Realism Doesn’t Need to Be ‘Reclaimed’

Ted Bromund, Michael Auslin, and Colin Dueck want to “reclaim American realism,” and spell out what they mean by that in a new article for American Affairs. The idea that realism needs to be “reclaimed” is the first sign that the foreign policy they have in mind has little in common with the one most realists want:

A new foreign policy can be built by recovering a traditional realist approach that held for much of the Cold War era and which was shared by both parties. Doing so will reclaim American realism from those on the right who have made it the handmaiden of neo-isolationism [bold mine-DL], while ensuring that it avoids the overreach that since 2003 has undermined support for America’s role abroad.

The authors’ framing of the problem suggests that they think there has been too much of a reaction against the foreign policy errors of the last sixteen years, but they are not quite willing to identify their preferred policies with the ones that led to those errors. Their reference to “Barack Obama’s retreats” is a giveaway that they are going to argue for a generally very aggressive set of policies–at least more aggressive than those of the Obama era–and then call it realism. I suspect most realists won’t buy it, but the bigger problem is that it abuses the name of realism and tries to use that name to smuggle something else into the debate. The result will be something that Republican hawks and hard-liners will have little to complain about precisely because it has so little to do with realism as understood by Posen, Walt, et al.

The would-be reclaimers aren’t very worried about needing to learn the lessons of the Iraq war. As far as they’re concerned, there has already been too much worrying about this:

Just as importantly, we recognize that we cannot live by postmortem. An obsessive focus on the past—above all, on the Iraq war—risks paralyzing us today.

The implication here is that taking the Iraq war as a cautionary tale about the dangers of overreach and unnecessary intervention runs the risk of preventing tomorrow’s unnecessary intervention, and so that must be avoided. Because they don’t want an “obsessive focus” on the past, the authors don’t address the problems of the overreach they say they want to avoid. Doing that would require revisiting and criticizing Bush-era policy errors.

The authors dismiss the charge of “free-riding” against allies:

But the problem is not that our allies are free riding on us, for when we cut our defenses, they do not increase theirs. It is that the history, culture, and politics of our allies now make them unwilling to accept that military strength is vital to diplomacy and deterrence alike.

Since the U.S. rarely reduces military spending and spends as much as the next seven countries combined, we don’t know that our allies wouldn’t increase theirs to pick up the slack if we made substantial reductions. As soon as there are even slight reductions in military spending, we hear overwrought warnings that the military is being gutted. The U.S. almost never decreases military spending by a large enough amount for long enough to see how our allies would react, and there are always hawks insisting that the military budget be even larger than it already is. The authors say that the U.S. “cannot sustain our alliances unless the American people believe that every member nation is making a fair contribution,” but then proceed to make excuses for why that contribution will never be forthcoming. Many realists have usually argued just the opposite: wealthy allies have the means to provide for more of their own defense, and the U.S. shouldn’t continually bail them out and help them avoid the political debates at home that they need to have.

They take the enviable geographical position of the U.S. as a reason to be entangled in alliances overseas:

Given our good fortune, and our strength, it is inevitable that we are the ones who are forward deployed, because we are the ones who have the geopolitical freedom to help.

But this is not inevitable. It is because we are remarkably secure on account of our location that we do not need to be “forward deployed” and that is why so many of our alliance commitments are unnecessary. Seventy-two years after the end of WWII, the U.S. continues to treat wealthy European and Asian allies as dependents that cannot fend for themselves, and many of them have been content to remain so as long as we keep assuming the costs and risks of protecting them. If these allies aren’t ready to assume more of that burden for themselves now, they never will be, and that arrangement is becoming increasingly untenable.

The authors also seem to have little interest in diplomatic engagement with rivals, which is a very odd trait for supposed realists:

Starry-eyed “resets” or “open hands” towards aggressive, repressive regimes only confuse those who wish to rally beneath a flag of freedom and liberalism. Trying to win over the whole world risks losing those already on our side.

Put another way, they think making efforts to improve relations with these states is a waste of time and shouldn’t be attempted at all. The goal of engagement isn’t to “win over the whole world,” but to secure cooperation on specific issues in the American interest. Even if such engagement delivers tangible results in terms of cooperation or the resolution of a longstanding dispute, the authors would rather that the U.S. keeps its distance for fear of “losing” states currently aligned with us. The odd thing about this is that engagement with Iran didn’t “confuse” our allies in Europe, and it didn’t cause any of them to move away from us. It pleased them, and some of them were directly involved in the negotiations that produced the nuclear deal. The only states put off by the nuclear deal were regional clients, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with a “flag of freedom and liberalism.”

The authors are arguing that we have to defend front-line states because they are threatened by rivals, but on no account should we try to reduce tensions with rivals through engagement. That seems like a recipe for needless confrontation that increases the danger to “those already on our side” and risks pulling us into a larger conflict. Once again, this is not the realism you are looking for.

The authors then take refuge behind the hoariest of hawkish cliches:

It is our weakness, not our strength, that is provocative, because American weakness makes our allies fearful and encourages our competitors to take chances.

There are never any examples provided to prove the “weakness is provocative” thesis. It may occasionally be true, but it is more likely that adversaries find our aggressive actions to be far more provocative, and these are the actions that prompt more aggressive behavior from them in turn. The belief that “weakness is provocative” takes for granted that adversaries perceive weakness from us if our government doesn’t respond forcefully in every dispute. That ignores our adversaries’ own understanding of their interests, and explains their behavior primarily in terms of taking advantage of our supposed weakness. Meanwhile, our allies and clients tend to become more reckless and irresponsible when they think they have U.S. backing. Believing that “weakness is provocative” is frequently misleading, and it means that policymakers that accept it as true will err on the side of being too aggressive.

The authors seem to reject pursuing regime change, but leave a caveat large enough to launch an invasion through:

Our method should not be imposed regime change, except in cases of vital national need…

The trouble is that advocates for regime change always insist that overthrowing this or that regime is vitally important for U.S. security. They are always wrong, but they always make this claim. The authors don’t offer specific examples of when they think regime change was/is necessary and when it wasn’t/isn’t, so we are left wondering what they think “vital national need” means. It shouldn’t be difficult for ostensible realists to say that they are opposed in principle to starting wars to overthrow foreign governments, but they don’t say that here.

Later on, they make clear that they think the U.S. should be willing to risk war to defend states, even non-allied ones, that are in conflict with the world’s two major authoritarian powers:

Second, the United States must support sovereign nations that are resisting attempted subjugation by outside pressure, if that pressure is exerted by a nation that has the strength to alter the global balance of power. This means that we must oppose actions such as Russia’s assaults in Ukraine and the Caucasus, and China’s expansionism in the South China Sea.

We cannot rule out the use of military force in cases such as this: if we do, other powers will simply escalate in any crisis until we quit.

Risking a major war over Ukraine or Georgia makes no sense for U.S. security, and no responsible president would do that. Risking war over territorial disputes in the South China Sea is similarly unwise. These are exactly the kinds of crises that could be avoided or contained through greater engagement, but the authors have already dismissed that as “starry-eyed” nonsense. Courting great power conflict in this way seems like the exact opposite of what a realist foreign policy would do.

They think imposing punitive sanctions is worth doing even when they don’t change the targeted government’s behavior:

It is therefore not right to criticize responses—such as the sanctions that the United States imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine—by arguing that they did not resolve the crisis, for the point of such responses is not to resolve the crisis: it is to open another front in the wider competition, and to do so in ways that impose long-term costs on our opponent.

In other words, punitive sanctions are often useless, but we should use them anyway. Even though imposing them almost certainly makes resolving the crisis harder and worsens relations with the targeted government, they should be imposed simply for the sake of imposing costs. I can’t think of many realists that would agree with this approach.

The authors make another curious claim:

The danger rests not so much in any particular crisis, but in the rise of the belief among the powerful that the world is there for taking.

The idea here is that the U.S. doesn’t have to have anything at stake in a particular crisis, but it has to oppose other great powers in each instance anyway. The problem with this is that it sets the U.S. up to fail in the competition with these powers in crises where our interests are few or non-existent and theirs are much greater. If we insist on trying to check them at every turn (and then inevitably backing down because we have nothing at stake in most cases), it makes it more dangerous and difficult to check them when it might really matter.

One frustrating aspect of the article is that it addresses so few contemporary issues. There are a few references to conflicts involving Russia and China, and a passing swipe at the nuclear with Iran, but for the most part it isn’t clear how the authors’ “reclaimed realism” would differ in practice from the preferred policies of hard-liners in Washington. But then I suppose that’s the point. “Reclaiming” realism means dubbing hard-line policies as realist and throwing most actual realist arguments out the window.

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