If you need a break from impeachment trial fatigue and are interested in American foreign policy, I have a reading recommendation for you, and you don’t even have to click on a link—it directly follows this paragraph. It’s a review essay on two important recent books by prominent political scientists, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. The reviewer is yours truly. It’s a small contribution to answering the question of what constitutes a progressive foreign policy. The particular theme I explore is whether realism—the approach to international relations analysis that Walt and Mearsheimer represent—can provide useful guidance to progressives as they seek to formulate their approach to foreign policy. As always, your comments will be appreciated.
Review Essay: Is Realism the Way?
John Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities
Stephen Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy
Can realism—the approach to international affairs analysis that focuses on power and power relationships as drivers of politics among nations—help define and advance a progressive foreign policy? The realist outlook is as old as Thucydides. In the 20th century, prominent pioneering realists—Britain’s E.H. Carr and the US’s Frederic Schuman—were men of the left. Progressives nevertheless tend to view realism warily. Realism is a mode of analysis of international relations. It is mostly agnostic on the issues of social justice that engage the left in its quest for a better society. Arguably, realism’s focus on a “national interest” presumably shared by all a country’s citizens elides the realities of domestic political conflict, including class conflict. And, realism has sometimes been employed as a cover for foreign policies that progressives have rightly deplored: the career of Henry Kissinger, surely the most famous American realist of the past half-century, comes inevitably to mind. Still, the two books under review, both by leading exponents of the realist perspective, argue for a radical shift in American foreign policy in a direction most progressives would applaud.
Surveying American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, both John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (hereafter M&W) see a string of disasters, an epoch of continual war that has failed to serve what should be the principal objective of foreign policy—protecting the nation’s security. Both make a case for a less militarized, more restrained foreign policy, one that rejects an expansive definition of US foreign policy interests that serves to justify seemingly endless overseas military interventions.
For Mearsheimer, the problematic driving force of American foreign policy of the last quarter century has been liberalism. Not liberalism in the sense the term is usually used in American politics—as an orientation to domestic policy that sees a significant role for state intervention in economic life. Mearsheimer allows that liberalism in domestic policy can be a force for good. It’s when liberals turn to international affairs that they become trouble-makers.
The problem is that liberalism, with its fervent belief in universal inalienable human rights, too easily leads to messianism. Given the opportunity, a great power driven by liberal ideology will seek to re-make the world in its own image. And the opportunity has presented itself in the post-Cold War era in which the United States has enjoyed unparalleled military and political supremacy as the unique global superpower. Unconstrained by competition from any credible rival, America has pursued a grand strategy of liberal hegemony. But not all the world shares liberal values. Liberal hegemony thus runs into resistance, buttressed by nationalism, a force liberals tend to underestimate. The liberal hegemonic project thus leads to continual war as the aspiring hegemon repeatedly finds itself resorting to military force in order to replace illiberal regimes with free market democracies.
Mearsheimer’s attribution of practically all the ills of American foreign policy to excessive liberalism is dubious; it simply doesn’t square with the long, inglorious history of illiberalism in American foreign policy. During the Cold War the United States embraced and sometimes helped place in power a variety of repressive and occasionally genocidal (think of Indonesia under Suharto) regimes. And it won’t do to write all that off as a reflection of Cold-War anti-communist fervor. Long before the Cold War got underway, the US was more than comfortable with authoritarian regimes in its Western Hemisphere sphere of influence. (The Somoza regime in Nicaragua was practically Made in the USA back in the 1930s.) And in Europe, American policymakers welcomed the advent of Benito Mussolini, who promised to be good for American business. Liberalism values both economic and political freedom, but historically American foreign policy has assigned clear priority to the former. (Democracy is nice, but capitalism is more important.)
Mearsheimer’s policy focus is on the post-Cold War world, but here, too, it’s hard to make the case that liberal ideology was the main driving force behind American foreign policy. Liberalism has not inhibited America’s embrace of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East from Egypt to the Persian Gulf. And Mearsheimer provides almost nothing in the way of concrete policy-making analysis to support his claim of liberal culpability for interventionist hyperactivity. Were the Balkan interventions of the 90s spurred by liberalism or by a desire to maintain the credibility of NATO, America’s main arm of hegemonic influence in Europe? Democratic liberalization was hardly more than a post-facto rationalization for the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq, which seems to have been motivated mostly by a raw desire to assert American power. Mearsheimer is on firmer ground in his critiques of America’s stance toward post-Soviet Russia and of interventions in Libya and Syria, but even in these cases, motivations other than liberal zeal were in play.
Whatever the shortcomings of his explanatory framework, Mearsheimer’s assessment of the disastrous consequences of American foreign policy is on target, and his policy recommendations very sensible. Mearsheimer’s alternative to what he sees as liberal activist fervor is realism. Realists, unencumbered by ideology, do not seek to change the world; they view the national interest narrowly, focusing on actual threats to national security. Since America is actually the most secure great power in the history of the world, that narrower focus dictates restraint.
Stephen Walt, a fellow realist and occasional collaborator of Mearsheimer’s, presents a similarly negative assessment of recent American foreign policy, and his policy recommendations parallel Mearsheimer’s. His book is very different from his colleague’s, however. Rather than focus on liberal ideology as the source of error in American foreign policy, Walt zeroes in on the American foreign policy community, which he sometimes calls the Blob, after Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser under Obama. The foreign policy community (FPC) consists of the constellation of public officials, Congressional staffers, think tanks, interest groups and media personalities who actively engage on a regular basis with issues of foreign policy. Despite frequent differences of opinion over tactics, members of the Blob share the same broad view of American power famously enunciated by Madeline Albright: the United States is the indispensable nation. American power is critical to the maintenance of world order and to the promotion of free markets and democracy. America therefore has a responsibility to maintain its global primacy—to pursue liberal hegemony.
The FPC is remarkably successful in maintaining its view of the world as the prevailing paradigm for American foreign policy. Presidents come and go, but the broad outlines of American foreign policy don’t change, because the FPC remains essentially unchanged and unchallenged. Even successive foreign policy disasters fail to shake the worldview of the FPC, or to subject it to significant outside scrutiny. And, while the FPC largely subscribes to the liberal ideology described by Mearsheimer, Walt offers a more structural explanation of its interests. Members of the foreign policy community
…have an obvious personal interest in the United States pursuing an ambitious global agenda. The busier the U.S. government is abroad, the more jobs there will be for foreign policy experts, the greater the share of national wealth that will be devoted to addressing global problems, and the greater their potential influence will be. A more restrained foreign policy would give the entire foreign policy community less to do, reduce its status and prominence, decrease the importance of teaching foreign policy in graduate schools, and might even lead some prominent philanthropies to devote less money to these topics. In this sense, liberal hegemony and unceasing global activism constitute a full-employment strategy for the entire foreign policy community.”
This passage drew a self-righteous rebuke in the journal Foreign Affairs from Jake Sullivan, a former policy planning director at the State Department. Sullivan laments that Walt is accusing sincere, patriotic, and dedicated Americans of bad faith. But Sullivan misses the point: political scientists don’t try to read people’s minds to probe their sincerity. There’s no point to trying: people tend to believe, very sincerely, in policies that happen to coincide with their personal interests. But a realistic look at the incentives that people labor under is entirely proper. And the incentives driving the foreign policy community favor the maintenance of liberal hegemony.
M&W’s alternative to liberal hegemony is not isolationism. While rejecting the global military omnipresence mandated by liberal hegemony, they do believe that the United States has a critical interest in the power balance in three strategically critical world regions: Europe, the Persian Gulf and East Asia. If another great power should acquire dominance in any of these regions, it would be in a position to threaten American security. There is no such potential hegemon in the first two of these regions, so American restraint can take the form of “offshore balancing,” a stance of watchful waiting. The United States can safely keep its military out of these regions, but ready and willing, if new threats should emerge, to re-engage. Asia, however, is a different story. China is a potential regional hegemon, and the United States should make a major effort to stop it from succeeding: Chinese hegemony in East Asia would enable Beijing to project power around the world, even threatening US interests in the Western Hemisphere. According to Walt, “…Asia may be the one place where U.S. leadership is indeed ‘indispensable.’”
So, what to do? Both M&W believe that the critical path toward a more restrained foreign policy lies in challenging the intellectual hegemony of the Blob. As Mearsheimer puts it, …[T]he best way to undermine liberal hegemony is to build a counter-elite that can make the case for a realist-based foreign policy.” Although M&W oppose most of Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda, they see a silver lining in his election in the demonstration that the American public is favorably disposed to a more restrained America abroad. They acknowledge that it won’t be easy, but they envision a political movement that builds on the handful of think tanks that challenge liberal hegemony as well as the writings of an increasing number of like-minded scholars. Walt’s hope is that
…if advocates of a different grand strategy can establish enduring institutions and achieve critical mass, major media organizations will take notice and provide more space for their views. Over time, debates on key foreign policy topics would feature a wider range of opinion and Americans would be more aware of the deficiencies of their present grand strategy and the virtues of alternative approaches.”
Clearly, the more restrained grand strategy advocated by Mearsheimer and Walt would serve important progressive policy goals. Militarism generally serves the interests of the right: patriotic fervor in defense against alleged foreign threats is a useful distraction from domestic social injustice. A more restrained foreign policy also requires a much smaller expenditure of resources on “defense,” freeing up funds for needed social investments at home. (Walt mentions a possible 2.5% of GDP to be spent on the military, a 40% reduction from current levels.) Moreover, the pursuit of liberal hegemony by the United States has come with a strong neo-liberal accent. The US hasn’t been the sole mover behind the neo-liberal trend of the past several decades—the movement away from social democracy toward more unfettered capitalism–but it generally has been influential in promoting an international political economy that favors the prerogatives of capital. A lower global profile for the United States wouldn’t change this situation in short order, but it could gradually open up more space for progressivism both in national domestic policies and at the international level
So, should progressives embrace realism? Not entirely. For one thing, realism isn’t consistently progressive in its policy prescriptions. One clear realist departure from progressive thinking is in the area of international economic regulation—i.e., what goes by the name of “free trade agreements.” Both Walt and Mearsheimer were fans of the defunct Trans Pacific Partnership, which they saw as a useful tool of American foreign policy. But the TPP, like other similar agreements, works against progressive governance: in multiple ways it restricts the ability of governments of signatory nations to regulate their domestic economies when conflicts emerge with the interests of foreign-based corporations. Walt and Mearsheimer, attentive to the geopolitical value of the TPP, are evidently unbothered by its neo-liberal implications.
Some progressives, moreover, may feel uneasy with even the residual global activism that M&S advocate. Mearsheimer, for example, states that the United States should seek to maintain hegemony in the Western hemisphere. He doesn’t explain just what that would involve, but the sordid history of US intervention in Latin America should certainly give progressives pause. Walt, too, is concerned that China could develop threats against US interests in the Western hemisphere if it is allowed to gain hegemony in East Asia. But he doesn’t define those interests. Presumably, he would be loath to see China develop the kinds of alliances in Latin America that the United States has in Asia. (What’s sauce for the goose, evidently, is not sauce for the realist gander.) But the United States got through the Cold War even though our main geopolitical adversary maintained an alliance with a country just 90 miles off our shores. So, it’s hard to see how a Chinese presence in this hemisphere could really threaten US national security. Arguably, it might even exert a salutary, restraining influence on American power, much like the role M&W want the United States to play in Asia.
On the other hand, there may be good, ethical reasons for the United States to challenge Chinese hegemony in Asia and elsewhere, without citing national security needs as justification. The Chinese model of repressive state capitalism is hardly consistent with any progressive vision of a good society. We should not be happy to see Japan, Taiwan or Korea under constraint from a hegemonic China. But, if the United States has a legitimate role in Asia—and this is a question about which progressives may well disagree among themselves—it reflects our values (including liberal values), more than realist geopolitical considerations.
In any case, it is not at all clear that the grand strategy of restraint advocated by M&W depends on adoption of a realist outlook. It is telling that the term “realism” appears nowhere in Walt’s book. Rather than invoke any theoretical framework, his arguments for restraint are pragmatic, based on an assessment of the consequences of a quarter century of liberal hegemony. Mearsheimer does explicitly argue that realism offers a more reliable guide to a less warlike foreign policy than liberalism: Realists, he says, appreciate the need to conserve, rather than squander national power on adventures unrelated to genuine national security concerns. They understand that balance of power logic will often impel other states to contain aggressors without need for an omnipresent America. And, realists, as students of war, have a keen appreciation of the war’s unintended consequences. These are certainly healthy ways of looking at international politics, but it’s not clear why they would not be accessible to liberals and leftists who don’t otherwise ascribe to realist precepts.
In sum, progressives should be glad to align with realists over shared values and objectives, while yet aware of the limitations of realism as a guide to foreign policy. Realism doesn’t provide and doesn’t claim to offer a vision of a better, more just society. Progressives for their part must surely seek to incorporate social justice objectives in their thinking about foreign policy. They should push for an international political economy that facilitates diverse paths to development for developing countries and promotes distributive justice in the advanced economies of the world. Restraint, a necessary and admirable value, is not in and of itself enough.