In the six years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, the United States has dispatched troops to foreign soil five times—during the Bush years to Panama, the Persian Gulf, and Somalia; in the Clinton years to Haiti and Bosnia. Each time the same questions have arisen: why should we be involved? What “vital national-security interests,” if any, justify risking the lives of American soldiers? Where, exactly, does our national interest lie?
Much of the debate over these questions has been distorted by the usual partisan politics. Republicans have generally found interventions to be in the national interest when carried out by a Republican President but not when carried out by Bill Clinton; Democrats have generally taken the opposite view. But the discussion has also revealed something of a consensus about what in fact constitutes the national interest. What is odd is that under the terms of the consensus, almost every one of America’s post-cold-war interventions fails to qualify.
Michael Mandelbaum, who served as an adviser to candidate Clinton in 1992, has coined a new term to describe the kind of intervention undertaken in Haiti, Bosnia, and Somalia. In a recent, blistering critique of the Clinton administration in Foreign Affairs, he calls it “international social work.”1 Our “new foreign policy,” Mandelbaum asserts, rather than focusing as it should on the “core” elements of the international community, has foolishly made forays into the “periphery.” Rather than limiting itself to managing the relationships among states—the “usual subject” of foreign relations—the new policy concerns itself instead with “the social, political, and economic conditions within borders.” Above all, rather than centering itself, like “traditional” foreign policy, on American interests, the new policy aims misguidedly to “promote American values.”
Mandelbaum’s article gives pithy expression to a view—the “realist” view—held by much of the foreign-policy community today and also, it would appear, by wide sectors of public opinion. Since the publication of his article, the term “international social work” has been snatched up by a broad range of critics who believe that under Clinton, and to some extent under George Bush before him, we have embarked on a new and dangerous path. But arguments similar to Mandelbaum’s have also been a staple for years now at the National Interest, the conservative foreign-policy quarterly published by Irving Kristol and edited by Owen Harries. And in the political arena, the distinctions Mandelbaum sets forth were raised hundreds of times by Republicans during the debate in Congress last year over Bosnia. Most shared Senator Trent Lott’s opinion that “the United States should only participate militarily on the ground in places in which U.S. interests are clear and understandable,” and in Bosnia most found no such “clear and understandable” interests at stake.
Nor is the realist view limited to conservatives and Republicans. As the debates over both Bosnia and Haiti made clear, even the Clinton administration and its supporters have accepted Mandelbaum’s scheme by default. Anthony Lake, perhaps the only senior Clinton official to venture a broad theoretical explanation for the administration’s policies, has had a hard time showing how its desire to do good in the world fits within any definition of the national interest. (“I think Mother Teresa and Ronald Reagan were both trying to do the same thing,” he has said.) Although Clinton was able to send troops to Bosnia, his administration never quite succeeded in convincing a majority of Americans that doing so was in the national interest. Even many of the Democrats supporting intervention tended, like Senator Joseph Biden, to shy away from speaking of America’s national interest, preferring instead to invoke its “moral interest.”
Something is amiss here. It is easy enough to argue, as Mandelbaum and many others have done, that the Clinton administration, and only the Clinton administration, has taken the United States down a wrong path. But the forces shaping our foreign policy are larger and more powerful than Bill Clinton. The Bush administration also embarked on missions of what Mandelbaum now calls “international social work,” first in Panama, then in Somalia. Nor is it certain that, had he been elected to a second term, George Bush could have avoided the use of American military power in Bosnia in some form. No, there is something about America’s position in the post-cold-war era which seems to incline us to this kind of global involvement, and yet there is also something about our reigning political discourse which prevents our finding the language to comprehend and to justify it.
How did we arrive at the perception that our national interest is something clear and calculable, involving only such tangible and measurable things as oil reserves and military bases, and excluding such intangibles as principles, ideas, or “American values”? As it happens, today’s common definition is neither self-evident nor eternal nor even “traditional.” If someone had asked Alexander Hamilton what the national interest was, he would have alluded to prosperity and security from foreign influence, but he would also have invoked the need to lift his young country into a place of honor among the world’s great powers. Theodore Roosevelt would have declared it in America’s national interest to foster the spread of Anglo-Saxon civilization throughout the world. Past American Presidents and statesmen would never have imagined that the national interest, a term which can encompass our nation’s noblest aspirations, would come to possess such a narrow and limited meaning as it does now.
Our present understanding was in fact born a mere half-century ago, when, like today, a new international order had emerged requiring a new way of looking at America’s role in the world. Foreign-policy realism grew amid and out of the violence and horror of the age of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. It came to fruition in the course of a world war that exposed the utter bankruptcy of earlier notions about the moral perfectibility of mankind and the possibility of permanent peace. In the rubble at war’s end lay a shattered world view which since the late 19th century had placed hope in legal compacts, the harmony of interests, economic interdependence, universal education, the spread of liberal government, and many other such ideas.
The realists were aggressive insurgents against such foolish optimism and dreamy utopianism. Inspired in part by the “Christian-realist” theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, and in part by their reading of Hobbes and Machiavelli, they built a monument to a grimmer set of truths: man’s nature was inherently sinful; a harmony of interests was unachievable in the temporal world; conflict was inevitable.
The bible of the realist school was Hans J. Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations (1948). Nations would always pursue their own interests, Morgenthau declared, and these lay chiefly in the accumulation of power. Permanent international peace was therefore impossible, and reliance on a supranational authority—like the newly born United Nations—was misguided. The desire of some Americans for a retreat to isolation was equally fanciful, a product of the distinctly American delusion that somehow “the final curtain would fall and the game of power politics would no longer be played.” The United States, like all other nations, had to give up this fantasy of escape, and instead engage seriously in endless competition with the world’s other powers by maintaining its armed might and concentrating on the narrower pursuit of its “national interest.”
Critics would accuse Morgenthau and others who followed him of proposing a cynical Machiavellianism as the guiding tenet of American foreign policy. In the early years of the cold war, a liberal anti-Communist like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. derided the “boys who have just discovered that politics involve power” and called them “immoral.” The historian Frank Tannenbaum charged that the purveyors of “this dreadful doctrine” were “confessedly, nay gleefully, amoral” in their contempt for those “who believe that men may strive for peace among nations.” From another quarter, left-leaning critics of America’s conduct of the cold war in the Truman and Eisenhower years, and later in the era of Nixon and Kissinger, would attack realism’s emphasis on raison d’état and the inescapable requirements of power politics as offering theoretical justification for the endless expansion of American imperialism.
In truth, the realists were neither strictly Machiavellian nor amoral. Their goal was amelioration, making a dismal and dangerous world better and safer by facing the unpleasant truths of international existence. Nor did they believe that the national interest could be defined as the limitless acquisition of power without regard to moral consequences. On the contrary, Morgenthau and others laid claim to an even higher morality than that of the “utopians” they disparaged. “The choice,” Morgenthau famously asserted, was
not between moral principles and the national interest, devoid of moral dignity, but between one set of moral principles divorced from political reality, and another set of moral principles derived from political reality.
For the realists, the way to reconcile the realities of power politics with the necessary search for international peace and justice was through a balance of power. Just as an equilibrium served to keep competing interests in check within pluralist societies like the United States—as James Madison had prescribed in The Federalist 10—so it served a similar function on the international scene. “Some balance of power,” Niebuhr argued, was “the basis of whatever justice is achieved in human relations.” If such a balance were lacking, “mere rational or moral demands” would be worthless. Years later, Henry Kissinger, with Richard Nixon the premier realist statesman of his era, proclaimed the same logic: “If history teaches anything, it is that there can be no peace without equilibrium and no justice without restraint.”
The history to which Kissinger referred was that of 19th-century Europe. In the wake of the Napoleonic wars, the “Concert” of powers created by Metternich, Castlereagh, and other European statesmen had established a remarkably durable peace, undermined only by the nationalist movements and liberal revolutions of mid-century. Later, the European system organized by Bismarck represented another act of conscious balancing; its unraveling, again the result of uncontrolled nationalism, laid the ground for World War I. In both cases, international equilibrium had been prized by leaders who had more to gain from peace than from war, but who recognized that the avoidance of conflict required constant exertion, military preparedness, subtle and flexible diplomacy, and, above all, respect for the balance of power itself.
Realism, therefore, provided no justification for the endless expansion of power, whether the power of Metternich’s Austria and Bismarck’s Germany or the power of mid-20th-century America. For the realists, the national interest demanded not national egoism but, to the contrary, an acceptance of limits and a high degree of self-restraint. For the balance of power to be preserved, Morgenthau argued, statesmen could not demand more in pursuit of their own goals than their counterparts in other countries could reasonably be expected to yield: they had to limit themselves to protecting only “vital” interests. In the nuclear era, the “age of total war,” this was one of “the conditions for survival.”
Finally, the realists argued that in every international system, one nation had to play a special role as balancer. At the end of World War II it was obvious that, by accident more than by design, the United States had been catapulted into the role once played by Bismarck and Castlereagh. America, Morgenthau observed, now held the position of “dominant power and, hence, foremost responsibility” in the new world order. To Niebuhr, America had to “find a way to use its great power responsibly,” and thus help the world “find a way of avoiding complete anarchy.”
In equating the national interest with a new international balance of power, the realists needed to determine where exactly America’s “vital” interests lay. Their quasi-scientific calculations relied heavily on geopolitical theories that were enjoying a vogue in the 1940’s.
In the infant field of international relations, the sociologist Nicholas J. Spykman had stimulated renewed interest in the writings of the late-19th-century American naval strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and of Mahan’s British contemporary, Sir Halford MacKinder, the theorist of “land power.” Updating Mahan, and replacing MacKinder’s famous “Heartland Theory” with a “Rimland Theory,” Spykman helped shape the thinking of realist strategists looking for ways to calculate vital interests.
The central geopolitical fact was that, much like England in an earlier era, America was an island power lying “off the coast” of the great Eurasian landmass. From this it followed that America’s national interest began with the establishment and preservation of a predominant position in its own hemisphere. Since that predominance could be challenged only by an outside power, the national interest also included, next, the preservation of a balance of power in Eurasia (MacKinder’s “Heartland”), where alone lay the resources and population levels which, if ever amalgamated, might overwhelm American might. To this “permanent interest” in maintaining a balance among the great powers of Europe, Morgenthau added a similar “permanent interest” in a balance in East Asia. In particular, Morgenthau declared it a continuing American concern to prevent “the domination of China by another nation”—i.e., the Soviet Union—lest this lead “to so great an accumulation of power as to threaten the security of the United States.”
This, then, was the realist reading of America’s vital interests, and—just as leftist critics complained—it did tend to support the main thrust of American foreign policy in the postwar era. Depicting the Soviet Union as the central menace to the balance of power, the realists insisted upon the need to maintain high levels of armaments and military preparedness, to keep troops in Western Europe, to provide aid to European economies, and to form the NATO alliance. In Asia, realist theory supported the reconstruction of and alliance with Japan and it would later support the intervention in Korea and even, with qualifications, in Vietnam.
But that is far from the whole story. For one thing, the realists were adamant that the United States not pursue goals outside the realm of vital geopolitical interests; they warned against entanglements on the periphery. And for another thing, they vehemently opposed letting foreign policy be shaped by American principles and moral concerns. Such pursuits threatened the balance of power—itself, for the realists, the incarnation of a prime moral principle—and therefore national survival. Disagreements with competitors over these “secondary” interests could lead to confrontation and nuclear war; and even if they did not, the pursuit of these broader goals could deplete resources and bankrupt the nation. Even a rich and heavily populated country like the United States, Morgenthau pointed out, could not possibly have enough money and armaments “to promote all desirable objectives with equal vigor.” Like all nations, it had to allocate its “scarce resources as rationally as possible.” It was, therefore, urgent to make use of “scientific analysis” so as to “prun[e] down national objectives to the measure of available resources in order to make their pursuit compatible with national survival.”
Here lay the sticking point. For if, in general, the realists supported the aims of American policy in the cold war, in practice they were often troubled by the broad way both American politicians and the American public interpreted those aims. Under Truman, Eisenhower, and their successors, the realists turned out to be regular dissenters from American initiatives. As early as 1947, they characterized Truman’s promise to “assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way” as inaugurating a disastrous holy crusade. The political commentator Walter Lippmann called the whole doctrine of containment a “strategic monstrosity,” a limitless commitment certain to overtax finite resources and capabilities; the so-called “Lippmann gap” would become a central pivot in the argument about American “overextension” for the next four decades of the cold war. The diplomat George F. Kennan, perhaps the principal architect of containment in the late 1940’s, was nevertheless appalled by the famous 1950 National Security Council planning document (NSC-68), which called for all-out ideological confrontation with the Soviet Union. Morgenthau condemned Truman’s intervention in Korea as having been undertaken largely on “utopian grounds,” in the name of a misguided commitment to “collective security.” The realists also opposed the Eisenhower administration’s rhetorical support for the “rollback” of Communism as another utopian dream, likely to lead to a third world war and possibly the annihilation of the human race.
The high-flown rhetoric of early cold-war America, together with the fiery excesses of McCarthyism, confirmed the realists’ deep suspicion that the United States was almost certainly lacking in the intellectual qualities and the discipline necessary to play its crucial historical role as the holder of the international balance of power. Although democrats themselves, the realists were highly suspicious of democracy, believing it deficient as a system for the making and carrying-out of sound foreign policy. Kennan compared American democracy to “one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as [a] room and a brain the size of a pin.” Lippmann thought the important questions of national policy were too complex for an ignorant populace—the “pictures inside people’s heads” formed by newspapers and radios simply did not “correspond with the world outside.”
Of still greater concern to realists than American democracy was American idealism. While the United States might have engaged in power politics like other nations, it had always dressed up its policies in a kind of democratic messianism. This, said the realists, might have been acceptable in the secure 19th century, but it had become dangerous in the first half of the 20th, and could be positively fatal in the postwar nuclear era, when all revolutionary ideologies were enemies of the balance of power.
The realists’ own model of desirable international behavior and wise statesmanship—the Concert of Europe—had been built by conservative aristocrats after the near-destruction of Europe by Napoleon Bonaparte, a revolutionary leader proclaiming universal truths and promising to liberate mankind. To some of them, indeed, the postwar world seemed to possess not one but two Napoleons, both proclaiming universal principles that hypocritically masked a naked drive for power. According to Morgenthau, American democratic values and Soviet Communist ideology were just different forms of the same “nationalistic universalism,” a strange modern hybrid which claimed “for one nation and one state the right to impose its own valuations and standards of action upon all other nations.” If, he warned, the balance of power were to be preserved—and this, remember, was the overwhelming strategic and moral imperative—both superpowers would have to practice self-control, give up their “dream of remaking the world in their own image,” and rein in their “limitless aspirations for power.” Concretely, this meant they would have to “draw back from their outlying positions and retreat into their respective spheres, each self-contained within its orbit.”
In the early days of the cold war, when anti-Communism was widespread in America and when even supposed realists like Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, routinely made America’s commitment to universal democracy a staple of his public rhetoric, it was not easy to argue against the intrusion of idealism into foreign policy. Yet during those years and throughout the decades that followed, as the fortunes of anti-Communist ideology waxed and waned, realists went on pointing to the folly of letting American principles guide American foreign policy. In 1964, Norman Graebner, then the preeminent realist historian, chastised the United States for having “warred on the Soviet bloc through appeals to the doctrine of self-determination” and for refusing “to recognize the Soviet sphere of influence in East Central Europe.” A decade later, Henry Kissinger rehearsed the same arguments in response to conservative critics demanding a more aggressive moral offensive against the Soviet empire. How hard could the United States press, he asked, “without provoking the Soviet leadership into returning to practices in its foreign policy that increase international tensions”? The pursuit of American ideals had to be subordinated to national survival, and national survival depended on the maintenance of international equilibrium.
There is no gainsaying the realists’ contributions to American foreign policy in the postwar era. They helped sweep away the dangerous myth that peace and American security could be achieved by trying to think the best of Stalin and his successors, or by relying on international agreements and organizations like the United Nations—or, alternatively, by a retreat into isolationism. Whatever their specific disagreements with American policy, their central ideas—that conflict among competing interests was inherent in the international system, that war could never be permanently eradicated, that the preservation of peace required active and sometimes forceful measures, that the exercise of power was an inescapable fact of human existence—promoted the aims of American diplomacy.
But the conduct and the conclusion of the cold war also revealed severe limitations in realism, both as a theory and as a practical guide to foreign policy. For the idealistic impulses of Americans, their tendency to want to “remake the world in their own image,” played an important and perhaps even an essential role in bringing about the peaceful downfall of Communism. Despite its risks, the choice of ideological confrontation appears to have been a more successful mode of dealing with the Soviet Union than the realists’ emphasis on coexistence and the acceptance of spheres of influence.
The surprising conclusion of the cold war also revealed other flaws in realism. As some observers had long noted, Morgenthau’s seminal theoretical error was to make power and the acquisition of power the sole force that moved and explained the world.2 Like the Marxists he disdained, Morgenthau sought to understand human behavior by a single cause. Power relationships were the unique substructure of international relations; everything else—ideology, culture, religion, economics—was superstructure. In particular, Morgenthau and many other realists took a dim view of ideology; they themselves might prefer one form of “universalistic nationalism” to another, but all forms were harmful to a proper calculation of the national interest.
Similarly with other motives for human behavior. The Greek historian Thucydides—much admired by the realists—wrote that men struggle not only for interest but also for honor. Morgenthau ignored the question of honor, and he also dismissed the related, troublesome issue of prestige, defining it away as “the reputation for power.” But history is full of examples of nations fighting for honor in the face of certain defeat (e.g., Spain in the Spanish-American war) as it is of leaders seeking power chiefly in order to obtain honor (e.g., Kaiser Wilhelm II in his fateful naval competition with England in the early 20th century). Nor did Morgenthau’s theory admit the possibility that nations might abjure the exercise of power out of guilt or shame, stimulated by a religious conscience or other values (as in, say, Great Britain’s withdrawal from India). For Morgenthau, a society’s beliefs could no more determine its exercise of power than for Marx they could determine its economic organization. Causality flowed in only one direction.
This flawed reasoning was compounded by another error. In their search for a means of defining the national interest, the realists favored variables that could be measured, even if only in some rough way. How else could “scientific analysis” be employed to “prun[e] down national objectives to the measure of available resources”? Since values and beliefs can never be measured, they were left out of the equation. Typical of the realist view was Kennan’s insistence that the state, as the people’s agent, had no business expressing or reacting to “moral impulses” in its calculation of the national interest. But if the state truly was the people’s agent, it could not help reflecting their moral impulses. As the great French political philosopher Raymond Aron once wrote, the conduct of states toward one another is not determined by “relations of forces” alone: “ideas and emotions influence the decisions of the actors.”
Hampered by their one-dimensional view of the world, the realists missed the significance of American ideals as a factor in international affairs. During the cold war, Americans derived enormous strength and even a measure of consistency from their steady belief that freedom, democracy, capitalism, the rule of law, and the right to self-determination were the aspirations of all peoples everywhere, and that Communism and dictatorship were the enemies of those aspirations. It was, indeed, their “moral impulses” that enabled Americans to appreciate the need for maintaining a military presence in Europe, for resuscitating European and Asian economies, and for playing the international role which realists like Kennan deemed essential. All of these actions were, it is true, in America’s geopolitical interest narrowly conceived, but to understand why that was so required an acute sense of moral right and wrong. As Robert Osgood noted in 1953, in a sharp riposte to Morgenthau, idealism was an “indispensable spur to reason.”
Nor did the dangerous “messianism” the realists feared ever materialize. In general, American policy-makers did not behave rashly, and whatever errors we committed in Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, and elsewhere could be attributed only in part to a crusading spirit. The really huge disasters which American realists warned against—national destruction, bankruptcy, nuclear holocaust—did not occur, even under that most “messianic” of Presidents, Ronald Reagan. America, it turned out, could pursue its idealistic mission in a fairly prudent way, without failing in its role as international balancer, without frightening the Soviet Union into a catastrophic misstep, and without blowing up the whole world in an effort to remake it.
Finally, the realists’ tendency to view the two competing ideologies as equally invalid claims to universal truth, each canceling the other out, proved to be another important analytical error. The ideals championed by the Soviet Union simply could not compete with those championed by the United States, either in a material sense—producing the goods—or in a spiritual sense—responding effectively to human yearnings.
Over time, this imbalance in the ideological sphere manifested itself all around the world. It attracted to America’s orbit not only the most powerful industrial nations but others of lesser stature on every continent. It eroded the legitimacy of Soviet rule in its East European empire, encouraged criticism of Communist tyranny within the Soviet Union itself, and, eventually, fostered self-doubt even among the Soviet supreme leadership. If there was a degree of hypocrisy and national arrogance in America’s constant equation of the world’s interests with its own, the strength of the claim also derived in large measure from the fact that so much of the world came to agree with it.
But not, apparently, the realists. Long after Morgenthau passed from the scene (he died in 1980), others took up the cudgels of the realist creed, right up to and beyond the great triumphs of American cold-war policy in the late 1980’s. Indeed, it is a curious fact that at the very moment the Soviet Union was trying desperately to find a way to survive in a world increasingly shaped by American economic, political, and cultural values, a leading realist historian seized the occasion to declare that America was in a state of “relative” decline. The United States, warned Paul Kennedy in his best-selling book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), had to face “the awkward and enduring fact that the sum total of [its] global interests and obligations [had become] far larger than the country’s power to defend them all simultaneously.”
At the core of Kennedy’s argument were the historical laws of international equilibrium. For a nation which had reached the global preeminence of cold-war America, he wrote, the “historical precedents [were] not encouraging.” The bigger the empire, the more it had to protect, and the more likely it was to invite challenges from other great powers jealous or fearful of its predominance. In the circumstances, for which Kennedy coined the term “imperial overstretch,” it might not be a “bad thing” for the United States to reduce its overseas commitments and become one of several great powers in a multipolar system—in short, to “prune” its national objectives.
The myth of American decline propagated by Kennedy (and others)—rudely exploded by world events just as it was reaching the crest of its popularity—rested on an amazingly inaccurate judgment. America’s “relative” economic decline in the mid-1980’s, after all, was due almost entirely to the great economic success enjoyed by its allies in Europe and Japan. According to the declinists, the growing strength of these allies had to be counted against American power as much as against Soviet power. This was bizarre reasoning, ignoring everything in international relations but mere economic indices. At the beginning of the cold war, America’s huge share of the world’s industrial product had reflected only the desperate poverty and weakness of its most important allies in the global strategic and ideological struggle. Forty years later, the United States, with a smaller share of the global economy, had become the leader of a vastly more powerful coalition of like-minded nations—almost all of whom voluntarily accepted and even counted on its leadership.
Much of the reasoning behind Kennedy’s theory of imperial overstretch came from an inability to understand that the style of American hegemony, which had been shaped to conform uneasily to American values and principles, had no ready historical precedent. The United States, for all its great power and global reach, was not an empire like others—for the simple reason, as Joseph S. Nye, Jr. pointed out, that “America’s overseas commitments [did] not involve the occupation and control of conquered territories.” Some nations under the immense influence of American power might not feel the difference between American imperialism and genuine imperialism; some, especially in the Western hemisphere, may have been as helpless to resist American power as any colony. But most knew the difference between an empire and a voluntary alliance led by a powerful hegemon. The global economic system of which the United States was the center, combined with the pervasive influence of American ideals and culture, allowed us to wield influence without coercion. Other peoples generally discovered that it was better to join this world order than to fight it.
The unique style of American hegemony at the end of the cold war led to a situation that ought to have been impossible according to any theory of international equilibrium. In the words of one leading neorealist, Kenneth N. Waltz, the “excessive strength” of one power should “prompt other states to increase their arms and pool their efforts against the dominant state.” But when the Soviet empire collapsed and the United States was left as the sole remaining superpower, the normal and predictable response of the world’s other great nations—to pull together in a coalition to check American power—did not happen. The reaction of America’s European and Asian allies was not to fear or resist the emergence of this new giant. Their fear, rather, was that the United States would withdraw from its leadership role and unburden itself of responsibilities for preserving the world order it had created and from which they had so greatly benefited.
Even Russia, America’s mortal enemy in the cold war, came to understand that American hegemony, while harmful to Russian egos, might not be at odds with fundamental Russian interests. This is a critical point often overlooked in the historical debate over the causes of the Soviet empire’s collapse. Although Mikhail Gorbachev and his reform-minded associates had many reasons to seek a reordering of their society and a reprieve from the costly competition with the West, beneath all their calculations lay a fundamental assumption: they knew that what the United States wanted from them was not incompatible with the survival of the Russian state, or even with its prosperity and well-being. Put bluntly, they knew it was safe to surrender; and, as Germany and Japan could attest, it might even be lucrative. If American military and economic power had helped force the Soviets to a moment of painful decision, American principles made the choice for reform and integration into the American world order a fairly easy one.
The end of the cold war created an intellecttual crisis for realism, and the crisis manifested itself both in theory and in practice. While the Soviet empire was collapsing, some went so far as to recommend propping it up to preserve the hallowed balance of power. Thus, John Mearsheimer, in a 1990 article, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War,” recommended that the United States “do what it can to avert” a complete Soviet withdrawal from Europe; for without the stable balance of power provided by both superpowers, Mearsheimer asked, “what will keep the peace in the future?” Such thinking was not confined to the academic world. The Bush administration’s fear of the break-up of the Soviet Union was based on a similar concern for European stability, as was its preference for Gorbachev over Yeltsin.
When the Soviet empire finally did collapse, most realists resisted the notion that we had entered a unipolar world. As if Paul Kennedy’s thesis had suffered no damage at all, they continued to warn of America’s declining position and to insist that the proper aim of American policy should be to manage its transition to a lesser status as a first among equals. The clearest statement of this idea was by Henry Kissinger, who in his 1994 treatise, Diplomacy, wrote that the world was fast becoming “more like the European state system of the 18th and 19th centuries,” containing “at least six major powers—the United States, Europe, China, Japan, Russia, and probably India.”
Two years later, the idea of treating Europe as if it were a single power seems almost as, well, unrealistic as listing India in the same group of major powers as the United States. Still, this unwillingness to come to grips with the fact of American global hegemony was, at the time, understandable, for what was at stake was nothing less than the very definition of the national interest which realists had spent 50 years trying to fix in the American mind. The alarm of the realists was also understandable: in a world without a competing superpower, without an ideological rival, and without the dire threat of nuclear holocaust, the pursuit of American ideals had become safer than ever before. In such a world, what would restrain the American tendency toward idealistic exuberance?
So it came about that, just as “decline” had been the key word for realists in the late 1980’s, the key word after the Soviet Union’s collapse became “temptation.” As Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson wrote in 1992, America’s intervention in the Persian Gulf, and before that in Panama, were examples of a new “imperial temptation,” made possible by the post-cold-war lack of obstacles to the exercise of American power.
Not all realists have agreed with Tucker and Hendrickson that the Gulf war was unnecessary to defend America’s national interest. But they have certainly said this about Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. The problem, in their judgment, may not be the cost (so far) of these actions in terms of national resources; nor is it that undertaking interventions of this nature poses a danger to our national survival. Rather, at the heart of realist thought today is a hostility to any foreign policy which seeks to foster American ideals abroad—whether it is safe to do so or not. The pursuit of these ideals they dismiss as mere social work.
This is where we came in. But perhaps the first thing to be said about today’s realists is that, their appeals to tradition notwithstanding, there is a big difference between their position and that of the realists of 50 years ago. That difference is rooted in historical circumstances. In a bipolar world, espousing a realist definition of the national interest meant accepting the need for constant international engagement and constant preparedness for war. Even today, if the world were genuinely multipolar—with six major powers of relatively equal strength competing for preeminence—the older conception of the national interest would still require American vigilance on the international stage. But in the world as it actually is, with a single, predominant superpower and several much weaker powers, the realist position logically impels the nation toward minimalism, if not toward isolationism.
Indeed, the greater our power in the world, the more we would seem required, by realist definitions, to withdraw from active involvement. Or, to put it another, paradoxical way, the greater our power, the smaller our national interest. The Western hemisphere, after all, seems fairly secure these days; and the danger that a single power will come to dominate the Eurasian World Island and then cast its greedy eyes on the New World is smaller now than at any time in this century. In such a world, those “vital national-security interests” which many Congressmen insist can alone justify the loss of a single American life would seem hard to come by, while excuses for indifference or disengagement are plentiful.
If there is a “temptation” abroad in the land today, this is it. Whatever the inadequacies of early cold-war realism, its goal had been to find the place where the pursuit of principles intersected with the realities of international power politics. Given those realities, Reinhold Niebuhr, for one, hoped that America would “accept its full share of responsibility” for solving the world problem. Today, with the acquisition of unparalleled global influence, one might argue that our share of responsibility for the “world problem” has not shrunk but grown. Yet the only people willing to assert this are not today’s realists but a shrinking camp of internationalists with nothing but airy “humanitarianism” on their side.
“A nation’s first duty is within its borders,” Theodore Roosevelt once declared, but, he went on to say, “it is not thereby absolved from facing its duties in the world as a whole; and if it refuses to do so, it merely forfeits its right to struggle for a place among the people that shape the destiny of mankind.” Embedded in that declaration is the idea that the American people should take a hand in shaping mankind’s destiny, that playing such a role accords honor, and that the right to such honor must be earned. It is a conception of the national interest entirely alien to today’s constricted usage, which gives us nothing to aspire to beyond our material needs.
What, then, ought we do? Any serious understanding of the national interest in our time must begin with the recognition that the world is not as it was in the 19th century or during the cold war. Through the exercise of its material power and the power of its ideals, the United States has achieved a combination of national security and international mastery unknown since the days of Rome’s dominance of the Mediterranean world. Today the international system is built not on a balance of power, but on American hegemony.
This has brought distinct benefits. In 19th-century Europe, the great powers jostled not only for power but also for prestige, and international jealousies were as much the cause of war as were the disputes over strategic ground. Today even potential American rivals like China, Russia, Japan, or Germany may aspire to greater influence in the world, but they do not yet dream of challenging the United States for the role of international hegemon. With the international hierarchy so firmly settled and widely agreed upon, crises like that in Bosnia do not provide occasions, as in the past, for competition among claimants to leadership. Indeed, the acceptance of the American-led order by most of America’s potential challengers continues to be a central element in the preservation of peace.
The prolongation of this beneficial state of affairs as far into the future as possible would seem to be the best definition of America’s national interest in the present era. One need entertain no utopian notions that the world order can be made permanent, that conflict has been eradicated, or that the future holds only peace and prosperity. The realists’ central insights into the competitive and conflictual nature of mankind remain true; nor should we forget the truism that all great powers must some day fall. Indeed, the task of realism should be to warn us that the present, happy state of affairs is extremely fragile: we live in an interwar period. But how long that period will last, and what quality of international life can be achieved in the interim, are matters which Americans hold it in their power to influence.
If the national interest consists in the preservation of American preeminence, then the same general approach to foreign policy that brought us to our international pinnacle ought to be applied to keeping us there. That means maintaining American military superiority, not only to deter aggression, but also to discourage other great powers from trying to achieve parity with us. (This was the recommendation, unfortunately rejected, of the Pentagon’s best policy planners during the Bush administration.) The predictability of American superiority has a calming effect on the international environment, inducing other powers to focus their energies and resources elsewhere. Failure to maintain that superiority will eventually encourage others, even those who do not yet have such ambitions, to challenge American hegemony, and will swiftly bring us back to the more dangerous world we have just departed.
Military strength alone will not avail, however, if we do not use it actively to maintain a world order which both supports and rests upon American hegemony. This requires a sharp departure from the narrow definition of national interests bequeathed to us by the realists. Their strategy has always been defensive and reactive. Once having identified the areas of its “vital interests,” the United States was supposed to “draw back,” as Morgenthau put it, from its “outlying positions,” and be “self-contained within its orbit.” But in today’s unipolar world, even more than during the cold war, that kind of passivity only creates a vacuum begging to be filled, and passes the initiative to those who oppose our preferred international order. Since today’s benevolent circumstances are the unique product of our hegemonic influence, any lessening of that influence will allow others to play a much larger part than they do now in shaping the world to suit their needs. The price of American hegemony is that just as it was actively obtained, it must be actively maintained.
Realists and their colleagues on both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum cry that the goal of preserving American preeminence is impossible, that even if it does not do so in the short run, in the end it will overtax American capabilities and lead to national bankruptcy. That is what they said during the cold war, too, when idealists like Ronald Reagan dreamed of winning the struggle against Communism. The fact is, however, that it will probably be cheaper to maintain the present order than it was to create it. In the 1980’s, when Paul Kennedy warned of imperial overstretch, American annual defense spending ran a bit short of the 7.5 percent of Gross National Product (GNP) he believed necessary to meet American commitments. Today, with the great challenge of the Soviet Union sharply diminished, defense spending is at about 3 percent of (GNP). The American share of the global economy, meanwhile, has remained steady or has risen, and some of America’s allies have seen a decline in their fortunes.
Realists these days also cling to what they call a “public-opinion” deficit—as if public opinion were itself an exhaustible resource that dwindled with every deployment of force overseas. But they cannot have things both ways. For the realists of Morgenthau’s, Lippmann’s, and Kennan’s day, the American public was an excitable mob whose idealistic exuberance needed constant restraint; today, their intellectual progeny depict the public as an intractable obstacle to the use of force overseas. The truth is that the public is neither. Over the past 50 years it has proved stubbornly devoted to American ideals and their spread abroad, while prudent enough to avoid self-destruction in the cause of ideological crusades.
The special characteristic of today’s unipolar system is that challenges to the order upheld by American hegemony invariably become challenges to American hegemony itself. When the world’s preeminent state proclaims its commitment to certain principles of international behavior—against genocide, against aggression, against the widespread violation of individual rights and freedoms—then every time these norms are flouted, the world looks to the United States to see how it will respond. The United States, of course, need not and cannot respond to every such challenge. But that does not mean, when it fails to respond, that its inaction is without cost. When the hegemonic power does not react to violations of the principles it is widely known to espouse, a doubt is raised about its willingness or ability to preserve not only those principles but also its hegemony.
This, in a nutshell, is what was at risk in Bosnia, where America’s will to play the part of leader among its most important allies fell under suspicion, both at home and abroad. Had the Bush administration grasped the continuity between American’s moral concerns in Bosnia and its national interest, we might have been able to nip the Bosnian crisis in the bud. In particular, with the enormous credibility earned in the Gulf war, President Bush might have been able to put a stop to Slobodan Milosevic’s ambitions with a well-timed threat. But because the eminently realist Bush administration placed Bosnia outside the sphere of “vital” American interests—what threat, after all, did it pose to the World Island?—the problem has now required the deployment of thousands of troops on the ground in an operation that even its proponents are uncomfortable with and defensive about.
The same could be said of American interventions in Panama, in Haiti, and perhaps even in the Gulf. The passive focus on “vital” interests allowed American leaders to ignore troubling developments which threatened the national interest more broadly and truly conceived. Local leaders were given reason to think that the United States did not consider its interests threatened by their behavior, only to discover otherwise when what had been considered tolerable ultimately proved intolerable. In each case, early warnings by an American government with an appropriate understanding of the national interest might have made unnecessary the later interventions with their messy consequences.
These are the errors we have stumbled into as a result of believing that the national interest can be measured in quasi-scientific fashion, that areas of interest can be located, and other areas excluded, by purely geopolitical determinations. For all our justifiable concerns about our economic competitiveness, our military capabilities, and our moral fiber, our biggest problem today may be one of understanding. We remain imprisoned by a conception of the national interest inherited from another era, one that, despite its virtues, was flawed at its inception and flawed in its application to the cold war, and is even more inappropriate to the present era.
No wonder we seem unaware of the special role that we have been given by a combination of historical circumstance and our own exertions. While the rest of the world remains impressed by our strength, we deem ourselves weak. At a time when we should be celebrating our good fortune, we incline toward pessimism. With our fate, and the world’s fate, in our hands to a greater extent than ever before, we have grown careless of our responsibilities and heedless of the dangers of failure.
It is past time for Americans to start considering again the part they wish to play in trying to establish a more peaceful and just world order. A good way to begin might be to recall the part they have already played.
1 “Foreign Policy as Social Work,” January/February 1996.
2 Morgenthau's disciples and the so-called “neorealists” modified his formula, not very successfully, to add greater complexity and nuance.