By Jonathan Power
There are three schools of thought in American foreign policy—two you have heard about and a third that is relegated to the background.
The first, and arguably the most prominent, is the neo-conservative. In the days of the Soviet Union, these people were the rabid anti-communists who wanted to beat the Soviet Union into the ground with vastly increased spending on defense. Today, they are the ones who supported the extreme right wing agitators who overthrew the middle-of-the-road president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich. They supported President George Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and want President Barack Obama to intervene in Syria.
The second is the liberal. Liberals have always wanted to seek nuclear arms limitations with Moscow. They wanted an end to apartheid in South Africa. But many of them also believe in directly interfering in a country that is carrying out inhumane policies. They persuaded President Obama to intervene in Libya’s civil war, which left a political mess that has become a haven for the Islamic State. Some of them have argued for intervention in Syria’s civil war. They also, in tandem with the neo-conservatives, successfully persuaded Obama to pursue an anti-Russian policy in Ukraine.
Then there are the “realists.” People like the late greats: George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Walter Lippmann. In many ways, Obama is a realist—although not consistently. He has succumbed to both liberal and neo-conservative advice.
The realists don’t get much airtime. Their advice is usually pushed aside by foreign policy makers in favor of the first or second schools of thought, depending on who wins a presidential election.
Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard, writes in Foreign Policy: “realism sees power as the centerpiece of political life and sees states as primarily concerned with ensuring their own security. Realists believe military power is essential to preserving a state’s independence and autonomy but they recognize it is a crude instrument that often produces unintended consequences. Realists have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint.”
If Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama had implemented realist ideas, how would the world have looked today?
If Bush had listened to some Republican realists like former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft and the former chief of staff of the military, Colin Powell, there would have been no invasion of Iraq in 2003. In Afghanistan, there would not have been America’s longest war, but only a quick surgical operation to neutralize al-Qaida. Once in office, Obama would have moved swiftly to wind the U.S. military presence down.
Today, Iraq and Afghanistan would be at peace and the Islamic State would not exist. The several trillion dollars spent could have been used for pressing social and infrastructural needs at home.
Under Bill Clinton, the U.S., breaking a solemn promise, would not have pushed the expansion of NATO toward Russia’s borders, poisoning relations with Moscow.
Realists would have also not tried to push Georgia and Ukraine into the Western orbit. Unlike the neo-conservatives, they wouldn’t have called for their membership in NATO. If the realists had prevailed, Crimea would still be part of Ukraine and the fighting in the east would not have happened. Ukraine would have had two complementary trade agreements, one with the EU and one with Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union. Instead the U.S. and EU encouraged people to demonstrate in favor of the former and against the latter, even sending American officials to join the crowd.
The realists see their ideas triumphant in the negotiations with Iran that led to the country's commitment to making sure that it does not develop nuclear weapons. If realism had been the policy under Bush, however, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would have been much smaller and Iran would have been easier to negotiate with.
Likewise, realism could have led to a peace and nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea.
With some liberal support, the neo-conservatives have defended Israel 100 percent in its determination not to concede ground to the Palestinians. Realists have long felt that such support is not good for America’s image in the world—that it has encouraged terrorism and persuaded many Israeli politicians that they should create a “greater Israel” at the expense of the Palestinians. Too often, the U.S. appears to act as “Israel’s lawyer.”
Realists would have grasped the nettle and negotiated with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad years ago, recognizing that a tough and ruthless dictator was better than the carnage we have seen. This would have avoided the worst of the civil war. One could make the same observation about dealing with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.
The major newspapers have no realist columnists. Realist voices are heard mostly only in top academic circles. This is not good for America. This is not good for the world.
Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Day.
[Photo courtesy of Pete Souza]