Back in September, foreign policy scholar Stephen Walt asked in Foreign Policy if “the emerging democratic socialists of the left, libertarians on the right, and realists in the center [could] join forces to produce a foreign policy that would command support at home and perform effectively abroad?”
As a foreign policy realist, Walt has long been on losing side of foreign policy debates with the “loose alliance of liberal interventionists and hawkish neoconservatives” which has dominated foreign policy for the past 25 years.
The dominance of these hard-core interventionists has been to create an American foreign policy establishment deeply biased in favor of intervention, for a wide variety of reasons.
Walt is probably on to something. In this battle, the relatively good guys in this fight are the realists. This became quite clear in 2017 — see ” The Neoconservatives Have Declared War on the Realists ” — when John Mearsheimer, one of modern realism’s current standard bearers, wrote in The National Interest that Trump should “adopt a realist foreign policy” and outlined a far better foreign policy agenda that what we’ve seen coming from Washington. For Mearsheimer, some main tenets of realist foreign policy include:
- Accepting that the US attempt at nation building in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen “has been an abject failure.”
- “Washington [should] respect the sovereignty of other states even when it disagrees with their internal policies.”
- “Spreading democracy, especially by force, almost always fails.”
- Understanding that “America’s terrorism problem … is fueled in part by the U.S. military presence on Arab territory as well as the endless wars the United States has waged in the greater Middle East.”
- “The Trump administration should let local powers deal with ISIS.”
- Recognizing that Russia poses no real threat to the United States: “Even if Russia modernizes its economy and its population grows in the years ahead — big ifs — it will still be unable to project significant military power beyond eastern Europe.”
- “A Syria run by Assad poses no threat to the United States”
- “The new president should also work to improve relations with Iran. “
- “Encourage the Europeans to take responsibility for their own security, while gradually reducing the remaining U.S. troops there.”
In response, the neoconservatives at Commentary magazine denounced Mearsheimer and realists in general (including Walt, Barry Posen, and Christopher Layne).
Walt, of course, is well aware of the endless fusillades directed at realists by both liberal interventionists and neoconservatives. In spite of trillions of dollars spent on losing wars, and an international order that’s revolting against the liberal interventionist status quo, the interventionists continue to affect horror at any suggestion that a new series of wars just might not be the answer to the world’s problems right now.
Walt writes on how more and more foreign policy scholars are realizing an alternative is badly needed:
[A] number of commentators are beginning to realize that the United States needs an alternative. Writing in the Atlantic, the recovering liberal interventionist Peter Beinart now favors a far more restrained U.S. foreign policy, more or less identical to the one that realists have been advocating for years. Last week, the historian Daniel Bessner of the University of Washington wrote a provocative op-ed in the New York Times calling for the emerging democratic socialist left to get serious about foreign policy and to unite around a platform combining anti-militarism, accountability, greater congressional oversight, and threat deflation.
Which raises the obvious question: Would it be possible to assemble a sufficiently broad coalition behind such a program, one both large and cohesive enough to overcome the liberal-neocon alliance that has caused so much trouble? As noted above, the obvious candidates are anti-war progressives (i.e., the democratic socialists highlighted by Bessner); realists who favor a grand strategy of restraint or offshore balancing ; and the libertarian right (e.g., Rand Paul, the Cato Institute) that has been questioning America’s imperial proclivities for decades.
All three groups agree that the pursuit of liberal hegemony over the past 25 years was unnecessary, unwise, and unsuccessful. And a more restrained foreign policy is consistent with many of their individual political objectives, which could make a working coalition feasible.
There are challenges in forming such a coalition, of course. One of the biggest is that hard-left democratic socialists are easily tempted by the promise of using war to promote human rights. Walt notes:
left-wing democratic socialists are strongly committed to the basic principles of human rights [as they see them, -ed.], and some of them will be tempted—just as liberal interventionists have been—to use U.S. power to try to improve human rights conditions in distant areas where people are suffering. Realists are much warier of such crusades, however, and while they also believe that human rights should be respected, they believe that the United States can best advance these principles not by trying to impose them on others but by setting a good example. Getting the left to stick to a policy of nonintervention could be tough, and it’s easy to imagine realists and the left disagreeing vehemently over whether to intervene in a bloodbath like Syria or a genocide like Rwanda.
The issue of libertarians in this coalition with realists appears to be less of a problem. Walt writes:
Similarly, realists and libertarians are likely to part company over the need to balance a rising China; the former thinks it is important for America’s long-term security, and the latter thinks it may not be possible and is probably unnecessary. For them, nuclear weapons and geographic isolation are sufficient to protect the U.S. homeland, and there’s no need to deny China a dominant position (or sphere of influence) in Asia if it really wants one. Both groups favor greater restraint, but the libertarians want even more of it than realists do.
True, that’s a problem. But in the current milieu, it doesn’t strike me as a very big problem — at least for the foreseeable future.
Yes, the realist vision of “balanc[ing] a rising China” is problematic because it likely means a continued active presence for the US in the far East. The mitigating factor here is that Walt does not appear to support pursuing this goal to the point of asserting American dominance in the region. That in itself would be an improvement over the current posture.
After all, realists recognize the limits of US power in the region because China (like most potential and actual hegemons, including the US) is highly motivated to secure a buffer zone containing no credible threats in its near abroad. Realists appear willing to work within this reality, while neoconservatives and other interventionists appear committed to the impossible goal of endless global American dominance. As John Measrsheimer suggests in his 2010 address at the University of Sydney, there are few realistic scenarios in which China can be denied this goal of regional dominance. The realist challenge lies in maintaining peace and friendly relations with a state like China, while also preventing untrammeled Chinese hegemony in the region. (Walt also recognizes that in order to address these issues, the US must also greatly reduce its presence in both Europe and the Middle East, end “nation building,” and stop needlessly antagonizing Russia.)
This is not a “defeatist,” view, of course. It’s simply a recognition that China wants what the US has had for more than one hundred years in the Western hemisphere, while understanding that the “era when the United States could dominate most of the world’s regions simultaneously is over.”
Even this somewhat restrained plan of the realists would still strike many libertarians as far too expansive for their tastes. That’s fair enough. This vision, however, is so far from the current wishes of the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists as to be quite fanciful at this point. Under the current mindset in Washington, DC, no corner of the globe is to be regarded as anything other than a potential US client state and as a playground for US experiements in regime change, exporting democracy, and “humanitarian” intervention.
Thus, this realist agenda would represent a clear improvement over the status quo.
Moreover, the philosophical mindset of the realists is superior to the liberal and neoconservative ones. Realists reject the idea that the United States is the “indispensable nation.” Realists also attempt to have sympathy for rivals. And by sympathy, I mean “seeing the world through the eyes of another.” This doesn’t mean agreeing with whatever China does (for instance), but it does mean attempting to truly understand why China might want to establish for itself protection against American expansionism. Realists also reject the idea that the United States is motivated only by selfless enlightenment, while all other states are merely cynical power grabbers. Realists recognize (correctly) that most states behave in the international sphere is remarkably similar ways.
Were the US foreign policy establishment to adopt realism, we’d hear much less bluster about an “axis of evil,” or bringing the “gifts of democracy” to foreigners — whether those foreigners like it or not.
Under these conditions, the US might actually find itself at peace every now and then, rather than continuously at war for nearly 18 years as is now the case. Americans might also not be constantly debating which country is to be newly bombed or invaded this year.
Is the realist vision non-interventionist enough? No, it’s not. Walt likely oversimplifies things when he says that many libertarians think “nuclear weapons and geographic isolation are sufficient to protect the U.S. homeland.” But he’s not terribly far from the mark. (Industrial capacity and militia capability are also important factors.)
But there’s no reason why libertarians can’t agree with the realists when the realists support a move toward reducing America’s foreign interventionism. At the same time, libertarians need not ever stop pressing for an ever-more-laissez-faire foreign policy in the style of Ron Paul and Richard Cobden. Were the realists to ever again gain dominance in foreign affairs, that would be a day for libertarians to declare partial victory, and to then press the realists ever harder in the direction of non-intervention. That day, however, remains a long way off.
Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan in economics and political science from the University of and was the economist for the Colorado Division of 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
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