Foreign-policy realists have been around for time out of memory, but the unbearable follies of post–9/11 U.S. foreign policy have dramatically increased their prestige. A current short list of realists would include Andrew Bacevich, Steven Walt, Ivan Eland, and Ted Galen Carpenter (perhaps also Daniel Larison of American Conservative). These realists seem like sanity itself compared to our entrenched, bipartisan American war party, full of big plans for the world and short on restraint. But while we may thank such realists for their service to our country, we must nonetheless differ with their doctrine.
There are of course sundry realisms. Policymakers, statesmen, even scholars aspire to being realistic. But a serious “realism” must amount to more than everyday practicality. The nuts and bolts —how people mean to be realist —matter. The following subtypes come to mind: (1) Cold War “crackpot realists”; 2) neo-realists in Political Science and International Relations (IR); and (3) classical realists, ranging from George F. Kennan and Hans Morgenthau to Henry Kissinger and Richard M. Nixon, and including today a handful of classical liberals/libertarians. (Other types may exist.)
Realisms under the microscope
Crackpot realism. In 1958 radical sociologist C. Wright Mills described the reigning U.S. outlook as “crackpot realism,” which was wedded to “a military metaphysic” licensed by the Cold War. America’s top political, military, economic, and intellectual leaders shared this worldview and benefited from it, despite its lack of actual relation to the world they lived in. Decades later, strategic analyst and former Royal Navy officer Michael McGwire noted that Cold War planners assumed “an almost irresistible [Soviet] urge to seize Europe.” So armed, they “tough-mindedly” pursued a “worst-case analysis … impressive in its quantitative trappings but [which] had only limited relevance to the world….” Obsessed with weapons capacities, these planners never asked why (or whether) the Soviets actually had such intentions, nor could they see any “reason for them to have a deterrent….” Needless to say, this style of “realism” persists in numerous forms.
Political-scientific realism (neo-realism). Neo-realism arose as a Cold War policy science that self-consciously built on the inheritance of Classical Realism while aiming at scientific rigor. Neo-realists include Kenneth Waltz, Robert O. Keohane, Stephen Krasner, Robert Gilpin, Robert W. Tucker, and many others. In an invisible-hand argument borrowed from economics, they typically find that “anarchy” between states generates order. This intermittent order involves balances of power achieved (or not) through wars or threats of war. Neo-realists aspire to predict with near-mathematical precision the formation of coalitions aimed at thwarting a rising would-be regional hegemon. Mechanism rules, or should.
Accordingly, neo-realists strive to measure states’ relative power in the states-system. They believe, as political scientist Michael Barnett writes, “that a country’s material resources define the state’s power … and assume that society’s wealth and resources are willingly handed over to the state” — an iffy premise wherever a strong private sector exists. IR theorist Richard K. Ashley accuses neo-realists of mixing incompatible positivist, utilitarian, and state-centric (“statist”) concepts. From deep inside positivism, they conjure up quasi-physical “structures” that displace old-fangled atomistic individuals. States are the fundamental — albeit rather unexplained — structures that generate the international system: a mechanical world without real historical process, social practice, or politics. (Ashley prefers classical realism. Similar withering fire comes from historians Edward Ingram, Paul Schroeder, and Ned Lebow.)
Classical realism. Classical realists included E.H. Carr and Hedley Bull in Britain, Raymond Aron in France, and Americans such as Morgenthau, Kennan, Kissinger, the well-read Nixon, John H. Herz, and Reinhold Niebuhr. They claim ancestors such as Thucydides and Machiavelli, and above all, Thomas Hobbes. As IR theorist Alexander Wendt puts it, the older realists credit humans with “an inherent lust for power or glory,” an axiom inviting pessimism and worst-case thinking. Broadly speaking, they displayed Eurocentric literary tastes and detailed historical knowledge of diplomacy and wars within the European states-system. Seen by their critics as cynics, classical realists showed great inertial conservatism and had no interest in social revolution. Taking the balance of power as an “art,” they were happy with rough generalizations instead of scientific laws.
George F. Kennan is probably the gold standard of Classical Realism. He wrote in 1951 that after two wars allegedly fought to alter German behavior, one could only wish to have “the Germany of 1913” back. A Cold War architect, Kennan quickly became a critic, as Washington policymakers militarized his fairly modest notion of vigilant “containment” into a global crusade. If Kennan’s realism were the only brand, we might wish for little else. (Unlike Kennan, other realists signed on for big Cold War “liberal” projects, although not, it seems, on Wilsonian or other ideological grounds.)
Libertarian or classical-liberal realism. Finally, we come to classical liberal/libertarian realists, including Earl Ravenal, Carpenter, Eland, Christopher Layne, and Benjamin Schwartz. Conservatives Larison, Bacevich, and Walt may also belong here, or nearby. These writers have boldly called for saner U.S. foreign policy, and their works have been very useful. But even with them, realism-as-realism conceals important and near-permanent flaws.
Noninterventionism versus generic realism
Iron logic of the states-system. Realists generally assume that, in the interest of order, large states ought to survive indefinitely. This often leads them to favor having your war, now, to avoid having merely hypothetical wars later. Such an outlook makes war seem inevitable or certainly reasonable in (say) 1861 or 1917. Here hypothetical future problems with the Confederate States or Imperial Germany imaginatively outweigh the immediately foreseeable drawbacks of major wars (and, apparently, those drawbacks revealed to us in historical hindsight).
Realists’ supposed ability to measure states’ relative power (abstractly) can also draw them toward war; a proper mixture of math-like consequential reasoning, optimism, or hubris would close the sale. A realist who sees Peru as capable of invading Greenland must advise Greenlanders about this “threat,” whatever Peru’s actual intentions. As often happens in social theory, human cooperation looks impossible, and we wonder how there is order or peace at all.
Such axioms deprive realists of useful insights found in rigorous Just War Theory (not some U.S. Cold War version) and in pacifism. But survival of states is a priority for realists, who rather hurriedly equate state interests with human interests, although these only occasionally coincide. Short of adopting all of Hobbes, many people may find this equation under-supported, even in realist guise.
Realism’s well-behaved hegemon. Realists have ambivalent views about great powers. They expect coalitions to arise rather mechanically to thwart rising regional powers. They tend to see these alliances as meritorious — especially if assisted by a great external power claiming to restore (or create) some agreeable “balance.” But how far does the “balance of power” concept get us? Not very, according to historians A.F. Pollard and Paul Schroeder, political scientist Ron Hirshbein, and other students who see balance as involving slogans, pretexts, or misdiagnoses of historical events.
We have now met the fabled (and meddling) Offshore Balancer. But just who is he? For realists, there are few Good Hegemons: conveniently, they are Athens, Rome, Britain, and the United States. All others — established or aspiring — have earned bad marks on openness and liberalism.
Complications quickly set in, even for realists. “Offensive realist” John Mearsheimer concedes that oceans block imperial power. Yet like libertarian realist Christopher Layne, Mearsheimer wants America to be an offshore balancer. But his water-theorem seems to contradict this, as Peter Gowan notices: “For why should any regional hegemon be concerned” about the emergence of a regional hegemon elsewhere, “if it enjoys maritime immunity from peer assault anyway?” Even if one regional hegemon helps “an upstart” in another hegemon’s region, “the same logistical obstacles must dictate that such aid could never be of much military value….” Further, rather than oppressing its own region, a regional hegemon needs only to defend actually given territories and peoples. (Historian Charles A. Beard’s much-neglected noninterventionist continentalism would serve nicely.)
On similar lines, Weberian sociologist Randall Collins has stressed the continuing geographical impossibility of worldwide empire. Modern sea and air power do not alter the situation. (Nor, I would add, do computers and robots.) Empire building will always stop well short of world conquest. Successful regional empires will have succeeded by campaigns on land — despite cherished air-power illusions, now nearing their hundredth birthday. Unscrupulous leaders, grasping for world empire, but with no possible metric for success, will eventually find their efforts costly, destructive, and even unpopular.
The fearsome Eurasian Hegemon, ruling from Paris to Vladivostok, recedes into mythical archetype.
A brief aside on empire may be useful. For 18th-century writers, “empires” were consolidated, landed states, usually large, with an irresponsible executive at the center, whether king or tsar (we may add: president). These states are generally long-lasting. Overseas empires arise from military-commercial operations of expansionist republics, or quasi-republican monarchies such as Great Britain. Sea-borne empires are typically short-lived. Overseas imperialism can be formal, i.e., colonial, or informal, with pliant local elites ostensibly running the show.
Few states have ever attempted both types of empire at once. Britain tried, by creating a powerful landed state in India, but the United States is probably the most important example. Oddly, U.S. formal empire spanned the 19th century, with most of its internal colonies eventually gaining statehood within a pseudo-federal system (post–1865). After a brief colonial episode circa 1900, U.S. overseas imperialism has been mainly informal. But there is a problem: empires of any kind entail wars — some fought to build or retain empire, others to secure frontiers or to unleash new expansion. No “balancing” ever needs to enter into it.
So why, oh why, does any “isolationist” realist want to commit us (Americans) to offshore balancing? I think the answer lies in an essentially Anglophile myth about how the world works (or should), which haunts realism generally and perpetuates conceptual problems internal to it. “Free trade” (or “free- trade imperialism”) is near the heart of things. As IR scholar John Nye observes, merely because “Britain had an empire and relatively free trade,” many IR theorists see “free trade [as] a pubic good requiring a powerful leader, or hegemon.” Under “hegemonic stability theory,” the leading power will selflessly impose open economies, while the imagined horrors of free-riding justify its dominance. Here is the offshore balancer’s most presentable mission and job description. Nineteenth-century America “rode free” while Britannia waived the rules, and we guilty Americans must now do the right (= British) thing.
Empire, domestic liberalism, and blowback.
Imperial freedom is not just for merchants. Many realists and others credit Good Hegemons with making liberalism itself possible. But exactly how much actual liberalism do good empires provide, or not injure?
Internally, things don’t look so good. Historians Michael Geyer and Charles Bright observe that 19th-century liberal states unified their territories by force and imposed their economic preferences as they went: “the less conservative, the more liberal or progressive the politics, the greater appears the readiness … to enforce territoriality to the point of unconditional surrender.” Australian sociologist R.W. Connell adds, “The United States has never decolonized its nineteenth-century conquests, but instead has integrated them … into a gigantic nation-state….”
In an argument as old as James Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), naval power is said to threaten domestic political liberties far less than large standing armies. So sea power — or its successor, air power — supposedly makes “liberalism” at home compatible with overseas empire. The Taft wing of the Republican Party fell in with those illusions in the early Cold War. (But even if empire were compatible with liberalism, why bother with it?)
In both British and U.S. experience we can see much institutional feedback from overseas empire: transfer of policing models and bureaucratic management techniques, and their cumulative effects on domestic civil liberties. Meanwhile, for domestic reasons, Americans long since encumbered themselves with standing armies of police, which are rapidly adopting military and imperial mentalities and practices directly from U.S. overseas adventures. The wall between “liberalism” at home and empire abroad grows thin indeed.
Farther afield, if Britain’s global trade management was quite as wonderful as advertised, we would expect to have heard less of famines under their jurisdiction (Ireland, India).
Unneeded knight errantry
Some neo-realists see in America the perfect hegemon because of its relative invulnerability (and self-proclaimed good intentions?). But one could draw a different conclusion: shielded by two oceans, blessed with extensive resources, the United States never needed to balance anyone or bid for world dominance, precisely as noninterventionists maintained, but did so for ideological reasons, or out of feelings of insecurity, or in hopes of political or economic gain. At increasingly higher costs relative to domestic production, the United States projects power globally in pursuit of ideological whims and concrete economic resources.
Thus the ideas and goals of American elites — and not the iron logic of the states-system — determine U.S. foreign policy. Conventional security concerns have hardly applied. Most (perhaps all) American wars were the free choice of American statesmen, leaving U.S. foreign policy mainly a self-regarding drama, with “America” understood to mean the ideological, economic, and military devices and desires of sundry elites.
Paul Schroeder writes that after 1815 Great Britain and Russia were “flanking” powers, quietly dominant and essentially invulnerable. On the realists’ own kind of argument, the United States and Russia — big, landed marcher [frontier] states affiliated with a neighboring civilization — make ideal regional hegemons. The United States was (and is) even safer than Russia geographically. Neither one ever needed to strive for world hegemony, least of all in self-defense, but at least one of them did so; that one has not yet quit, but soldiers on, tirelessly merging its internal and external models of empire.
Here, realism offers us little long-run relief. Already prone to fight now rather than later, if the state seems in hypothetical danger, its current wisdom comes down to this: “We must make the best of the empire we have.” We may hope for cheaper weaponry, a slightly saner ruling class, fewer Gnostic missions per decade, but nothing more. Even then, realist premises will leave their faithful easily swayed by new war-calls. (Recall the “liberventionists” of 1991, who became virtual neoconservatives.) So far, most libertarian realists mentioned here have resisted the internal logic of realism itself and remained noninterventionists.
Realists and neo-Realists would have us believe that it is actually impossible for a great power to renounce empire. There are indeed few precedents. Most imperial powers learn the hard way. But what advantage is there in holding on to empire until forced out by unsustainable costs and defeat?
A genuinely “exceptional” nation might at least look into it.
This article was originally published in the April 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.