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.