US Foreign Policy :The Limits of American Realism

January 12, 2016

The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Columnist

US Foreign Policy :The Limits of American Realism

Is realism really, really what America wants as the cornerstone of its foreign policy? Stephen M. Walt, a Professor of International affairs at Harvard University, has an eloquent ode to realism in Foreign Policy magazine. He argues that, with realism as the bedrock of its approach to the world over the past quarter century, the United States would have fared far better. Realists, he reminds us, “have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint.”


Pessimism is a useful source of prudence in both international and personal affairs. Walt’s piece makes several reasonable points. But he omits the major European conflict of the period under consideration — the wars of Yugoslavia’s destruction, in which some 140,000 people were killed and millions displaced.

Realists had a field day with that carnage, beginning with former Secretary of State James Baker’s early assessment that, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” This view was echoed by various self-serving assessments from the Clinton White House that justified inaction through the portrayal of the Balkans as the locus of millennial feuds neither comprehensible nor resolvable.

True, discerning a vital American national interest in places with names like Omarska was not obvious, even if the wars upset the European peace America had committed to maintaining since 1945. The realpolitik case for intervention was flimsy. Sarajevo was not going to break America, less even than Raqqa today.

The moral case was, however, overwhelming, beginning with the Serbian use in 1992 of concentration camps to kill Bosnian Muslim men deemed threatening, and expel Muslim women and children. These methods culminated at Srebrenica in 1995 with the Serbian slaughter of about 8,000 male inhabitants. In the three-year interim, while realists rationalized restraint, Serbian shelling of Sarajevo blew up European women and children on a whim. Only when President Clinton changed his mind and NATO began concerted bombing was a path opened to ending the war.

I covered that conflict and its resolution. For my baby-boomer generation, spared Europe’s repetitive bloodshed by American military and strategic resolve, it was a pivotal experience. After that, no hymn to realism pure and simple could ever be persuasive. Walt calls me “a liberal internationalist;” I’ll take that as an honorable badge.

He describes the expansion eastward of NATO after the end of the Cold War as “a textbook combination of both hubris and bad geopolitics” that needlessly poisoned relations with Russia. This argument is in fact a textbook example of the cynicism and smallness inherent in realism.

Guaranteeing security as the basis for a liberal order in nations from Poland to Estonia emerging from the trauma of the Soviet Imperium amounts to a major American strategic achievement. (Baker was instrumental in it, proof he was more than a Walt-school realist.) Ask any Pole, Lithuanian or Romanian if they think America erred.

Realists tend to dismiss human suffering; it’s just the way of the world. Hundreds of millions of people in Europe were ushered from totalitarian misery to democratic decency under the protection of the United States and its allies. A debt incurred at Yalta was repaid. European peace and security were extended, an American interest. There is little doubt that President Vladimir Putin would today have overrun at least one of the Baltic countries, absent their NATO membership.

Absolute Power corrupts Absolutely

Putin has created havoc precisely in the no man’s lands — Georgia and Ukraine — rather than in the NATO lands. Russia’s interest, post-1990, was in the dismemberment of the European-American bond, most potently expressed in NATO. That was the real problem.

The United States, almost alone among nations, is also an idea. Excise the notion of the global extension of liberty and its guarantees from American policy and something very meager remains. Putin is a fierce, opportunistic realist. But Americans — Donald Trump notwithstanding — do not want that dish on their tables.

They especially do not want it after the Syrian debacle. Walt argues that realists would have dissuaded President Obama from saying President Bashar al-Assad “must go” and setting a “red line.” But the problem was not that uttering these words was unrealistic. It was that failing to follow up on them was feckless.

Syria has illustrated the limits of White House realism. Realism has dictated non-intervention as hundreds of thousands were killed, millions displaced, and Islamic State emerged. Realism has been behind acquiescence to Assad’s barrel-bomb brutality. If Iraq illustrated disastrous American pursuit of an “ideological blueprint,” Syria has demonstrated a disastrous vacuum of American ideas.

Realism is an essential starting point for American foreign policy. It was absent on Iraq: The result was mayhem that, as Walt rightly says, cost America several trillion dollars. Realism brought the Iran nuclear accord, a signal achievement. More of it might help on Israel-Palestine.

But this is more a time to acknowledge the limits of realism — as a means to deal with the evil of ISIS, the debacle of Syria, or the desperate European refugee crisis — than to cry out for more, or suggest that it is underrepresented in American discourse.


13 thoughts on “US Foreign Policy :The Limits of American Realism

  1. This is another junk article from New York Times and another low quality piece in the high octane world of American politics. Aside from grappling with terms like realism likes an undergraduate student in a philosophy class 101, the author presented almost no insight to neither American foreign policies nor American ideas. He wrote as if there are substantial number of Americans worshiping realism as a religion when there are not. He took the high ground by enjoining Americans to go beyond realism but he offered no alternative higher values (because he does not know ones or too timid to say them). That is puerile.

  2. “He wrote as if there are substantial number of Americans worshiping realism as a religion when there are not.”

    Sometimes I wonder if you actually read articles or just take certain positions based on what you think is a proper right wing response. Cohen made no such claim.

    The clue in case one is too daft to understand is here :

    “Realism is an essential starting point for American foreign policy. It was absent on Iraq: The result was mayhem that, as Walt rightly says, cost America several trillion dollars. Realism brought the Iran nuclear accord, a signal achievement. More of it might help on Israel-Palestine.”

    In other words in a brief article he argues that “realism” has a nuance often missed by its proponents and detractors.

  3. The US is a good umbrella but makes a poor roof. Their inconsistent application of its rule of law and rules of engagements of that law is something that is being emulated by Third world countries. In the end only the adherence to basic moral values should guide us to ensure that good governance will be the order of the day.

  4. The article touches on the Balkan bombings, Syria, Georgia, the Ukraine, and of course Putin and Russia. It’s good to consider alternative views (below) to what Shiou calls “another junk article” (I used to read the NYT until Bush Jr took over).

    David North’s view on the Balkan slaughters:

    Another look at Assad/Syria by Steven MacMillan:

    Steven Rendall’s close reading of the mass media:

    Kovalik’s interview with Dr Stephen Cohen on the Ukraine:

    Robert Parry’s take on who’s telling the Big Lie:

  5. Note: I mean Bush Jr taking over the US administration, not the NYT, hahaha.
    Nowadays, though, it’s difficult to see the difference between the administration and the mass media.

  6. The USA foreign policy establishment should be worried about the
    1Malaysia regime teaming up with local religious extremists, in its desperation to hang on to political power.

    Latest news reports mention more Malaysians getting foolishly involved in the civil wars of others (even blowing themselves up) because of their religious extremism. These include their children:

    Reminds me of the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-1979 using children and young teens as their foot soldiers.

    Dr Haing Ngor (the refugee doctor who played the
    role of New York Times stringer Dith Pran in the
    excellent movie “The Killing Fields”)
    mentioned that the unfortunate “New People” — i.e.
    urbanites forcibly sent to the countryside — were especially
    afraid of the KR child soldiers as these child soldiers were
    fanatical and were likely to kill without any hint of mercy
    or compassion.

    Majority of the KR leaders still alive remain unrepentant.
    Perhaps only the commandant of the Tuol Sleng
    torture and extermination camp, Kang Kek Iew, genuinely
    repented of his crimes committed during his time as a KR leader.

    We also see child soldiers being used by groups such as the
    LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) in East Africa and in the civil wars in the
    African kleptocratic and failed states such as the Congo.

  7. Shiou: I agree. I read the article twice but still cannot get the author’s point and what he is driving at. It is hollow and empty. It is sad that New York Times, once a respected major newspaper in the world, has become more like a tabloid.

  8. For those who follow the history of US foreign affairs, there has long been a tension between the “realist” versus those who seek to imbue foreign policy with an idealist/moral view. And the article above is simply another argument for the latter position.

    The realist position is best summed up by Lord Palmerston’s famous dictum that:
    “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our [national] interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

    The European practise of “realist” foreign policy allowed for the establishment of “spheres of influence” that allowed the great (European) powers to balance one another without starting a major war during the 19th century. So each great power was given its place in the world, and every other power is expected respect its position within its sphere. So, for example, in South East Asia, the British control of Malaya was recognised by the other powers, as were French control of Indo-China and the Dutch in Indonesia. Siam skillfully managed to keep itself independent by acting as a buffer between the British (in Burma and Malaya) and the French (in Laos/Cambodia).

    The realist school actually has little following in the US since WWII, and is typically dismissed as cynical and amoral. Kissinger is considered as the arch-US realist, and he has not been in power since the 1970s. It was realism that led Kissinger (and Nixon) to seek an understanding with Maoist China in the 1970s in order to balance the USSR.

    Apart from the Republican and anti-Communist Nixon shaking Mao’s hand in 1972, probably the key “realist” event in international relations in the past 100 years was the agreement between Hitler (fascist) and Stalin (communist), who were supposedly uncompromising ideological enemies, to divide Eastern Europe between them in 1939.

    The moralist/idealist school of foreign policy, on the other hand, seeks to inject moral considerations into international relations. So intervening in a country to stop ethnic cleansing (Bosnia), end starvation (Somalia) or to establish a democracy (Iraq), for example. A true realist will reject all such sentiments, and focus entirely on the issue of national interests and material cost-benefit.

    A US realist position on Syria would be to do nothing directly because there are no major American interests at stake, and to allow the Russians to maintain the Assad regime since it is the lesser evil than ISIS (from an American perspective).

  9. @veritas, thanks! Learning history! Got me curious to learn more and google the meaning of realism in international relationship.


    “Realism is the predominant school of thought in international relations theory, theoretically formalising the realpolitik statesmanship of early modern Europe. Although a highly diverse body of thought, it can be thought of as unified by the belief that world politics is, in the final analysis, always and necessarily a field of conflict among actors pursuing power. Crudely, realists are of three kinds in what they take the source of ineliminable conflict to be. Classical realists believe that it follows from human nature, neorealists focus upon the structure of the anarchic state system, and neoclassical realists believe that it is a result of a combination of the two and certain domestic variables. Realists also disagree about what kind of action states ought to take to navigate world politics, dividing between (although most realists fall outside the two groups) defensive realism and offensive realism. Realists have also claimed that a realist tradition of thought is evident within the history of political thought all the way back to antiquity, including Thucydides, Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli.

    Jonathan Haslam from the University of Cambridge characterizes Realism as “a spectrum of ideas.”[1] Regardless of which definition is used, the theories of realism revolve around four central propositions:[2]

    That states are the central actors in international politics rather than individuals or international organizations,
    That the international political system is anarchic as there is no supranational authority that can enforce rules over the states,
    that the actors in the international political system are rational as their actions maximize their own self-interest, and
    That all states desire power so that they can ensure their own self-preservation.

    Realism is often associated with Realpolitik as both are based on the management of the pursuit, possession, and application of power. Realpolitik, however, is an older prescriptive guideline limited to policy-making (like foreign policy), while Realism is a particular paradigm, or wider theoretical and methodological framework, aimed at describing, explaining and, eventually, predicting events in the international relations domain. The theories of Realism are contrasted by the cooperative ideals of Liberalism.” and more

    Can we conclude ASEAN, in general, is a realist organization also, even ASEAN countries are separating themselves from each other in the tug-of-war diplomatic relations between US and China?

    I am afraid, ASEAN is now caught between a current Mohican and the South China Sea. Its leaders must ensure that ASEAN solidarity and with it regional stability remains intact. We don’t want a return of a Vietnam type situation in Southeast Asia over the South China Sea dispute. It is time to ensure that ASEAN diplomacy is proactive and dynamic. ASEAN Regional Forum is a crucial mechanism for engagement with the United States and China.

    ASEAN leaders must ensure that the ASEAN Economic Community works for the benefit of the peoples of Southeast Asia who seek to live in peace.

    Obama has only 11 months left. He is meeting ASEAN leaders in February, 2016 to clarify TPPA and his Rebalancing Asia Initiative. Unfortunately that will turn out to be public relations exercise. We need to wait for the next President who takes over in January, 2017.

    In my view, Donald Trump will be a disaster for our region, since he is not Ronald Reagan. Hilary Clinton will be a refreshing face, but then she will have her own foreign policy vision, which has yet to be articulated. She must secure the nomination of her party first, and that is not a given at this stage.

    It is important to us to remember that American politics is always driven by domestic imperatives, not by lofty foreign policy ambitions, which are reflected in Obama’s recent State of the Union Address to the Joint Session of Congress. Obama is concerned about his legacy.

    Perhaps, we should ask Ambassador Malott to comment Obama’s farewell speech, and answer your question.–Din Merican

  10. “In my view, Donald Trump will be a disaster for our region, since he is not Ronald Reagan.”

    The problem with Trump is that he has turned his candidacy into a lowest common denominator type enterprise. Well even more than usual in American politics. However he does have some interesting things to say about a great many issues.

    For instance in the early days of his candidacy he spoke of how America was mired in bureaucracy in terms of maintaining or creating infrastructure whereas the speed in which China carried out its programs was something America could learn from.

    Of course now he has dropped all pretence of running an intelligent campaign and has taken what he thinks as the vox populi route.

  11. The discussions here brought back memories of my sophomore year, when we spent a week in class discussing idealist vs realist foreign policy. Realist places national interests & security above ideology, ethics & morality. Idealist posits that foreign policy must reflect the ethical, moral & philosophical values of the country. Since World War II, the US has bragged about American exceptionalism — the notion that our system is superior to any other in the world. Exceptionalism has been the basis of our “idealist” foreign policies. But we have to take care of our national interests & security, too, like any other countries. This is when the problem starts: we often did what was in our national interests more than what we said we were. I say we are idealistic realist in foreign policies, or realistic idealist, or pragmatist in any which way you call it. A rose is a rose in many other names.

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