any graduate student in the field can attest) ever-growing constellation of competing hypotheses, models, and case studies.

In the political sphere, realism was once a prominent element in the foreign-policy establishments of both parties, undergirding the cold-war doctrine of containment. Since the Vietnam war, however, it has had a decidedly mixed career. Realist thought has largely faded from view among Democrats, who for decades have tended either to shrink from the assertion of American power or to insist on its strict validation by international norms and institutions—positions difficult to reconcile with the unsentimental pursuit of the national interest. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, is often mentioned as an exception to this rule, but he was controversial for his hawkishness even at the height of his influence, and remains a marginal figure among Democratic policy-makers.

Which leaves the Republican party, the contentious if usually accommodating home of realpolitik since the 1960's. Though neoconservatives and other cold warriors never trusted Kissinger and his heirs, they tended to grant them at least a grudging respect. The realists who served in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and first Bush administrations (to say nothing of Nixon and Bush, Sr. themselves) may have been “soft” on Communism, as their detractors on the Right often charged, but they shared certain fundamentals with the more ideological factions of the conservative camp. They recognized the nature of the Soviet threat, took seriously the balance of power, and knew that treaties and diplomacy, however useful, were no substitute for American military might and credibility.


Running for President in 2000, George W. Bush gave every indication that he would extend this Republican tradition. Though he struggled at times with the finer points of international relations, famously flubbing a reporter's pop quiz, he was clear about his strategic priorities. A Bush administration would focus on major issues like trade and military readiness and on improving relations with major powers like China and Russia. Writing in Foreign Affairs in the lead-up to the election, then-campaign adviser Condoleezza Rice argued for “a disciplined and consistent foreign policy,” one that, in contrast to the Clinton record, would separate “the important from the trivial.” Her article was titled “Promoting the National Interest,” a phrase that in itself spoke volumes.

But then came 9/11, and very soon thereafter the candidate who had mocked “nation-building” and recommended an international posture of “humble” strength emerged as a President of unapologetically neoconservative convictions. A similar conversion seems to have been experienced by Rice, his alter ego on foreign affairs. In the years since 9/11, this transformation has been noted—and lamented—in many quarters. But the shock of it has fallen hardest perhaps on realists, both inside and outside the Republican party, whose expectations have been rudely disappointed.

Indeed, the President has gone out of his way to signal that his own most controversial policies, particularly the decision to overthrow and replace the regime of Saddam Hussein, have sprung in part from a conscious repudiation of Morgenthau's legacy. As he declared in June 2004 to the graduating class of the U.S. Air Force Academy,

Some who call themselves “realists” question whether the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be any concern of ours. But the realists in this case have lost contact with a fundamental reality. America has always been less secure when freedom is in retreat. America is always more secure when freedom is on the march.

It is no surprise, then, that realists of various stripes have been among the administration's most determined critics. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Ford and Bush père (and Rice's onetime mentor), registered his discontent early on, arguing that Iraq would be a costly diversion from the war on terrorism. In the pages of the quarterly National Interest, the Nixon protégés Robert F. Ellsworth and Dimitri K. Simes have objected strenuously to Bush's unilateralism and aggressive promotion of democracy. So has Owen Harries, the journal's distinguished former editor. On Capitol Hill, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a self-styled realist and likely contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, has voiced increasing skepticism about the war. Even usually quiescent realist scholars, including many of the biggest names in the field, have gotten into the act, speaking out against the invasion of Iraq and, in its wake, helping to form an anti-Bush advocacy group called the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.


To top off this shift into opposition, the realist camp now has two new manifestos. Though both written by senior members of the guild, they are strikingly different books. Stephen M. Walt of Harvard, a leading international-relations theorist and a charter member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, has composed a blistering critique in the form of an academic treatise. Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran of several Republican administrations (including the current one), has dispatched a polite but firm diplomatic protest, a plea for a new course. Walt is the naysayer, Haass the consensus-builder. One might think of them as the bad cop and the good cop of realist dissent.

Walt's point of departure is neatly summed up by his title, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy.1 Since the end of the cold war, he writes, Americans have vigorously debated how best to use their country's unsurpassed military, economic, and cultural might. But we have failed to consider how this behemoth looks to other nations. “In a world of independent states,” Walt observes, “the strongest is always a potential threat to the rest, if only because they cannot be entirely sure what it is going to do with the power at its command.” A state enjoying such primacy is especially threatening when filled with righteous indignation, as the U.S. has been since 9/11, and when led by a President like George W. Bush, whose indifference to international opinion is matched only by his “smug overconfidence” in America's ability to go it alone.

Yet, even in their relative weakness, other states are not without recourse against American primacy. Although “balancing” in the classic realist sense—that is, by means of a grand countervailing alliance—has not occurred, “softer” forms of balancing are not difficult to find. We have seen in recent years not just deepening strategic ties among China, Russia, and Europe, but also more cooperation among “so-called rogue states” like Iran and North Korea. As for a “nonstate group” like al Qaeda, its preferred balancing option has been the “asymmetric strategy” of terrorism, which seeks to alter U.S. behavior “by persuading it that its current policies are too expensive to sustain.”

Weaker states, especially allies, also have been able to accomplish their own ends through various tactics of accommodation. One of these is what Walt calls “bonding,” typified by Tony Blair's deft exploitation of the “special relationship” between Great Britain and the U.S. Though derided by critics as Bush's “poodle,” the British prime minister has been able to use his influence to win a prominence for himself and his country that otherwise would not have been available. Still more impressive as a tool to sway American power is domestic political “penetration.” Here Walt's chief example—in fact, the book's most extended case study—is the “Israel lobby.” In a democracy, he emphasizes, such pressure is perfectly legitimate, but there is no denying its distorting influence. Since “the objective [his emphasis] case for a close U.S.-Israel partnership is weaker today than it was in the past,” the explanation for the tight bond can lie only in “Israel's unmatched ability to manipulate the American political system.”

Resistance to U.S. primacy is inevitable, Walt believes, but its present-day intensity is not. By openly defying the interests and expectations of other nations, the Bush administration has made American power seem threatening in an unprecedented way. What sort of grand strategy, then, would better suit America's extraordinary position of dominance?

Walt's own blueprint entails a fundamental shift in America's global posture, one that would “reassure” friends and foes alike of our benign intentions. He labels it “offshore balancing,” and its essence is simple: the U.S. would dramatically reduce the overall “footprint” of its military power, especially in Europe and the Middle East, and directly intervene only in instances of “overt aggression” against our “vital interests,” leaving the maintenance of stability in key regions to “local actors.” More important perhaps, the U.S. would stop “telling the world what to do and how to live” and stop “trying to impose democracy at the point of a gun,” as we have so disastrously attempted to do in Iraq. If Americans lack the “wisdom and self-restraint” to pursue such a course, he warns, we may well awake one day soon to discover new international arrangements “whose main purpose,” in a sad replay of our own cold-war strategy, “is to contain us.”


Walt plainly intends Taming American Power as a provocation. He takes sharply contrarian positions on a range of difficult issues, from nuclear proliferation to the Arab-Israeli conflict, emphasizing in each instance just how wrong a turn he thinks the U.S. has taken under its benighted current leadership. Equal parts professor and polemicist, he is eager to demonstrate realism's analytical virtues—its austerity, its clinical detachment, its focus on the fundamentals of interest and power.

What is refreshing about Walt's brand of Bush-bashing is that, unlike many liberal critics, he is no earnest internationalist, looking expectantly toward the day when the world's swords will be beaten into plowshares. He is unembarrassed by American primacy, and has no moral compunctions about the pursuit of American interests. His objection is not that U.S. policy under the Bush administration has been selfish but that it has been dangerously counterproductive, the source of a mounting international backlash.

It is a peculiar realist calculus, however, with which Walt tries to support this hyperbolic claim. As evidence of rising opposition to the United States, he begins by offering up the polling numbers that have become common exhibits in the foreign-policy debate: the U.S., he reminds us, has come to be seen in an increasingly unfavorable light by much of the rest of the world. Such news is troubling, to be sure, but it is difficult to see why it would figure in the reckonings of a hard-edged realist, particularly one who, like Walt, is so frankly distrustful of popular judgment in foreign affairs. Is not the crux of the issue how states behave?

Yet on this point he fails to produce the goods. By Walt's own admission, U.S. power under Bush has not generated the countervailing alliance—the “hard” balancing—that realist theory would predict. Other nations have resisted specific American policies and imposed real costs on U.S. action, but, as Walt concedes, they have not contemplated the sort of “encircling coalitions that Wilhelmine Germany or the Soviet Union provoked.”

To explain this “anomalous” situation, Walt recites a catalog of factors, only to note in passing that the U.S. is not seen as “an especially aggressive country,” having never sought “to conquer and dominate large sections of the globe.” Putting the point more explicitly, one might say instead that, in contrast to most other ascendant powers in the history of the world, the U.S. has not aspired to empire, and has lacked such ambitions largely because it is a liberal democracy whose own identity springs from a declared commitment to the right of self-government and to the independence of nations.


Orthodox “Neorealism” frowns on such “unit-level analysis” (as it is known in the jargon of the field); the character of a particular state is not supposed to matter as compared with the quantum of raw power at its disposal. But America's well-known aversion to dominion is the key to understanding how other nations gauge its intentions. As it happens, most countries, even those deeply unhappy with the Bush administration's policies, do not appear to share Walt's view that neoconservative Washington hopes “to govern vast areas of the world by force.”

No grand alliance has formed against the U.S., one might also add, because the world increasingly shares the Bush administration's urgency in fighting Islamist terrorism. Although Walt dismisses the American effort as a “crusade,” it is one in which many countries now have a serious and growing stake. Trans-Atlantic cooperation on this front is already substantial and, in the wake of the London bombings, will surely intensify (to say nothing of such recent wonders as France's active collaboration with the U.S. in confronting Syria). As for the Islamic world itself, the red-hot center of anti-American sentiment, barbarous assaults in Sharm el-Sheikh, Baghdad, Jakarta, Istanbul, and elsewhere have finally prompted second thoughts about the piety of the jihadists. In the fatwas of clerics and in Islamic public opinion, suicide attacks are starting to win condemnation. Even the UN is preparing, at long last, to call terrorism by its proper name. More of the world, in short, seems to be coming around to the view that the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, far from being (as Walt would have it) a “strategy” for reversing hated policies, poses a nihilistic threat to any kind of civilized order.

It is also worth recalling that Americans themselves were familiar with Islamist terrorism well before 9/11. Indeed, for years they have watched the citizens of Israel, an ally and fellow democracy, endure the vicious onslaught of Muslim “martyrs.” Without claiming to possess Walt's “objective” understanding of these matters, one might venture that this sense of shared trauma and threat has been a chief source of continued American-Israeli solidarity, even more significant than the influence of the Jewish advocacy groups and public officials in whom Walt takes an obsessive, almost unseemly, interest. In a similar vein, the best explanation for Tony Blair's enthusiastic support of President Bush may lie not in the quid pro quos of “bonding”—after all, he has often returned home from Washington empty-handed—but in his endlessly and eloquently stated loathing for Baathist and Islamist totalitarianism. Such motives find no place in Walt's reductive paradigms.

As for “offshore balancing”—Walt's proposed solution to the international woes of the United States—it is a strategy of retreat, and would surely be interpreted as such by our enemies. Its toll on American credibility, even with our vast military and economic resources, would be incalculably high. As a response to anti-Americanism in the Middle East, it would likely backfire, drawing justifiable charges of hypocrisy and neglect. The people of the region may have mixed feelings about democracy-promotion by the U.S., but they certainly have had enough of the sheiks and strongmen on whom Walt, following the lead of too many American administrations, would rely for stability.

Are Stephen Walt's views “isolationist”? He bristles at the suggestion, and with some justice. But that is their unmistakable valence in today's foreign-policy debate. For confirmation, one need look no further than the signed declarations of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, where “realism” takes the form of denouncing America's incipient “empire” and where Walt and his academic fellow-travelers have found, among the nativist minions of Patrick J. Buchanan and the libertarian ideologues of the Cato Institute, their natural allies.


Richard Haass, it is safe to say, is no petition-signer or rhetorical bomb-thrower. The director of policy planning at the State Department under Colin Powell before leaving in 2003 to lead the Council on Foreign Relations, he is known to have clashed with the administration's neoconservatives over Iraq and other big strategic questions. Like Brent Scowcroft, his boss at the National Security Council in the first Bush administration, Haass is the voice of the sober, moderate realist establishment. Though now very much on the outside looking in, he is someone who, in a future Republican administration, could easily wind up with a prominent job.

His book, The Opportunity: America's Moment to Alter History's Course,2 possesses none of the bite and theoretical pretension of Walt's, but it takes aim at many of the same targets. Haass, too, laments the Bush administration's unilateralism, fearing that it will stimulate a return to harsh balance-of-power politics. He has no taste for assertive democracy-promotion, arguing that the U.S. must concentrate instead on the external actions of other states. And he considers the war in Iraq both “unwarranted”—Saddam Hussein, he suggests, could have been contained by enhanced sanctions—and far too dear in terms of American resources and attention.

But rehearsing familiar criticisms is not Haass's aim; he has an agenda of his own. Whatever his differences with recent U.S. policy—and despite the frightening new threats at large in the world—he believes that we live at a uniquely fortunate moment in global affairs, a moment (as his title proclaims) of profound “opportunity.” The end of the cold war has left behind the past century's great ideological divide. More countries than ever before are democratic and market-oriented. Most important of all,

For the first time in modern history, the major powers of the day—currently, the United States, Europe, China, Russia, Japan, possibly India—are not engaged in a classic struggle for domination at each other's expense. There are few contests over territory. For the foreseeable future, war between or among them borders on the highly unlikely and, in some instances, the unthinkable.

The task for the United States, according to Haass, is to turn this still-nascent harmony into something more permanent, into “rules, policies, and institutions” that will allow the world to manage the formidable goods and evils of globalization. To achieve such “integration,” Americans will have to think more broadly, moving beyond their fixation on fighting terrorism, and they will have to check their impulse to act alone. Only “effective multilateralism,” in which the U.S. accepts limits on its own actions and seeks consensus on the urgent issues of the day, can ensure the continued advance of peace and prosperity. Now as always in modern history, Haass writes, the balance between the “forces of order and disorder” will be “largely determined by the degree to which the major powers . . . can agree on rules of the road—and impose them on those who reject them.”

Although Haass cites the post-Napoleonic “concert of Europe” as a precedent for such cooperation, what he has in mind is more far-reaching, and in many respects defies conventional realist thinking. It is up to the U.S., he argues, to persuade the world to accept a range of positive commitments that impinge on traditional notions of sovereignty. Where genocide threatens, the international community should accept “a right and a duty to act to protect innocent life.” States that promote or even passively abet terrorism should be understood to be committing “an act of war.” Regimes that engage in nuclear proliferation should face the strongest of sanctions, “not to exclude attack and removal from power.”

In the economic realm, Haass would press nations rich and poor to trade ever more freely, subject to the liberalizing superintendence of the World Trade Organization (WTO). At the same time, the U.S. must attend to the abiding backwardness of whole regions of the world: “We need to absorb the idea that the failure of other countries to provide political and economic opportunity to their citizens is not just a humanitarian or moral problem but a strategic one as well, as such societies all too often spawn radicals and terrorists.” The “safest and best way” to deal with the worst of these international offenders, Haass believes, is to co-opt them with social and cultural advantages and with rising living standards: not regime change but regime “evolution” should be our watchword.

If the U.S. is to accomplish even part of this agenda, Haass concludes, we must reacquaint ourselves with the etiquette of international leadership. Consultations with the other major powers need to be “frequent and genuine,” particularly on issues of war and peace, and the American point of view cannot always prevail. We must play for the long run, not for transient victories. “Diplomacy need not be a dirty word.”


Haass is hardly alone in wishing to change the tone set by American foreign policy in recent years. Indeed, the Bush administration itself appears to have come some way toward his view. For all the attention focused on the nomination of the “undiplomatic” John Bolton—arguably, a perfect fit for the peculiar perversities of the UN—the administration has been impressively involved of late on the diplomatic front, not least in the frenetic globe-trotting of Condoleezza Rice, who since becoming Secretary of State has spent much of her time consulting, cajoling, and confronting world leaders.

In any case, Haass goes too far in what he expects the U.S. to cede in such powwows, describing if not a veto for other nations then certainly a substantial check, one that few American Presidents are likely to accept any time soon. Foreign policy is not an overseas popularity contest, and even our most sincere diplomatic overtures are unlikely to reverse the tide of anti-Americanism, which is a force in the world with a life very much of its own. That does not mean we should be unconcerned about the perceived “legitimacy” of U.S. policy; as Haass rightly argues, the judgment of the rest of the world may not necessarily be sound, but the support of other countries can help us to shape the international climate to our own goals.

Unfortunately, Haass's own version of those goals is at once overly ambitious and woefully shortsighted. There is, in the first place, a gross mismatch between the worthy ends that he proposes and the modest means available to achieve them. Reaching into his diplomatic pouch, he pulls out the familiar tools of realist statecraft: “carrots and sticks,” interests and incentives, rules and institutions. Nowhere, however, does he suggest what, precisely, would induce the other major powers to accept the changes he envisions.

China and Russia, in particular, may be willing to give up some measure of their sovereignty in order to achieve the fullest benefits of trade under the WTO, but on the issues of security emphasized by Haass—genocide, terrorism, nuclear proliferation—it is hard to imagine circumstances in which they would endorse “rules of the road” encouraging muscular action against offenders. For China and Russia alike, after all, sovereignty is what protects and bolsters their authoritarian regimes.

There is no obvious or easy solution to this problem, but Haass is reluctant to confront it at all. For him, the only option for the U.S. is to wait for “integration,” especially of the economic sort, to work its magic on the Chinese dragon and the Russian bear, unleashing in due course the forces of political liberalization. In the meantime, we may issue, sotto voce, an occasional human-rights protest but must not consider real penalties in the form of privileges lost or sanctions imposed. Provoked though we may be, the U.S. must forgo any “temptation to actively work against a fellow major power,” and taking a stand on democracy and human rights “is rarely something that can be allowed to crowd out other objectives.”

The fact that this is standard-issue realism cannot hide its ugliness. While it is true that the U.S. needs the cooperation of Beijing and Moscow, the converse is also true, and can be made contingent to some degree on political progress (or at least on an absence of political regression). Pressing such issues is important not only for the sake of the reformers and dissidents to whose side the U.S. should rally. In the case of China in particular, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the looming tension there between dynamic economic and social change, on the one hand, and political stasis and oppression, on the other. To assume that China's present course will ensure stability is to share the complacency of its Communist rulers.

Still more disappointing is Haass's impulse to hedge his high-minded principles of integration even in areas that do not require confronting a “fellow” major power. Among his stated priorities is “taking on” Islamist terrorism, and he finds little merit in the argument, voiced by Walt among others, that such violence is an answer to particular American or Western transgressions. The aims of “existential” terrorists are so far-reaching, Haass writes, “that they could never be satisfied through policy give-and-take or compromise”; in this category he makes a point of including not just the adherents of al Qaeda but also “those Palestinian terrorists who reject a Jewish state.”

And yet, in almost the next breath, Haass declares the need for high-level American pressure to bring about, as soon as possible, a Palestinian state, in order to improve “perceptions of the United States” and our “diplomatic prospects” in the Arab world. Whether this state would stand any real chance of eluding the grip of the Islamists does not appear to interest him; it is enough that the Palestinian Authority's new leadership has “disavowed” terrorism.

For establishing a Palestinian state, Haass's time frame is tomorrow or sooner; for advancing democratic reform, it is eventually, if then. This patience is doubly regrettable with respect to the Arab world, where Haass plainly recognizes the nature of the threat we face and its origins in the region's isolation and ferocious resistance to modernity. But he would deal with the problem in the mild, temporizing way that passes for assertiveness among realists:

[Our] public statements and private advice can create support for change and help launch debates. Economic resources can empower civil society. Exchanges that bring students and young professionals to the United States can introduce new ideas and provide valuable experience. Teacher and language training, translation of texts, the adoption of modern curricula—all can improve the quality of education. Radio, television, and the Internet can be used to . . .

And so forth, and so on. What is notable about this list is that, in one form or another, such initiatives have been under way for some time, certainly since well before the attacks of 9/11. Why, one might wonder, is it only now, as Haass himself notes, that we seem to be making progress in promoting reform among the Arabs?

The answer, of course, is the U.S. campaign in Iraq. Even by the testimony of some of the Middle East's anti-American stalwarts, the emergence in Iraq of an embattled experiment in constitutional self-government has had an electrifying effect on the prospects for democratic change in the region. Popular expectations have shifted, and so too have political realities, from Lebanon and Syria to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In the careful ledger sheet that Haass uses to assess the war in Iraq, he records many debits, pointing to the undeniable costs of the American invasion. But he fails to record any credits (except for the fall of Saddam himself), and certainly none for the Middle East's recent and unprecedented turn toward liberalization.


“Good motives give assurance against deliberately bad policies,” Hans J. Morgenthau cautioned, in an axiom cited by Haass, but “they do not guarantee the moral goodness and political success of the policies they inspire.” One might go further and say, as Morgenthau himself did, that good motives can blind us to the requirements of successful policy, as they have sometimes done in Iraq. But Morgenthau's prudential advice also has its limits.

It is true that good motives—by which he meant moral aims—“guarantee” nothing. But the same can be said of every motive, even the clear-eyed pursuit of a starkly defined national interest. Indeed, if events of the past several years demonstrate anything, it is the naïveté of confining American foreign policy to narrow questions of interest and to the maintenance of amicable relations among the major powers. Mere cooperation among states is no promise of peace and security when what goes on within states, large and small, has assumed such potentially lethal proportions. In this respect, as President Bush correctly observed in his June 2004 speech at the Air Force Academy, realism has proved a most unrealistic guide to foreign policy.

None of this makes it easier—or, in every instance, practical—to put freedom “on the march,” in Bush's phrase. But our predicament leaves few other options, and we will never discover the right combination of “carrots and sticks” for the job if, for fear of offending our friends, we resign ourselves to a status quo that nurtures our enemies.


1 W.W. Norton, 320 pp., $27.95.

2 Public Affairs, 242 pp., $25.00.


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