Just Because He Walks Like a Realist...
By Stephen M. Walt
It is easy to understand why Paul Wolfowitz dislikes "realism." On the most significant foreign-policy decision since the end of the Cold War -- the ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- the realists who opposed it were right and Wolfowitz and the other architects of the war were dead wrong. No wonder he begins his article by saying that this "is not the place to reargue the Iraq War." I'd try to exclude Iraq from discussion if I were him too, because that tragedy demonstrates the virtues of realism and the follies of Wolfowitz's own worldview.
On the whole, Wolfowitz's discussion of "realism" in the Sept./Oct. issue of FP is about as accurate as his 2002 estimates about the troop levels needed to occupy Iraq and the overall costs of the war. He implies that realists are uninterested in moral issues and claims "there is a serious debate" between realists and their critics regarding the peaceful promotion of political change. But this is a caricature of realist thinking and a nonexistent debate, and it is telling that he never offers any evidence to support his description. The only "realists" he bothers to mention are Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and he never quotes or cites other prominent realist scholars or policymakers. Having decided to expose realism's alleged limitations, in short, apparently he couldn't be bothered to do some research and read what they had to say.
A war and a recession aren’t reasons to adopt a misguided doctrine.
By Paul Wolfowitz
What do realists believe? Realists see international politics as an inherently competitive realm where states compete for advantage and where security is sometimes precarious. So, realists emphasize that states should keep a keen eye on the balance of power, which makes them wary of squandering blood or treasure on needless military buildups, ideological crusades, or foolish foreign wars. Realists cherish America's commitment to democracy and individual liberty, but they know that ideals alone are no basis for conducting foreign policy. They also understand that endless overseas adventures will inevitably provoke a hostile backlash abroad and force us to compromise freedoms at home.
Realism also emphasizes that other states will defend their interests vigorously, that successful diplomacy requires give-and-take, and that advancing U.S. interests sometimes requires us to do business with regimes whose values we find objectionable. In recent years, realists have also reminded their fellow citizens that nationalism is a powerful force and that most societies bristle, and ultimately rebel, when outsiders try to tell them how to run their own affairs. Realists also understand that no system of government is perfect, and that even well-intentioned democracies sometimes do foolish and cruel things. Most important of all, realists understand that military force is a blunt and costly instrument whose ultimate effects are difficult to foresee, and that states should go to war only when vital interests are at stake.
Contrary to Wolfowitz's claims, realists are not indifferent to moral concerns, including the virtues of democratic government and the value of basic human rights. There is no "debate" between realists and idealists over the desirability of these things in the abstract, and little or no disagreement about whether the United States should encourage such changes peacefully. I know of no realists who oppose the peaceful encouragement of core U.S. values, and Wolfowitz offers no examples of any. As the debate over the Iraq War revealed, the real issue is whether the United States and its democratic allies should be trying to spread these ideals at the point of a gun, or sacrificing other important interests in order to advance them.
Realists oppose such efforts for at least four reasons. First, promoting regime change via military force costs lots of lives, money and prestige. Wolfowitz's war in Iraq led to the deaths of more than 4,300 Americans (plus more than 30,000 wounded), as well as at least 100,000-plus Iraqis (and maybe far more). It also cost the U.S. taxpayer over $1 trillion (and counting). It is frankly hard to see the moral virtue in that "achievement." The present Iraqi government may be an improvement on Saddam Hussein's regime, but it is hardly a model of representative democracy, its long-term fate is uncertain, and the costs of imposing it have been enormous.
Second, realists are wary of idealistic wars of choice because they invariably force policymakers to engage in threat-inflation and deception in order to stampede the public into supporting actions that they would otherwise oppose. Wolfowitz was an able practitioner of this art while in office, but realists know that such behavior inevitably erodes the integrity of public institutions, the overall quality of governmental decision-making, and ultimately, public trust. When policymakers can only get things done by deceiving their fellow citizens, how can democratic institutions continue to function effectively?