"We're All Realists Now."
No. Pragmatists maybe, but not "realists." Barack Obama's election as U.S. president delighted many people, especially the self-described foreign-policy "realists" who accused his predecessor, George W. Bush, of denying reality in favor of dangerous idealism. Obama has praised the realpolitik of Bush's father, George H.W. Bush. And a White House official recently told the Wall Street Journal, "[Obama] has really kind of clicked with that old-school, end-of-the-Cold-War wise-men generation." The elder Bush's national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, called Obama's election a rejection of the younger Bush "in favor of realism."
Four critics take on his ideas about realism and Barack Obama.
Of course foreign policy should be grounded in reality. Americans agree that foreign-policy goals should be achievable -- that the United States should match its ends with its means. What sensible person could argue with that? That is simply pragmatism. But "realism" as a doctrine (I'll spare you the quote marks henceforth) goes much further: In the words of one leading realist, the principal purpose of U.S. foreign policy should be "to manage relations between states" rather than "alter the nature of states."
Unquestionably, what makes realism seem so plausible today is skepticism about the war in Iraq and the belief that it was part of a crusade to "impose" democracy by force. I believe, to the contrary, that the purpose of the war was to remove a threat to national and international security. Whether the Iraq war was right or wrong, it was not about imposing democracy, and the decision to establish a representative government afterward was the most realistic option, compared with the alternatives of installing another dictator or prolonging the U.S. occupation. In Afghanistan, the same choice was made for the same reasons after the Taliban fell, and many realists not only supported that decision, but argued for putting even more effort into "nation-building."
This is not the place to reargue the Iraq war. So let's stipulate that the issue here is not whether to use military force to promote changes in the nature of states; it's about whether -- and how -- to promote such changes peacefully. On that issue there is a genuine debate between realists and their critics. And a desire for pragmatism should not be confused with a specific foreign-policy doctrine that minimizes the importance of change within states.