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DLC | Blueprint Magazine | October 18, 2006
Here Come the Realists
By Will Marshall
Table of Contents

Roll over Bismarck, tell Kissinger the news: Realpolitik is making a comeback on the right.

Germany's Iron Chancellor and America's crafty diplomat exemplify the "realist" tradition of statecraft. It went out of fashion when the Cold War ended and freedom seemed to be breaking out everywhere. But now, appalled by President Bush's ham-fisted attempt to spread democracy at gunpoint, many conservatives are rediscovering its austere charms.

Realism is a theory of relations between states. It holds that power and interests, more than ideas and values, shape nations' external behavior.

It could be described as the default foreign policy of the Republican Party. President George H.W. Bush, for example, was a card-carrying realist, as were his secretary of State, James A. Baker III, and national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. Yet they happened to preside over U.S. foreign policy just as the democratic revolutions of 1989 were exposing realism's blind spots, especially its preference for the status quo over political change.

During the 1990s, GOP realists slammed President Clinton for pursuing a strategy of "democratic enlargement" and sending U.S. troops into Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Conservative pundits gibed that Democrats had finally overcome their aversion to using force -- but only where no vital U.S. interests were at stake.

So it's deliciously ironic that GOP realists have now turned on one of their own: George W. Bush. Candidate Bush campaigned in 2000 as a classic realist, extolling "humility" in foreign policy and deriding Clinton's attempts at nation-building. But 9/11 transformed Bush into the realists' worst nightmare -- a Republican who combines Teddy Roosevelt's "big-stick" militarism with Woodrow Wilson's liberal idealism.

In a book titled Ethical Realism, Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman charge Bush with "ignorant utopianism and megalomaniacal ambition." And realists reserve special scorn for neoconservatives, whom they blame for hijacking GOP foreign policy and egging Bush on to invade Iraq. The president's attempts to force a new liberal order upon the turbulent Middle East strikes realists as particularly dangerous -- a "faith-based foreign policy" in the words of Dimitri Simes of the Nixon Center, a vibrant hive for realist thinkers in Washington.

The realists' complaints, in fact, often echo the Democrats' indictment of Bush's unilateralism, disregard for the rule of law, and excessively militarized approach to national security. But progressives should be wary of realist claims that the way to make America safer is to limit its power and its international commitments.

Arguing that U.S. overreaching has provoked a furious global backlash, Lieven and Hulsman recommend a posture of "national modesty." But America's restrained reaction to al Qaeda's escalating attacks before 9/11 only emboldened Osama bin Laden to up the ante.

And while Bush certainly has done much to discredit the idea of spreading democracy, progressives should demand more than "stability" in the Middle East. As the U.N. Arab Development Reports and the September 2006 National Intelligence Estimate make clear, jihadist extremism has its roots in the region's lagging political, economic, and social development. Instead of propping up corrupt autocrats, America should side with their peoples' aspirations for more openness, justice, and freedom. And instead of trying to impose democracy by force, the United States and its allies should help Muslim reformers create civic institutions that underpin human rights, free enterprise, and democracy.

Democrats should leave realpolitik to Republicans and instead offer an internationalist alternative to Bush's policies. Rather than limit America's power, this approach would embed it in an expanding alliance of global democracies and a modernized system of collective security better able to protect the weak from the strong. In an interdependent world, America should use its power to shape international institutions that can cope effectively with global terror networks, failing states, nuclear proliferation, and mass murder in places like Darfur. But America must remain the catalyst for collective action; there is simply no one else who can take our place.

Realists see American idealism as a dangerous distraction from the unsentimental pursuit of core national interests. But progressives believe U.S. foreign policy works best when it reflects the moral sentiments and political values of the American people. Recognizing that what happens within states is often more important for world order than what happens between states, progressives understand that the peaceful spread of liberal democracy is a strategic imperative for America.

Realists can help ensure that the United States exercises its great power prudently. But they can't supply a positive vision for using America's power to create a safer, more prosperous, and just world. That's a job for progressive internationalists.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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