Realism: Amid War and Recession, Americans Are in a No-Nonsense, Matter-of-Fact Mood. but That, Says a Leading Architect of George W. Bush's Foreign Policy Is No Reason to Adopt a Misguided Doctrine

By Wolfowitz, Paul | Foreign Policy, September-October 2009 | Go to article overview

Realism: Amid War and Recession, Americans Are in a No-Nonsense, Matter-of-Fact Mood. but That, Says a Leading Architect of George W. Bush's Foreign Policy Is No Reason to Adopt a Misguided Doctrine


Wolfowitz, Paul, Foreign Policy


"We're All Realists Now,"

No. Pragmatists maybe, but not "realists." Barack Obama's election as U.S. president delighted many people, especially the self-described foreign-policy "realists" who accused his predecessor, George W. Bush, of denying reality in favor of dangerous idealism. Obama has praised the realpolitik of Bush's father, George H.W. Bush. And a White House official recently told the Wall Street Journal, "[Obama] has really kind of clicked with that old-school, end-of-the-Cold-War wise-men generation." The elder Bush's national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, called Obama's election a rejection of the younger Bush "in favor of realism."

Of course foreign policy should be grounded in reality. Americans agree that foreign-policy goals should be achievable--that the United States should match its ends with its means. What sensible person could argue with that? That is simply pragmatism. But "realism" as a doctrine (I'll spare you the quote marks henceforth) goes much further: In the words of one leading realist, the principal purpose of U.S. foreign policy should be "to manage relations between states" rather than "alter the nature of states."

Unquestionably, what makes realism seem so plausible today is skepticism about the war in Iraq and the belief that it was part of a crusade to "impose" democracy by force. I believe, to the contrary, that the purpose of the war was to remove a threat to national and international security. Whether the Iraq war was right or wrong, it was not about imposing democracy, and the decision to establish a representative government afterward was the most realistic option, compared with the alternatives of installing another dictator or prolonging the U.S. occupation. In Afghanistan, the same choice was made for the same reasons after the Taliban fell, and many realists not only supported that decision, but argued for putting even more effort into "nation-building."

This is not the place to reargue the Iraq war. So let's stipulate that the issue here is not whether to use military force to promote changes in the nature of states; it's about whether--and how--to promote such changes peacefully. On that issue there is a genuine debate between realists and their critics. And a desire for pragmatism should not be confused with a specific foreign-policy doctrine that minimizes the importance of change within states.

"Barack Obama Is a Realist."

Unclear. Critics of realism, like myself, do not think that a businesslike management of the "relations between states" should lead us to neglect issues regarding the "nature of states." In reality, the internal makeup of states has a huge effect on their external behavior--so it must also be a significant consideration for U.S. foreign policy.

Judging by his own words, Obama seems to agree with this, and not the realist dogma. In Moscow, the U.S. president deliberately spoke over the heads of the Kremlin's leaders to tell Russians, "Governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not." In Cairo, he stated, "Government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power." And in Ghana he was even clearer: "No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy; that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end."

I like the sound of that, but some realists may not.

Nor do Obama's early actions display a doctrinaire realism. He is supporting democracy in Pakistan and, notably, in Iraq, where his policy looks forward and not back, keeping the United States engaged while pressing Iraqis to meet their responsibilities. On the other hand, his administration did not offer much support for the remarkable reform movement in Iran. Ostensibly, this was out of concern that reformers would be labeled American agents. …

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