Malaysia: Clear and present danger from the Islamic State

January 18, 2016

Malaysia: Clear and present danger from the Islamic State

by James Chin

The Men who stoke the flames of  extreme Malay nationalism and Islamism in Malaysia

Two weeks ago ( in early December, 2015), an internal Malaysian Police memo was leaked to the media. The leak came after Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he and several other Malaysian leaders were on the IS hit list.

The memo gave details of a November 15 meeting between the militant groups Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic State (IS), and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), in Sulu, the southern Muslim-majority part of the Philippines. Attendees passed several resolutions at the meeting, including regarding mounting attacks in Malaysia, in particular Kuala Lumpur and Sabah in eastern Malaysia. The report mentioned that eight Abu Sayyaf and IS suicide bombers were already on the ground in Sabah, while another ten were in Kuala Lumpur.

Additional Resources

While the news shocked many Malaysians and foreigners living in Malaysia, for Malaysia watchers, it was nothing new. There is general consensus in Malaysian security and intelligence circles that IS and home-grown Islamic radicals are planning a terrorist attack in Malaysia. For the past two years, in fact, Malaysia’s security services managed to disrupt at least four major bombing attempts. Their targets are mainly symbolic, such as beer factories and government buildings. Others were senior political figures and tycoons to be held for ransom and propaganda. IS regards the Malaysian government (and neighboring Indonesia) as un-Islamic and a pawn of the West.


The Islamic  Neo-Conservatives

While the Malaysian government is lucky that its intelligence services are on top of the situation, there are recent signs that they may be overwhelmed by the scale of the threat and the number of operatives involved.

Malaysia has a population of about 31 million, and 60 percent are Sunni Muslims. There are approximately 200-250 IS fighters from Malaysia in the Middle East. Contrast this with Indonesia, with a Muslim population of 300 million, and yet there are less than 400 IS fighters from Indonesia. This imbalance alone gives a clear indication of the scale of the problem Malaysia faces.

Even so, at the top of the Malaysian government, other than occasional statements condemning IS terrorism, officials do not seem to be able or willing to confront the root causes of the rise of IS in Malaysia.

In an influential essay published in April this year, Brookings scholar Joseph Liow laid out clearly the reasons for the rise of IS in Malaysia: the politicization of Islam by the state. In particular, both the ruling UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) party and its main opponent, PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) use political Islam as their weapon of choice.


The use of political Islam is a deliberate move by a group of committed Islamists hidden in the highest level of the Malaysian state and bureaucracy to create a Malay-Islamic state, not a mere theocratic state. This ideology is unique and separate from the caliphate project pursued by IS.

In the Malaysian version of the Malay-Islamic state, Sunni Islam’s supremacy is indivisible from ethnicity, i.e. the Malay race. In other words, the unique Malaysian brand of Sunni Islamic supremacy is fused with intolerant Malay nationalism. This highly committed group is trying to build the world’s only Islamic state where Islam and one particular ethnic group are one and the same.

Outsiders, including Muslims from other parts of the Sunni world, will find this development hard to understand as orthodox Islam rejects the notion of race or racism. In Malaysia, according to the proponents of ethno-religious nationalism, the Malaysian brand of Sunni Islam is unique. An example of these exclusion tactics is the issue over the usage of ‘Allah’. Despite clear and unequivocal evidence that the word ‘Allah’ can be used freely by all, the Malaysian religious establishment has claimed exclusive copyright over the word ‘Allah’ and codified into law a proscription that only Muslims can use ‘Allah’ and another half-a-dozen words.

Who are members of this group pushing for the Malay-Islamic state? The obvious candidates are JAKIM (Malaysian Islamic Development Department), a department under the Prime Minister’s office, and its state-level version. JAKIM is a government department tasked with defining, to the minuscule detail, what being a Sunni Muslim means in Malaysia, not only in theological terms but also in practical terms, like how to dress and what types of behavior are halal (permissible) or haram.


JAKIM, established during the era of Mahathir, Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003, is so powerful now that even senior UMNO leaders do not dare to confront it. Anyone who questions JAKIM is threatened with sedition. JAKIM threatened a former MP from UMNO with sedition. The son of a deputy prime minister, he had called for the departmental group to be disbanded. Police investigated a well-known lawyer for sedition after he tweeted, “Jakim is promoting extremism every Friday. Govt needs to address that if serious about extremism in Malaysia.” JAKIM writes all Friday sermons for delivery nationwide, and in recent years these sermons have tried to demonize Shiites, Christians and Jews.

JAKIM’s annual budget is about RM 1 billion, paid for by Muslim and non-Muslim taxpayers. Yet JAKIM is largely unaccountable to anyone. Progressive Malaysian Muslims fear the label of being branded anti-Islamic for questioning the work of JAKIM. Others shy away from criticizing JAKIM for fear of being charged with sedition.

Another government department promoting ethno-religious hate and intolerance is Biro Tata Negara (National Civics Bureau, or simply BTN). Like JAKIM, BTN is also under the authority of the PM’s office. Officially, BTN is supposed to nurture the spirit of patriotism. While many of its programs do promote patriotism among Malaysian youth, others promote racism toward non-Malays and filter their message to selected groups of Malay participants.

The BTN teaches these Malay participants that the Malaysian Chinese (and non-Malays generally) are like “Jews” and that Malays must be politically supreme at all times. A recent exposé of internal BTN documents showed that BTN trainers were told to teach that racism is “good” if it promotes Malay unity. It even suggested that racism originated from the Islamic concept of asabiyyah, a positive idea that centered on brotherhood and formed social solidarity in historical Muslim civilizations.

While it is obvious that JAKIM, BTN, and similar bodies, do not officially support IS’s caliphate project or its murderous ideology, their promotion of a uniquely narrow Malay-Islamic worldview indirectly supports and complements the IS brand of intolerance. Many young Malays at the primary and high school level in the Malaysian school system are steeped in a view of Malay Islam that resonates with the IS worldview that there is an “us-versus-them” world order. Malaysian Muslims find IS’s ideology easy to accept, having grown up with a state-sanctioned view of intolerance towards non-Malay Muslims.

Is it any wonder that in a recent PEW poll, 11 percent of Malaysian Muslims had a “favorable” view of IS? What is even more interesting is that in Southeast Asia, Malaysian Muslims are more likely than Indonesian Muslims to consider suicide bombing justifiable (18 percent versus 7 percent).

If we make inferences from this context, there are two clear conclusions. First, there is going to be an IS attack in Malaysia – not if, but when. The number of IS supporters in Malaysia has reached a critical mass: a Malaysian minister revealed a few days ago there are approximately 50,000 IS supporters in Malaysia. Coupled with returning IS fighters from Syria and Iraq, this broad-based support means that one of their attacks will succeed.

Second, support for IS and intolerant Islam is growing in Malaysia due to the deliberate policies of government bodies such as JAKIM and BTN, whose worldview is increasingly becoming even more influential than that promulgated by elected political leaders. The situation can only get worse until the top UMNO leaders rein in JAKIM and similar bodies. If the government waits for a successful attack before undertaking any serious action, it will simply be too late.


A Stricter Islam Displaces Old Ways in Malaysia

January 18, 2016


Unprecedented Public Display of Piety in Kuala Lumpur on New Year’s Eve (December 31, 2015)–Dataran Merdeka–led by Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Zahid Hamidi

A Stricter Islam Displaces Old Ways in Malaysia

by James Hookway

Conservative Wahhabi doctrines are redefining the way Islam is practiced; some rituals have been banned

Kelana Indra Sakti is one of Malaysia’s most successful shamans. Framed testimonials from his customers hang from his office walls. In the driveway of his house he keeps a stretch Mercedes-Benz limousine given to him by a grateful client. His name, meaning “Adventurer, Heavenly Magic,” was bestowed on him by one of Malaysia’s wealthy sultans.

Lately, though, Mr. Kelana has supplemented his consultations with readings from the Quran.“People just expect it these days, so I do it,” said the 70-year-old shaman.


Islamic Conservatives in serious discussion

Islam in Malaysia, and Southeast Asia, is taking a more conservative turn. The Muslim faith, brought here by Arab traders hundreds of years ago, has coexisted for generations with Malay customs such as shamanism, other forms of traditional medicine and the country’s sizable Buddhist, Christian and Hindu communities.

But more recently, conservative Wahhabi doctrines, often spread by Saudi-financed imams, are redefining the way Islam is practiced and, for some, eroding the tolerance for which the country has been known.

Signs of change abound, from the Arab-inspired architecture of Malaysia’s administrative capital to the more widespread application of Shariah, the Islamic law code largely based on the Quran.

In the northeastern state of Kelantan, one of the most conservative parts of the country, lines in supermarkets are separated by gender, and men are banned from watching women’s netball tournaments. In December, Malaysia’s first Shariah-compliant airline began flying. The airline guarantees pork-free meals and bans alcohol, in line with Islamic teaching, and its flight attendants are required to cover their heads with the hijab.

Politicians, meanwhile, are now competing with each other to show off their Islamist credentials. The opposition Pan-Islamic Party strict adherence to Shariah has helped build its support in rural areas. And a government investment fund—under the control of the Muslim-oriented ruling party—was recently set up to pay for village leaders to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

The government’s recently established Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia writes sermons delivered in mosques nationwide each Friday, according to Malaysian analyst James Chin of the University of Tasmania.

Some Muslim academics and opinion leaders have begun to push back, saying the Arabization of Islam in the country has gone too far. Last year, Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, complained that Malaysians were being taught formal rituals over the substance of the faith.

Malaysian security officials now worry that the changed climate is encouraging younger Muslims to turn to less tolerant forms of the faith. Security forces have detained over 120 people for suspected ties to Islamic State in the Middle East; scores of others have traveled to Syria to join it.

The cultural shift is complicating life for Malaysians holding on to shamanism and other old Malay customs. At a recent medical conference at the National University of Malaysia, just south of Kuala Lumpur, doctors and psychologists gathered to hear how a variety of ailments can be helped with readings from the Quran.

“We’ve forgotten old Islamic treatments and how they can help,” said one of the participants, Hamidi Abdul Rahman, president of Professional Islamic Support and Nurture Group, a faith healing group.

In Kelantan state, the shift is more pronounced. The local Islamist (PAS) government has outlawed traditional healing rituals, leaving musicians who lead them to practice under cover of darkness.

Performers such as 84-year-old Yar Daut shrug off what he says is a misplaced attempt to turn Malaysia into Arabia. “What nonsense. We’ve been performing like this for over 200 years,” he said as he mopped sweat from his brow during a break from his band’s practice sessions.

Malaysian author Eddin Khoo says that in some cases traditional music and rituals are surviving precisely because they are being driven to the margins.“The best way to make something appealing is to ban it,” Mr. Khoo said. “People are finding a way to keep it alive, whether the religious authorities go along with it or not.”

Mr. Kelana, who is Muslim, says he still has steady demand for his services, which usually involve counseling patients who have problems with their love lives or businesses.“They still need my help, and it’s my job to assist them,” he said as two young women in Muslim head scarves waited for him at his clinic.

Some shamans, or bomohs in Malay, have gotten into trouble with the law, though. Religious authorities declared in April that a well-known bomoh, Ibrahim Mat Zin, deviated from Islamic teachings when he performed a rite to locate the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with a pair of bamboo binoculars and a couple of coconuts.


Mr. Ibrahim, better known as Raja Bomoh Sedunia, or King of All the Bomohs in the World, denies doing anything wrong.Mr. Kelana reckons it is better to bend with the wind, as he puts it. It helps that he doesn’t need to perform any special rituals to figure out what is wrong with his patients. He says he can see an aura surrounding a person, and this provides all the information he needs to suggest a course of treatment.

If his clients want him to perform some spells or incantations, as in the old days, or read from the Quran, well, he’s ready to do that.“If it fits the part, why not?” Mr. Kelana said.

This pragmatic approach has won him a loyal following. He counts politicians on his client list. One patient, Nur Suzana, said she had traveled all over Indonesia and Thailand looking for shamans to deliver a cure when she said she was troubled by a jinn, or evil spirit.“Only Kelana Indra Sakti could help me,” she said after her visit.

Some imams at Mr. Kelana’s local mosque are coming around to his methods, he said. They have begun referring worshipers to him for help with their problems. “I’ve become the last resort, but people are still coming,” he said.

Write to James Hookway at




Malaysia :Moderates and extremists and anyone in between

January 15, 2016

 Malaysia :Moderates and extremists and anyone in between

by Dr. Kua Kia Soong

Our society is fast becoming an Orwellian dystopia in which “moderates”, “extremists”, “national security”, “national harmony” and other fluffy terms have become relative (Doublespeak) and imprecise, depending on how they are defined by the state and the judiciary.–Kua Kia Soong

The rise of the far right and the religious bigots in Malaysia has in turn given rise to a movement of “moderates”. As human beings, we have an instinctive grasp of the ancient wisdom of moderation as the way (the Tao) to a healthy body and way of life. In the body politic, however, espousing “moderation” becomes imprecise since it is an example of fluffy language that is also used by the powers-that-be to deal with those who uphold truth, justice and human rights.


Let me illustrate what I mean. When I was detained without trial by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad under Operation Lalang from 1987 to 1989, the Special Branch in their relentless interrogations insisted on categorizing me as an “extremist”.

Among ‘allegations of fact’ under the Internal Security Act, I was alleged to have written a book ‘Polarisation in Malaysia: The Root Causes’. This is an excellent example of the relativism of “moderation” and “extremism” in Malaysia.

In the first place, this book was sponsored and signed by all the 24 major Chinese associations in Malaysia in 1987. It was not banned by the government. But I was considered an “extremist” for having written it and (in their eyes) deserved to be detained without trial because I was alleged to have threatened the internal security of the country.

On the other hand, Mahathir himself had in fact written a book, The Malay Dilemma, in 1969 and the government at the time under the Tunku had considered it “extremist” and banned the book. Nonetheless, while his book was considered “extremist” and not fit for public consumption, Mahathir was not considered extremist enough to be detained without trial and he has, in fact, never been detained under the ISA.

If we are to ensure the principles of democracy are upheld, we have to question the validity of the issues involved in such loosely used terms as “moderation” or “extremism”, and take a stand so as not to fall for these fluffy concepts. Recently, we had religious bigots and racists calling for Bibles containing the word “Allah” to be burned. The authorities considered them to be “moderates” because they were “merely trying to defend Islam”. Such an interpretation of “moderation” seems to go on ad nauseam in contemporary Malaysian society.


Our society is fast becoming an Orwellian dystopia in which labels such as “moderates”, “extremists”, “national security”, “national harmony” and other fluffy terms have become relative (Doublespeak) and imprecise, depending on how they are defined by the state and the judiciary. This requires civic vigilance to demand precision about who “the perpetrators of a crime” are; we need to know “who specifically said what” and “what specifically they said or did”. “

Calling an Equality Act an Equality Act

It is very clear that we are trying to deal with a problem widely recognised by the world community, at least since the Second World War – namely, racism, racial discrimination, related prejudice and intolerance. Let us examine how other countries deal with this problem.

Britain has the Equality Act 2010, the purpose of which is to align the Race Relations Act with European human rights legislation and to extend protection to other groups not previously covered namely, age, disability, gender, religion, belief and sexual orientation.

Thus, in my critique of the “Harmony Act” that has been proposed to replace the Sedition Act, I have stressed that we should call an Equality Act an Equality Act and not by any other fluffy name. If equality is still taboo in Malaysia in the 21st century, we are indeed living in Never-never Land (or Takboleh Land)!

Religious bigotry and Islamic populism

The increasing cases of religious bigotry and injustice toward non-Muslims in the country are actually instances of the misapplication of the federal constitution which provided for freedom of religion as at independence. Subsequent amendments to the Federal Constitution and state enactments have led to the Judiciary deferring its powers to the inferior syariah courts in disputes between a Muslim and a non-Muslim regarding conversion from Islam and other areas.

To reinstate the status quo ante as it was in 1957 (our “social contract”?), there needs to be in place a Law Commission that would be empowered to ensure freedom of religion in this country and restate the jurisdiction of the civil courts and the syariah courts. In upholding the principle of freedom of religion in the federal constitution, the post-1957 state enactments that clearly violate this freedom – as in the case of the Bible-seizing episodes – have to be rescinded. Such a reform is essential in order to recognize the 1957 “social contract” as supreme and thus prevent any further Bible-seizing adventures. This and not the magnanimity of the Menteri Besar or the monarch is crucial in establishing our right to freedom of religion under the federal constitution.

Routinization of racial discrimination

These are examples of the routinization of racial discrimination in Malaysia that has become part of the “normality” accepted by many so-called “moderates”. Again, this only exposes the relativity and vagueness of the concept of “moderation” that currently abounds in the media and begs the question: moderate in relation to what?

Concerned Malaysians should call for the institution of structural reforms for healthy ethnic relations and the equality to which we as citizens are entitled. These include calling upon the government to immediately initiate moves to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

We need to address the main issues of racism, racial discrimination and related intolerance in our society and to propose appropriate bills and institutions to resolve these problems. Failure to do so results in fluffily clad initiatives and bills which can be used by despots as double-edged swords to deal only with human rights defenders rather than the perpetrators of hate and division.

Dr. Kua Kia Soong is the adviser of SUARAM (Suara Rakyat Malaysia).


Foreign Policy: The Irony of American Power

January 15, 2016

Foreign Policy: The Irony of American Power


Framers of US Foreign Policy of recent vintage- Bush Sr., Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter

by Andrew J. Bacevich

The overarching theme of twentieth-century geopolitics has been America’s success in prevailing over its competitors for global power. A century ago, the United States was a continental power exercising only a peripheral influence on international politics. Today, having outlasted, exhausted, or crushed its rivals, the United States dominates world affairs. The millennium ends with the world’s foremost democracy holding sway as Great Power without peer.

America’s rivals, to be sure, contributed mightily to their own demise. Besotted with ambition, empires in our age have betrayed an astonishing propensity for self-inflicted wounds. Choosing war in 1914, Wilhelm II wrecked German aspirations to Weltpolitik. Ransacking Africa in search of easy conquest, Mussolini laid bare the fraudulence of his new Roman empire. Plunging into the morass of endless war with China, Japan doomed its vision of East Asian hegemony. Craving Lebensraum to the East, Hitler bled his armies to death and destroyed his Thousand-Year Reich. Ordering their legions into Afghanistan, the sclerotic lords of the Kremlin exposed the flimsiness of Soviet authority and the bankruptcy of Marxism-Leninism. Thus the history of the past hundred years offers a moral lesson to complement the geopolitical theme of America’s rise to preeminence. Of the dangers that threaten a Great Power, the most insidious come from within.

This great moral lesson of imperial hubris sounds a warning that Americans today should heed. To sustain the favored position to which the United States has risen, they must succeed where others have failed-devising a grand strategy that permits the responsible exercise of power while steering clear of the shoals of arrogance and vainglory. This is a tall order. Filling that order requires first a proper understanding of the situation in which the United States now finds itself.


That situation is replete with irony. A nation born of the first great anti-imperial revolution, the United States finds itself today wielding authority and influence in every corner of the globe. A state that once spurned interference by outsiders has acquired a well-documented reputation for instructing others on how to conduct themselves on matters ranging from human rights to environmental regulation. A people once profoundly suspicious of militarism tacitly embrace military power as a central element of national identity. How are we to account for the paradoxes to which America’s emergence as the world’s foremost power has given rise?

The traditional narrative of American history dodges that question, suggesting that the outcome was not of our doing: greatness was thrust upon us. This orthodox view of history asserts that the United States did not advance purposefully to center stage in world affairs; it was drawn there reluctantly, contrary to its traditions and the preferences of its people. According to this interpretation, America’s transformation from unassuming republic to global superpower was unforeseen and unintended. The United States assumed a paramount role in world affairs only under duress, prodded by malevolent forces that became in the end too monstrous to ignore.


Thus, evil has provided warrant for action. The all-but-forgotten war with Spain now a hundred years past set the pattern. For years, Americans had watched as Cubans suffered abuse at the hands of a decadent and incompetent imperial regime. Finally, in 1898, further Spanish control of Cuba became intolerable. When the smoke of the ensuing conflict cleared, the United States had indeed ejected Spain from Cuba, but had acquired in the process an insular empire of its own, stretching from the Caribbean across the Pacific. In the decades to follow, the recurrence of wickedness in various guises-the militarism of Imperial Germany and Japan, the totalitarian ideologies of Hitler and Stalin, more lately the tinhorn depredations of Saddam Hussein-would offer impetus and justification for the further expansion of American power.

This interpretation of the nation’s rise to globalism-the United States reacting to peace disrupted, rights defiled, and freedom jeopardized-is one that most Americans have found persuasive. It is reassuringly familiar and morally satisfying. For the average citizen, the standard historical narrative has provided a convenient map for navigating through the perilous and deceptive terrain of twentieth-century politics. But a map only approximates reality. Sketched in response to the press of events, the historical map charting the progress of the Reluctant Superpower has never been completely accurate. Of late, it has become increasingly misleading. Most of all, with the end of the Cold War, it is no longer useful. Indeed, to cling to that map is to misapprehend the hazards that lie just ahead.

If Americans have vigorously defended their way of life against external threat, it is also true that they have sought to imprint that way of life on others. No people on earth have been more eager to see the world remade in their own image. The whole trajectory of Western history, pointing toward an expansion of freedom, equality, and opportunity, only served to validate this belief in American mission, even fostering the notion that the United States possessed a providential mandate to spread the blessings of liberty. Thus, even before leading the nation into war to make the world safe for democracy, Woodrow Wilson could declare with certainty that “God [had] planted in us the vision of liberty” and that the United States had been “chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”


Wilson’s purpose was not simply to defend American principles, but to secure their extension on a universal basis, a breathtakingly radical proposition. Nor did that proposition die with Wilson. Once revived by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the spirit and grandeur of the Wilsonian project animated the policies and the rhetoric of subsequent administrations as dissimilar as those of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. “If we judge events by their consequences,” John Lukacs has observed, “the great world revolutionary was Wilson rather than Lenin.” Indeed, if we judge the age of revolutions by its outcome, the United States has been the most successful revolutionary power of them all.

To posit the United States as an ascendant revolutionary power is to pose uncomfortable questions that the narrative of the Reluctant Superpower has heretofore allowed Americans to evade. What is the motive force underlying the growth of American revolutionary power? What will it cost the United States to maintain the order in which the American revolution has culminated? What are the moral dilemmas to which the triumph of this revolution is likely to give rise?


The American foreign policy establishment would prefer, for the most part, that citizens remain oblivious to these questions. Indeed, foreign policy professionals in general have a strong preference for citizens who don’t ask questions, believing that in a democracy the conduct of foreign policy is most effective when the people are compliant-as was the case in the United States through most of the postwar era.

To be sure, the collapse of communism threatened momentarily to remove the basis for that compliance. Scrambling to check the erosion of popular support for American globalism-an erosion made painfully evident by the humiliating electoral defeat of a “foreign policy President” in 1992-the foreign policy establishment threw itself into the task of devising a new formula to justify America’s role in the world. Much as the promulgation of an “official” interpretation of the Cold War’s origins in the late 1940s had helped forge a broad anti-Communist consensus, so an authoritative interpretation of the Cold War’s “lessons” might lay the foundation for a post-Cold War consensus. By limiting the boundaries of permissible discourse, foreign policy professionals hoped to minimize any discontinuity of American policy caused by the disappearance of the Evil Empire that had provided the primary rationale for that policy.

The exhilarating-and rightly celebrated-culmination of the Soviet-American rivalry provided an ideal point of departure for this undertaking. Thus, the premise of the new orthodoxy was simplicity itself: We Won. As applied to future policy, the implications of winning were twofold. First, the outcome of the Cold War affirmed the wisdom, capacity, and continuing imperative of “American leadership” exercised on a global scale. Second, the fresh circumstance to which that success had given way presented the United States with a “strategic opportunity” to create a peaceful and prosperous international order enduring far into the future.

As a result, throughout the 1990s the national “conversation” about foreign policy has focused obsessively on a single issue: will the United States grasp the opportunity that beckons? Or, as it has on earlier occasions, will the Reluctant Superpower give in to irresponsibility and backsliding, with all the dire results that will ensue as a consequence?


Thus, to judge by the atmospherics surrounding the foreign policy crises of the past several years, the world’s “indispensable nation” (a phrase favored by President Clinton) teeters on the brink of headlong retreat. Americans, we are led to believe, may at any moment turn their backs on the world. Such ostensibly precarious circumstances have encouraged advocates and interest groups to advertise their favorite issue as the crucial test of America’s willingness to stay the course. In this way, the Bosnian civil war, awful enough on its own terms, gets inflated into Sarajevo 1914; reluctance to ratify NAFTA points directly to the reimposition of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff; and NATO enlargement becomes the all-or-nothing equivalent of the Versailles Treaty.

Thus refurbished and renewed, the narrative of the Reluctant Superpower retains its potency: hand wringing over the supposed American penchant for fecklessness retains undeniable tactical utility. Yet in a larger sense this mythic version of U.S. diplomacy is counterproductive and even dangerous. The proposition that on any given issue the United States faces a stark choice between Engagement or Abandonment is simply spurious. Whether intended or not, the real effect of portraying U.S. foreign relations as a succession of crises, each posing a critical test of national resolve, is to divert attention from the actual dilemmas awaiting the United States as a triumphant sponsor of revolution.

We have entered radically different terrain. We need a new map. We need a new narrative.


The new narrative would incorporate material heretofore deemed extraneous or distracting. It would set aside notions that the United States is innocent and the world corrupt. It would not pretend that America’s abiding aspiration has been simply to live in peace that others obdurately deny to us. Rather than purporting to disdain power, it would allow instead that power in all of its dimensions-political, military, economic, and cultural-has been central to America’s revolutionary purposes. It would emphasize the positive as distinguished from the defensive or reactive role of power. It would accept as fact that the United States acquires and exercises power in order to enable American society to flourish and to extend the sway of American values. It would acknowledge that those twin objectives are inextricably linked.

In short, the new narrative would both recognize and ratify the grand enterprise in which the United States has been engaged, off and on, for a century. That enterprise spans administrations, transcends party and ideology, and persists-as has become apparent since the demise of the Soviet Union-independent of any immediate threat to American security. The historian John Lewis Gaddis has characterized the result as “an empire by invitation.” If so, the invitation is one to which those presiding over U.S. foreign policy have long since given collective assent. As a direct result of that enterprise, the United States has ascended to the status of global hegemon, with far-flung interests and responsibilities and without a challenger worthy of the name. The implicit, if officially unacknowledged, grand strategy of the United States today is to consolidate and preserve its world supremacy, with the clear understanding that doing so may well require the further extension of American influence.


Both the neoliberals and the neoconservatives who together preside over the contemporary political scene endorse that enterprise. Both camps happily credit American leadership with whatever good has emerged from an otherwise disastrous century, from the democratization of Germany and Japan to the final collapse of communism. Both agree that military power undergirds the effectiveness of that leadership. Both, therefore, are committed to maintaining world-dominant military capabilities, a sharp departure from traditional American practice when the passing of crisis meant reverting to a minimalist establishment. They are united in opposing critics, coming from the right or the left, who express reservations about a strategy of global preeminence, whether on practical or moral grounds. They denounce such critics as timid, fretful, pessimistic, defeatist-and, predictably, tag them as Isolationists. In other important respects, however, the neoliberals and neoconservatives differ in their vision of American hegemony. Those opposing visions-and the peculiar contradictions that each entails-define the real fault lines in the glacis of present-day U.S. foreign policy.

The administration of President Bill Clinton embodies contemporary neoliberalism. Yet the prefix “neo” is misleading. Apart from promoting a trendy Global Agenda that purports to incorporate environmental issues, population control, and women’s rights into the foreign policy mainstream, little about the neoliberal perspective deserves the appellation “new.” In public pronouncements, neoliberals affirm their commitment to human rights. They recite clichés about the United States leading a “community of nations” engaged in “multilateral” efforts to alleviate the world’s problems. But the essence of neoliberal thinking derives from old-fashioned liberal economics. In President Clinton’s succinct formulation, “trade, investment, and commerce” will produce “a structure of opportunity and peace.” For neoliberals, cutting trade deals, reducing tariffs, protecting property rights, and running interference for American private enterprise-the entire package gilded with the idiom of globalization and earnest professions of America’s abiding concern for democracy and human rights-constitute the heart of foreign policy.

Clinton Administration officials tout this emphasis on the economic dimension of foreign policy as a remarkable innovation. Thanks to Bill Clinton, then Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor bragged in 1996, “trade and international economics have joined the foreign policy table.” In fact, such claims to originality-if standard fare for this uniquely self-absorbed administration-are without merit. The Clinton White House has simply revived themes already much in evidence a century or more ago and never entirely absent from U.S. foreign policy since. The expectation that securing a world open to trade and investment will enable America to do good even as it does well fits squarely in the hoary tradition of Herbert Hoover and Cordell Hull.

If the prospect of creating structures of peace provides the ostensible inspiration for the neoliberal preoccupation with trade and investment, anxiety reinforces that hope. American well-being, neoliberals believe, depends upon continuous economic growth. Economic expansion, in turn, depends on increasing the American share of the global economy, especially in rapidly developing regions such as Latin America and the Asia-Pacific. Thus, according to then Secretary of State Warren Christopher speaking in 1996, “We’ve passed the point where we can sustain prosperity on sales within the United States.” Current Secretary of State Madeleine Albright agrees: “Our own prosperity depends on having partners that are open to our exports, investment, and ideas.” Without sustained expansion of trade and investment in these “emerging markets,” the American economy is likely to falter, with potentially disastrous consequences. To President Clinton himself, the issue is axiomatic: “Without growth abroad, our own economy cannot thrive.”

For neoliberals, there is literally no alternative to growth. Abundance mutes tensions and papers over contradictions, in many cases the byproducts of past liberal experiments. Thus, behind the Clinton Administration’s acknowledgment of economic interdependence lies the fear that any substantial lapse in economic expansion could well ignite a crisis for which modern liberalism, bereft of fresh ideas, will be without response. Failure to secure expansion abroad invites calamity at home.

When it comes to military affairs, neoliberals strike appropriately progressive attitudes, professing to look forward to the day when economic forces will render military power obsolete. In the meantime, the imperative of maintaining the order required of a highly interdependent world economy prods them to use force with notable frequency. The emphasis is on using military forces not to win wars but as an international constabulary. Yet a fully effective implementation of this approach would anticipate and forestall rather than merely react. Thus, for neoliberals, the lure of using American military power not simply to quell disorder but to prevent it in the first place can become irresistible. In this regard, although hardly noticed by the American public, a recent military exercise provides the best illustration to date of the evolving neoliberal paradigm for the role of U.S. forces after the Cold War.

In September 1997, when a contingent of American troops, after twenty exhausting hours in Air Force transports, parachuted into Kazakhstan, one of five new Central Asian republics, they went where no U.S. forces had gone before. American soldiers did not venture into this remote corner of the former Soviet Union to support and defend the Constitution or to protect the United States against enemies foreign and domestic. Instead, according to the general in command, they deployed to demonstrate America’s “global capability” and, by participating in exercises with local armies, to signal that the United States has important interests in this desolate, but energy rich, region. State Department officials and Pentagon planners look to a periodic American military presence in Central Asia to create a climate of stability, putting in place political rules of behavior and giving potential rule-breakers pause. Henceforth, he who threatens the stability of Central Asia invites confrontation with the world’s only superpower. Thus, even in an era of no overt enemies, does neoliberalism’s preoccupation with order give rise to new security commitments in distant places about which the average American knows little and cares less.

Neoliberals pursue American hegemony by indirection. Neoconservatives make no effort to conceal their intentions. Leading neoconservative writers have no problem acknowledging the paramount status of the United States as the world’s only superpower. Indeed, they revel in it. Thus, for example, when William Kristol and Robert Kagan write unblushingly about an American “responsibility to lead the world,” the style of leadership they have in mind bears little resemblance to pussy-footing multilateralism. Kristol and Kagan want the United States to place itself unambiguously in charge, exercising a “benevolent global hegemony” based on “moral supremacy and moral confidence.”

Nor do neoconservatives flinch at the prospect of America therefore assuming the role of global policeman. Indeed, writes Joshua Muravchik, “it must be more than that.” A policeman enforces laws set by others; he gets orders from higher authority. In today’s world, however, “there is no higher authority than America.” Hence the need, according to Muravchik, for the United States to serve not only as policeman but also as global mediator, teacher, and benefactor-and, by implication, magistrate, disciplinarian, nanny, and crusader.

Acutely conscious of the disarray into which American culture has fallen, neoconservatives remain intensely nationalistic. (Indeed, neoconservative writers sometimes hint that a glorious crusade in a noble cause might be just the thing to reinvigorate the flagging sense of American identity.) They admit to no limits on what the forceful exercise of American leadership can accomplish. For writers like Michael Ledeen, the United States has a “historic mission” to animate “a worldwide mass movement against all forms of tyranny.” Does China persist in opposing the rising tide of democratization? The solution, according to the columnist George Will, is simple: the policy of the United States “should be to inoculate China with the American spirit,” thereby “melting . . . the Chinese regime’s apparatus of social control.”

To back up their faith in the American spirit, neoconservatives look to armed force. “The bedrock of America’s global leadership,” writes Muravchik, “is military might.” Although Pentagon spending currently exceeds the combined defense budgets of the next several largest powers (most of them longstanding U.S. allies), neocons are not content. Kristol and Kagan, for example, want to increase military spending by $60-80 billion per year, essentially restoring the American defense budget to Cold War levels.

Neoconservatives justify the need for a robust military establishment not to support the sort of ventures that neoliberals pursue under the guise of peacemaking, but to deter or preempt the rise of a peer competitor. In the neoconservative view, “chaos” in the underdeveloped world, “rogue states,” the spread of ethnic violence and religious fundamentalism-candidates in the competition to devise a new paradigm for international security-are matters of no more than secondary importance. They do not directly threaten American security. If the United States cannot altogether ignore, say, violence in the Balkans or anarchy in a failed sub-Saharan state, neither should Americans allow such matters to mask far more serious if less immediate dangers. One danger in particular gives neoconservatives pause: the prospect of a resurgent Russia or an affluent and technologically sophisticated China-or both-ten or twenty years hence mounting a serious challenge to American dominance.

Neoconservatives do not relish the prospect of a future showdown between competing superpowers. Although more hawkish in their rhetoric than neoliberals, they tend to be considerably more circumspect when it comes to the actual use of force. To avert military confrontation, neoconservatives look ultimately to a process of transformation, converting prospective adversaries to democratic capitalism, whether by example, cajolery, or coercion.

Preserving the leading position of the United States, therefore, demands ideological rather than economic expansionism. This linkage of American interests with the spread of American ideals underlies sharp differences between neoconservatives and neoliberals when it comes to trade policy and human rights. Unwilling to countenance the slightest disruption of American economic growth, the neoliberal Clinton Administration subordinates political and security considerations in order to reap short-term commercial benefits. One sees this most vividly in the eagerness with which the Clinton White House pursues expanded commercial relations with China even if that means sharing advanced technology adaptable for military purposes and ignoring the widespread violation of human rights. Neoconservatives are no less predisposed to favor free trade. But they view trade less as an end in itself than as an instrument to support the larger goal of securing the global adoption of American values. The principle of free trade can be compromised; the commitment of the United States to its fundamental ideals must not. Thus, when it comes to democracy and human rights, in contrast to the yawning gap between neoliberal talk and action (again, Clinton on China illustrates the point), neoconservatives are the custodians of American exceptionalism and the true heirs of Woodrow Wilson. Like Wilson, they aspire to a leadership that is at once universal in extent and thoroughly American in character.


Each of these competing visions of the American imperium will give rise to its own complications. In both, the pitfalls awaiting the United States are large. They alike contain large defects that call into question their prospects for success.

The neoliberal vision is unsustainable, a military-economic Ponzi scheme. With delicious irony, the Clinton Administration’s aggressive sponsorship of American commercial interests recalls the revisionist critique of American diplomacy devised a generation ago by the New Left. Back when the President and his friends were attending Georgetown and Oxford, writings by William Appleman Williams and other members of the “Open Door School” were all the rage. These historians argued that the beginning of enlightenment lay in ripping the mask off of U.S. foreign policy. New Left scholars declared that all the Cold War talk about defending the “Free World” was so much hokum. The record of American diplomacy amounted to ill-disguised economic imperialism, aimed at penetrating and dominating foreign markets. Making ceaseless economic expansion abroad the sine qua non of prosperity and stability at home condemned the United States to perennial conflict-Vietnam was a case in point-and would undermine democracy at home. Thirty years later, with pronouncements by senior Clinton Administration officials seemingly cribbed from Chamber of Commerce propaganda, the Open Door thesis-at least in this one respect-deserves a second look.

Thus, it is a safe bet that Professor Williams would find the military adventurism of the singularly unmilitary Clinton Administration unsurprising. By asserting that American well-being is contingent upon access to an orderly and expanding global economy, neoliberal dogma makes it imperative that the United States guarantee that order. When Mr. Clinton sends rangers to take out General Aideed in Somalia, occupies Haiti, launches punitive strikes against Saddam Hussein, intervenes in Bosnia, or sails a carrier task force into the middle of a dispute between China and Taiwan, he invites charges of using force with little apparent strategic consistency. According to its own lights, however, the administration’s record of using force makes all the sense in the world. In the neoliberal view, to permit instability is to put the international economy and by extension the U.S. economy at risk-hence the alacrity with which President Clinton dispatches American soldiers to police, punish, and pacify.

The likelihood that these constabulary burdens are likely to prove permanent, not to mention enormously costly in material and human terms, is the dirty little secret of neoliberalism’s furtive hegemony. As Benjamin Schwarz has observed, the very “logic of economic interdependence leads to a proliferation of American ‘security’ commitments in what all agree is an unstable world order.” This, writes Schwarz, leads to the “dismal conclusion” that “America’s worldwide security commitments are a truly permanent burden.”

Furthermore, the heightened military activism and new security obligations undertaken by the Clinton Administration and its immediate predecessor (not untainted by neoliberalism) suggest the contradictions that this approach to policy invites. Thus, in the Persian Gulf, where an American-led coalition intervenes to punish one autocrat for disrupting the status quo, U.S. forces remain to protect other autocrats committed to preserving it, with our friends in the region hardly more interested in human rights or democracy than our adversaries. In Somalia, where American soldiers arrive to succor the starving, they stay on to kill women and children in bloody street fighting. In Haiti, where the United States intervenes to restore democracy, despots in tropical suits supplant despots in uniform and democracy remains nowhere to be seen. In Bosnia, where genocide creates a moral imperative for action, the United States and its allies deem it inexpedient even to detain the perpetrators of ghastly war crimes. Then there are the Kurds: having led an emergency effort to rescue them in 1991, the United States of late turns a blind eye as Turks and Iraqis take turns pummeling the erstwhile subjects of American solicitude. Finally, there is the matter of proliferation: standing in the forefront of global efforts to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, the United States simultaneously floods the international market with top-quality conventional weapons, far outselling all other rivals as arms merchant to the world.

Further compromising the integrity of this neoliberal version of American hegemony is the character of modern liberalism itself. The compensatory rewards that neoliberals proffer to those who abide by the rules of the United States are as likely to inspire loathing as to command respect. In its favor, as Irving Kristol notes, the Pax Americana “lacks the brute coercion that characterized European imperialism. But it also lacks the authentic missionary spirit of that older imperialism.” At most, continues Kristol, the American empire promises the world “a growth economy, a ‘consumerist’ society, popular elections, and a dominant secular-hedonistic ethos. It is a combination that is hard to resist-and equally hard to respect in its populist vulgarity. It is an imperium with a minimum of moral substance.” While the people of the world may find the allure of American popular culture momentarily irresistible, “one wonders how soon they will weary of it.”

Not, one hopes, before the American people weary of it first. Indeed, the inadequacies of neoliberalism, particularly as a response to any but the basest human aspirations, loom so large as to offer at least some solace: in the end, neoliberalism will discredit itself. When that occurs, Americans may well disenthrall themselves of the diplomatic formula that neoliberals have devised to prop up their dubious endeavor.

By comparison, contemporary American conservatism, whatever its idiosyncrasies and wayward tendencies, at least sees the human person as something more that the sum of his or her appetites. Recognizing the fact of original sin, conservatives are also certain that a profound discontent forms an indelible part of human nature. At its best, the conservative movement seeks to restore to the United States the ordered liberty that permits citizens to address that discontent by aspiring to genuinely worthy pursuits.

Yet neoconservatives believe in the possibility of greatness not only for individuals, but for nations as well. Viewing (with considerable justification) the outcome of the Cold War as a matter of personal vindication, neoconservatives remain dazzled by the results of their exertions. Success against communism has fostered the belief that for America the mantle of greatness lies in underwriting the world’s progress toward democracy everywhere. There is, in this self-prescribed obligation to light the lamp of liberty around the globe, vaulting ambition, no small amount of arrogance, and real potential for jingoism. But there is also idealism and high-mindedness. For these very reasons the neoconservative prescription for American hegemony cannot be dismissed lightly. For those same reasons, it may prove to be a singularly reckless proposition.

The neoconservative prescription for American hegemony is defective on two counts. First, it overstates the impact of democratization on the character of peoples and the behavior of nations. Second, it underestimates the obstacles that an American-sponsored campaign of global democratization must overcome. Ironically, in the latter case, neoconservatives-righteous combatants in the ongoing culture war-err because they misconstrue the true extent of the cultural crisis that has befallen the West.

For neoconservatives, democratization comprises the Big Scorecard of foreign policy, the authoritative measure of America’s progress in setting the world right. A nation that adopts popular government takes its place among the elect. Nations languishing in tyranny or wallowing in disorder remain on the wrong side of the ledger. Yet only for the moment: neoconservatives assume that progress toward democracy-given a generous American nudge-is virtually inevitable. Once having become democratic, a nation is presumed also to become peaceful, with the expectation that it will conform thereafter to the rules of behavior prescribed by the benign hegemon.

This curiously generic view of democracy admits to little variation in the actual practice of self-government among different countries. Furthermore, it implies that particular habits of political practice diminish or seal the wellsprings of collective disenchantment, antipathy, and ambition, feeding the idea that the citizens of democratic nations are inherently given to living in peace with their neighbors. The history of the United States itself would suggest that this bit of conventional wisdom does not stand up to close scrutiny. As Fareed Zakaria has observed in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, democracies can, in fact, be “illiberal.” In certain circumstances, the concomitance of newly formed democratic governments is likely to be “hyper-nationalism and war-mongering.”

More specifically, the frequently heard assertion that democracies do not wage war against one another is dubious in the extreme. One need not be a diehard believer in the Lost Cause to acknowledge that the Confederate States of America constituted a genuine, if deeply flawed, democracy, pitted in one of the fiercest of modern wars against another genuine (although imperfect) democracy. Similarly, if universal manhood suffrage, an elected legislature exercising real authority, and adherence to the rule of law are marks of democracy, then in 1914 Germany no less than France or Great Britain deserved to be classified as democratic. Furthermore, the historical record includes several confrontations in which democracies narrowly averted war-the escape having nothing to do with common devotion to democratic practice. Consider, for example, the Fashoda incident of 1898 involving Britain and France or the Ruhr crisis of 1923 involving France and Germany. In short, neoconservative predictions that a democratic world will culminate in a Kantian perpetual peace, with the costs of sustaining American hegemony being correspondingly slight, deserve to be treated skeptically.

Moreover, if neoconservatives overstate the benefits that will flow from democratization, they likewise tend to exaggerate the ease with which democracy will expand its hold. Without doubt, people around the world thirst for freedom and authentic self-government. Equally without doubt, the obstacles to satisfying that thirst loom large. When it comes to nurturing the spread of democratic institutions, none of the three areas in which the United States today is especially dominant-military might, mastery of the so-called information revolution, and the “soft power” of pop culture and lifestyle-are likely to be decisive. In the end, values will count most.

Yet as conservatives above all understand, the United States has a problem with values. Americans are no longer quite sure what they ought to believe or what their nation stands for. As the sludge of multiculturalism seeps from the academy into everyday life, national identity becomes a cause for remorse or self-flagellation rather than a source of inspiration, collective self-confidence lapses, and moral certitude gives way to doubt and bewilderment. The politics of race, gender, and ethnicity demolish claims regarding the dignity of the individual, distorting beyond recognition the traditional American concept of equality. The insistence upon unfettered self-gratification tears at the basic structure of the family, sowing confusion about the most intimate human relationships.

In other words, the challenge that neoconservatives face in constructing their benign global order is that they must do so in the teeth of an intellectual climate that is deeply and resolutely hostile. Derisive of everything that conservatives hold dear, those who control our key cultural institutions will bitterly oppose any enterprise that assigns to the United States the “moral supremacy and moral confidence” that William Kristol and Robert Kagan identify as the essential underpinnings of American hegemony. After the crimes of slavery and racism, they say, after the mistreatment of Native Americans, the systematic oppression of women, the cruelties inflicted on gays and lesbians, who are Americans to pronounce judgment? Who are we to censure others? Sadly, the longer we ingest the fumes of cultural and moral relativism, the more difficult it becomes to persuade even ourselves that we can rightfully claim-indeed, at times ought to assert-such prerogatives.

Elsewhere in the world, those hostile to democracy (and to American hegemony) delight in our confusion and turn it to their own advantage. Their arguments seemingly legitimized by Western intellectuals contemptuous of the West and all its works, proponents of radical Islam and of “Asian values” mock American presumptuousness in admonishing others on matters such as community or respect for human life.

Thus, neoconservative advocacy of a campaign for global democratization implies a struggle fought on two fronts, one external and one domestic. A two-front war is a fundamentally risky venture, inviting over-extension, exhaustion, and premature decline. In this instance, with the people perplexed and our adversaries deeply entrenched and cunning, the correlation of forces is hardly promising. Thus, however insistent the neoconservative demand that the United States seize this particular moment to embark upon a democratic crusade, conditions for doing so are not especially auspicious. When facing multiple adversaries, sound strategy requires the designation of a main effort. Prudence dictates attending to the more dangerous foe first-which is why conservatives would do well to defer any new crusades abroad until they have turned the tide in the culture war at home.


However much neoliberals and neoconservatives may monopolize the current foreign policy debate, the schools of thought that they represent do not exhaust the range of possibilities available to the United States. Realism offers a third-and in every respect preferable-approach for guiding the policies of the world’s only superpower.


Herbert Butterfield once observed that realism tends to be a boast rather than a philosophy. More commonly in American political circles, realism has been an epithet. To the extent that it conjures up images of Machiavelli or Metternich, Americans dismiss realism as amoral and cynical. Yet the United States can draw on a specifically American realist tradition that is not synonymous with realpolitik. It is this American tradition-the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, and Hans Morgenthau-that offers an alternative to the flawed visions of neoliberals and neoconservatives.

Realism is not a cover for isolationism. The realist acknowledges the existence of an American imperium, although perhaps viewing it as, at best, a mixed blessing. If doubtful that empire-even “empire by invitation”-is entirely conducive to the well-being of American democracy, the realist nonetheless recognizes that the issue of whether or not to accept hegemonic responsibilities is moot. For the United States, there is no going back. Having mounted the tiger, we cannot easily dismount.

The American realist tradition in fact furnishes the surest guide for enabling the United States to sustain its preponderant position while avoiding the vanity and hubris that Morgenthau has identified as “the poisonous fruits of power.” Realism does not provide a formula for policy prescription, but it does offer criteria for analyzing policy alternatives. In contrast to the tawdriness and dishonesty of neoliberalism, realism offers directness and consistency. In place of the illusions and improvidence to which neoconservatism is prone, it requires the careful calibration of means with ends. Realism guards against a nation’s reach exceeding its grasp, precluding the “insolvency” that Lippmann cited as the defect to which American statecraft in this century has been peculiarly susceptible. It recognizes the wisdom of Lippmann’s dictum that sound policy “has been formed only when commitments and power have been brought into balance.” Above all, for conservatives who believe that the character of a nation counts for more than the expanse of its empire, realism allows for the responsible exercise of power abroad while accepting the primacy of efforts to revitalize the culture at home.

The realist vision is modest in scope and ambition. Wilson’s ultimate triumph over Lenin has revived American dreams of “managing history.” Niebuhr’s call for Americans to disavow such dreams, voiced nearly a half century ago, has today acquired renewed relevance. “The course of history cannot be coerced,” he warns, “in accordance with a particular conception of its ends.” That our own particular conception of politics has prevailed over various perverse alternatives is cause for celebration, but the realist knows that even that large success leaves much unsettled. Tying up history’s loose ends does not lie within the power of the United States, however energetically it may exert itself. Democratic capitalism, as it has evolved in the American setting, is unlikely to respond fully to the aspirations of peoples around the world. Understanding that, in Niebuhr’s words, “the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension,” realism accepts the imperative of humility.

Thus, for the realist, the obligation of a great power is not to embark upon crusades but to pursue its interests. If defined with sufficient breadth and imagination, those interests will likewise respond to the minimal requirements of others, permitting the creation of an equilibrium that, however precarious, may approximate peace. Indeed, only then can the expenditure of power be said to satisfy the truest interests of the United States itself.

The realist knows that the exercise of power involves moral hazards. For an imperial republic in particular, charting a course of action that is both responsible and moral will provide a source of continuing challenge. The realist accepts Niebuhr’s maxim that for a great nation “it is not possible to be both pure and responsible.” In the formulation of policy, observes Morgenthau, “moral principles can never be fully realized, but must at best be approximated.” Knowing this, the realist shoulders the burdens of power with more resignation than enthusiasm. “Power,” advises Niebuhr, “ought always to be exercised with a certain uneasiness of conscience.”

Wary of claims of American exceptionalism, the realist understands that the United States is intrinsically neither more nor less virtuous than other nations that have wielded great authority in the past. As a result, for a democratic hegemon, the crucial function of those outside of government is to challenge claims by agencies of state power that their motives and actions are intrinsically righteous. “Powerful men and nations,” warns Niebuhr, “are in greater peril from their own illusions than from their neighbors’ hostile designs.” For the world’s only superpower, the most pernicious illusion may well be to cling uncritically to the myth of its own uniqueness, innocence, and moral superiority. Taken not only as an explanation for past success but as a “permanent quality,” writes Morgenthau, that alleged moral superiority seemingly “justifies the national claim to be the lawgiver and arbiter of mankind.” The unhappy result may be to lure an overconfident and unsuspecting people “to jump into the abyss as if it were the consummation of their dreams.”


A century-long effort to secure acceptance of American revolutionary ideals has culminated in spectacular vindication. Having labored so assiduously to make its imprint on the world, the United States cannot withdraw from the leading role it has taken on in international affairs. Indeed, those who prattle about the dangers of isolationism only divert attention from more pressing concerns. Yet if the United States cannot divorce itself from the world, neither can it indulge in utopian dreams that fuel expectations of sustaining American dominance on the cheap. Neither the process of economic globalization nor continuing efforts to spread democracy will free the United States from its vexing and morally perilous responsibilities. The position to which America has ascended demands that we shed our outmoded pretensions of republican innocence and accept the necessity henceforth of living with an uneasy conscience.

Andrew J. Bacevich is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Realist Perspective on US Foreign Policy

January 14, 2016

Realist Perspective on US Foreign Policy

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

by Stephen M Walt

What Would a Realist World Have Looked Like?


Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush Sr and Jimmy Carter

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

First, and most obviously, had Bush listened to Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, or some other notable realists, he would not have invaded Iraq in 2003. Bush would have focused solely on eliminating al Qaeda, instead of getting bogged down in Iraq.

Thousands of U.S. soldiers would not have been killed or wounded, and several hundred thousand dead Iraqis would still be alive. Iran’s regional influence would be substantially smaller, and the Islamic State would not exist. Thus, rejecting sound realist advice has cost the U.S. taxpayer several trillion dollars, along with the obvious human price and the resulting geopolitical chaos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A realist would also have warned Obama not to say “Assad must go” or to draw a “red line” about the use of chemical weapons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s my challenge to Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos, the Sulzberger family, and anyone else who runs a major media operation: Why not hire a realist? If you’re looking for some suggestions, how about Paul Pillar, Chas Freeman Jr., Robert Blackwill, Steve Clemons, Michael Desch, Steve Chapman, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, Andrew Bacevich, or Daniel Larison?

Give one of them a weekly column, and then you could genuinely claim to be offering your readers a reasonably comprehensive and balanced range of opinion on international affairs. I mean: What are you folks so afraid of?


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.