The National (American) Interest and ‘realism’

I don’t know anything about ‘realism’ as far as foreign policy goes, but The National Interest promotes it for the United States.

It is about American interests. It is guided by the belief that nothing will enhance those interests as effectively as the approach to foreign affairs commonly known as realism—a school of thought traditionally associated with such thinkers and statesmen as Disraeli, Bismarck, and Henry Kissinger. Though the shape of international politics has changed considerably in the past few decades, the magazine’s fundamental tenets have not. Instead, they have proven enduring and, indeed, appear to be enjoying something of a popular renaissance.

Until recently, however, liberal hawks and neoconservatives have successfully attempted to stifle debate by arguing that prudence about the use of American power abroad was imprudent—by, in short, disparaging realism as a moribund doctrine that is wholly inimical to American idealism. This has been disastrous.

After the Bush administration’s failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it became abundantly clear that the lack of a debate in Washington was part and parcel of a larger foreign policy failing, which was the refusal to ponder the larger implications and consequences of the promiscuous use of American power abroad. A reflexive substitution of military might for diplomacy, of bellicose rhetoric for attainable aspirations, dramatically weakened rather than strengthened America’s standing around the globe.

But today, as Russia, China, and Iran assess and act upon their own perceived national interests, Washington must attempt to understand those nations as they understand themselves.

I’m not sure that the US has been very good at understanding other nations, apart from how they can be influenced and manipulated too serve US interests.

What actually constitutes true realism is, of course, an appropriate source of controversy.

I don’t get that.

And so, on both its web site and in its print edition, The National Interest seeks to promote, as far as possible, a fresh debate about the course of American foreign policy by featuring a variety of leading authors from government, journalism, and academia, many of whom may at times disagree with each other.

The National Interest editorial:  Standing Up For Realism

The Center for the National Interest, which was founded by Richard M. Nixon in 1994, is being criticized for its embrace of realist principles, including outreach to Russia based on a combination of diplomatic and military strength.

Realism, long associated with authoritarian European statesmen such as Otto von Bismarck and Klemens von Metternich, has been consistently portrayed as antithetical to American democratic traditions. During the Cold War, statesmen such as Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski were depicted as amoral or even harboring, in the case of the latter, loyalties to Poland rather than America.

But in one form or another, no matter what the detractors may claim, realism is at the very heart of American foreign policy. It is what helped America to emerge as the dominant power after World War II and during the Cold War.

The realist approach served as a bipartisan foundation for Washington’s approach to the world, providing a common framework for identifying threats and defending American interests abroad. Everyone from Harry Truman and Dean Acheson to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to George H.W. Bush and James Baker espoused a strategic realism that played a decisive role in ending the Cold War on American terms. Even Ronald Reagan, who talked about battling an evil empire, ended up signing sweeping arms control treaties with the Kremlin and consigning the Cold War to the dustbin of history.

These statesmen helped to establish a stable balance of international power that safeguarded Western prosperity and freedom while allowing for the peaceful internal transformation of the Soviet bloc.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, realism fell into disrepute. Headier doctrines that amounted to old wine in new bottles now found favor. The United States found itself alone at the top of the international pyramid and became convinced that its security could be based on transforming non-Western nations in America’s image.

The two major strands of American foreign policy that dominated during the post-Cold War period—neo-conservatism and liberal internationalism—may have disputed the appropriate mix of force and diplomatic persuasion, but they were united in pursuing a missionary foreign policy.

This approach has failed. It has led to debilitating wars in the Middle East that have sapped America’s treasury. It has helped turn competitors into enemies. Regions that once enjoyed the strategic benefits of a balance of power have been thrown into disorder and disarray. The world order that prevailed in 1989 is now in shambles.

I don’t think the ‘world order’ that prevailed in 1989 was very flash either.

The Center for the National Interest has consistently challenged liberal international and neocon thinking to advocate a foreign policy based on a prudent combination of diplomacy, economic and military strength to defend American national interests.

Realism is asserting US power by any means available?

Who got it right? The answer seems self-evident. But at the very moment that realist doctrines should be ascendant, a media backlash is taking place that is directly targeting the Center, principally for its pursuit of a dialogue with Russia. The idea seems to be that it is illegitimate, even unpatriotic, to advocate anything that defies foreign policy conventional wisdom.

Dialogue amongst major powers is important. The US should talk to Russia to try to work out how to co-exist peacefully and prosperously.

To be sure, previous foreign policy debates, whether over Vietnam or the second Iraq War, have been marked by fierce vitriol. But those debates took place within a commonly agreed framework of seeking to advance American interests. Today, the debates have curdled into vitriol and character assassination, pure and simple.

That’s where US politics has seemed to have evolved to. It doesn’t help that the President repeatedly sets an example using vitriol and character assassination, but he seems to have avoided that with Russia, instead heaping praise on Putin  – or at least his talks with Putin. Actually he has just had a phone conversation with Putin.

Reuters also quote him as saying “Had a long and very good conversation with President Putin of Russia. As I have always said, long before the Witch Hunt started, getting along with Russia, China, and everyone is a good thing, not a bad thing”.

It is a good thing if the US gets along with Russia and China, and peace seems to be working fairly well, except in Afghanistan where the Taliban is increasing it’s influence, and in Syria where Russian influence increases as the US tries to work it’s way out of the complications there.

Reuters:  Trump says he, Putin discussed new nuclear pact possibly including China

U.S. President Donald Trump said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed on Friday the possibility of a new accord limiting nuclear arms that could eventually include China in what would be a major deal between the globe’s top three atomic powers.

Trump, speaking to reporters as he met in the Oval Office with Peter Pellegrini, prime minister of the Slovak Republic, also said he and Putin discussed efforts to persuade North Korea to give up nuclear weapons, the political discord in Venezuela, and Ukraine during a call that stretched over an hour.

Trump cited the expense of keeping up the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a motivating factor behind wanting to limit how many weapons are deployed.

“We’re talking about a nuclear agreement where we make less and they make less and maybe where we get rid of some of the tremendous firepower that we have right now,” he said.

Trump said China during trade talks had “felt very strongly” about joining the United States and Russia in limiting nuclear weapons.

“So I think we’re going to probably start up something very shortly between Russia and ourselves maybe to start off, and I think China will be added down the road. We’ll be talking about non-proliferation, we’ll be talking about a nuclear deal of some kind, and I think it’ll be a very comprehensive one,” he said.

The Kremlin said the call was initiated by Washington. It said the two leaders agreed to maintain contacts on different levels and expressed satisfaction with the “businesslike and constructive nature” of the conversation.

But the the reality is, it’s not simple:

The two leaders discussed Ukraine. Trump canceled a summit meeting with Putin late last year after Russia seized three Ukrainian Navy ships on Nov. 25 and arrested 24 sailors. Putin also told Trump that the new leadership in Ukraine should take steps to solve the Ukrainian crisis, the Kremlin said.

With the United States concerned about a Russian military presence in Venezuela at a time when Washington wants Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to leave power, Trump told Putin “the United States stands with the people of Venezuela” and stressed he wanted to get relief supplies into the country, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

Putin told Trump that any external interference in Venezuela’s internal business undermines the prospects of a political end to the crisis, the Kremlin said.

Trump also raised with Putin the issue of getting North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Trump has met twice with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un but Kim has yet to agree to a disarmament deal.

Putin has just had talks with Kim Yong Un. NY Times: After Meeting Kim Jong-un, Putin Supports North Korea on Nuclear Disarmament

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made a public show of support for North Korea on nuclear disarmament, seeming to undermine President Trump’s approach to nuclear diplomacy, as Mr. Putin and Kim Jong-un on Thursday wrapped up their first summit meeting.

Russian officials have long insisted they wanted to support Mr. Trump’s efforts at one-on-one nuclear negotiations with Mr. Kim, the North Korean leader. But speaking to reporters after the meeting in Vladivostok, on Russia’s Pacific Ocean coast, Mr. Putin said that North Korea needs security guarantees from more nations than just the United States before abandoning its nuclear arsenal.

At talks in February in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, Mr. Trump had proposed a “big deal” to lift punishing economic sanctions in return for a quick and complete elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Mr. Kim offered, instead, only a partial dismantling of nuclear facilities — while keeping his arsenal of nuclear warheads and missiles — in exchange for relief from the most harmful sanctions.

After the breakdown in talks in Hanoi, North Korea vented its frustration with a weapons test and accusations that Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, and secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, were sabotaging negotiations.

But since then (Reuters):  North Korea fires ‘projectiles’, South Korea says stop raising tensions

North Korea fired several “unidentified short-range projectiles” into the sea off its east coast on Saturday, prompting South Korea to call on its communist neighbor to “stop acts that escalate military tension on the Korean Peninsula”.

Analysts suspected the flurry of military activity by Pyongyang was an attempt to exert pressure on the United States to give ground in negotiations to end the North’s nuclear program after a summit in February ended in failure.

I’m not sure where Realism fits in here.

 

 

 

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8 Comments

  1. Pink David

     /  5th May 2019

    “Realism is asserting US power by any means available?”

    That’s quite a large leap from what was actually written. It meant US power was to be used for US interests, which for much of the last century it has not been.

    Reply
    • “a foreign policy based on a prudent combination of diplomacy, economic and military strength to defend American national interests” covers just about any means available doesn’t it? Apart from tweeting I guess.

      Reply
    • Gezza

       /  5th May 2019

      The problem is that Trump, more than once, has made it clear that US national interests are anywhere & everywhere they or he determine them to be. American business interests are global. As, just about, is their military.

      And Trump (& other US Presidents ) have also made it clear therefore that anywhere they decide to call it one, a “threat to US National Security” can also be deemed to be anywhere.

      Surely by now more & more countries must be looking at the economic warfare the US administration is waging on any country it wants to which doesn’t comply with its edicts to the world. Its dominance of the global economy is too easily weaponised.

      I’m interested in seeing what moves get made to weaken that.

      There seems to me to be a building alliance against US influence & power. It will probably take many forms but I doubt the US will able to maintain its dominance. No other empire ever has. US business & strategic interests are not the same as everyone else’s.

      And when they pick & choose which shitty, repressive regimes they support & which ones they don’t they can’t claim any moral high ground.

      Reply
      • Pink David

         /  5th May 2019

        “The problem is that Trump, more than once, has made it clear that US national interests are anywhere & everywhere they or he determine them to be. American business interests are global.”

        That’s simply wrong. A large part of Trump’s appeal has been that he isn’t interesting in using American power globally. His actions have been very consistent with this.

        “There seems to me to be a building alliance against US influence & power.”

        On what planet?

        “And when they pick & choose which shitty, repressive regimes they support & which ones they don’t they can’t claim any moral high ground.”

        Well, I think you can still be moral and ‘support’ shitty, repressive regimes. That is simply a reflection of the limits of power.

        Reply
        • Gezza

           /  5th May 2019

          Time will tell.

          Reply
          • Pink David

             /  5th May 2019

            I doubt it.

            Reply
            • Gezza

               /  5th May 2019

              Yes it will. And ONLY time will tell.
              I should have been clearer, perhaps.
              Time will tell whether either of us is right, or whatever.

  2. harryk

     /  5th May 2019

    There are as many schools and interpretations of ‘realism’ as my teenager has excuses.

    The terms ‘realism’ and ‘realpolitik’ are often confused by journalists who don’t understand their origins. What often passes for ‘realism’ in the US began in Germany and was transferred by emigres to the US. Michael Lind is one of the better commentators on realism and it’s history and argues that realism should not be detached from idealism – ‘the United States, like Britain before it, at its best has sought to shape world order in ways that promote both its interests and its ideals.’

    ‘Realpolitik and Its Many Distortions – does a nineteenth-century German invention still have relevance today’

    ‘In the lexicon of world politics, “realism” suffers from polysemy. Sometimes the word means nothing more than expedience or prudence in the pursuit of the interest of a state or even a stateless nation. Others use the term to connote raw power politics—the pursuit of interest at the expense of legal norms or ethical ideals. At the other extreme, some self-described realists believe that states must take into account the interest of the international system as a whole’

    https://nationalinterest.org/feature/realpolitik-its-many-distortions-14678

    Reply

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