Originally published at Rubin Reports.
One of the main features of this misguided contemporary foreign policy debate is the corruption of the concept of ‘realism.’ In some ways, the school called realism was simply a way of teaching principles long regarded as obvious in Europe to Americans, whose idealism about the world had both good and bad implications. Both isolationism and the idea that America’s mission is to spread democracy are typical non-realist patterns of how American exceptionalism plays into foreign policy thinking. That’s why the concepts that made up realism were introduced to the United States by Hans Morgenthau, a refugee from Germany, and most clearly practiced in office by Henry Kissinger, ditto.
But American policymakers–with notable and often disastrous exceptions–have mostly used a realist approach in their work to the point that they take it for granted. At times, of course, ideology has overridden realism, with the two most obvious cases being Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Republican presidents, for a reason we will see in a moment, have tended to be more universally Realist because they have accepted the idea of the predominance of national interest and power. The one who was probably least so was George W. Bush.
And, no, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan are not ‘realists’ or realists either.
This is a complex subject and one discussed at some length in my book, Secrets of State. It is important to emphasize that Morgenthau articulated ideas already widely held and practiced but never so effectively put into words. In his writings, Morgenthau stressed that the making of foreign policy lay at the juncture between human nature, the characteristics and views of leaders, and objective factors of geopolitics.
The assumption of international affairs’ thinking was that strong countries want to stay strong and be stronger; weaker countries want to survive. They thus must analyze how to achieve these goals. A good realist disregards ideology, which gets into the way of objectively viewing this situation.
The problem that many who claim to practice this view today don’t understand is that the realist knows that ideology does get in the way of objective interest all the time. The first question a realist asks is: asks “How does this policy affect the power and interests of the nation?” But the realist knows that this is the way things should be done, not necessarily the way that things happen.
Today, realism has been corrupted into a bizarre reversal of its principles which begins by asserting that it doesn’t matter who rules a country; they must follow a policy that maximizes the country’s interest. Note the distinction:
The realist says, “If I were making policy this is what I would do….” Or: “This is what the government should do.”
The contemporary misunderstanders say that this is what a country will do.
Here’s a simple example: Egypt has national interests. These include maintaining peace with its neighbors, focusing on stability and development. It can seek Arab or Islamic leadership but what will that bring but instability, violence, and the waste of resources? That would be an ideological deviation from Egypt’s national interests. After all, Egypt tried such a policy (Arab nationalist version) for decades and it was a disaster. The realist says: Egypt shouldn’t do it. The pseudo-realists who control much of the Western debate today, on the other hand, say: It is impossible for Egypt to be radical or governed by an ideology that runs against the objective national interests. Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood must become moderate. [For a picture of the Brotherhood that shows this isn't true, see Eric Trager's excellent lecture.]
At the same time, though, realism understands that conflict is a natural part of the international environment and can be very useful for a regime. If you stir up people, get them obsessed with foreign enemies, and engage them in international adventures—as dictators including Hitler and Saddam Hussein understood—they are more likely to support the current government, excuse its failings, and ignore domestic problems. This is the role that the Arab-Israeli conflict has played in Arabic-speaking countries.
Wiser leaders like Egypt’s like Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein understood that the fanatical pursuit of this conflict was not in their country’s true interests. But such is the power of ideology, the opportunism of their opponents, and the value of such a policy for radical regimes that they received scant praise for their objective and pursuit of national benefits.