the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has been largely run by a
coalition of neoconservatives and liberal internationalists. Both groups favor
a highly activist foreign policy intended to spread democracy, defend human
rights, prevent proliferation, and maintain American dominance, by force if
necessary. Both groups are intensely hostile to so-called "rogue
states," comfortable using American power to coerce or overthrow weaker
powers, and convinced that America's power and political virtues entitle it to
lead the world. The main difference between the two groups is that
neoconservatives are hostile to international institutions like the United
Nations (which they see as a constraint on America's freedom of action),
whereas liberal interventionists believe these institutions can be an important
adjunct to American power. Thus, liberal interventionists are just
"kinder, gentler neocons," while neocons just "liberal
interventionists on steroids."
liberal/neoconservative alliance is responsible for most of America's major
military interventions of the past two decades, as well as other key
initiatives like NATO expansion. By contrast, realists have been largely
absent from the halls of power or the commanding heights of punditry.
That situation got me wondering: What would U.S. foreign policy have been
like had realists been running the show for the past two decades? It's
obviously impossible to know for sure, but here's my Top Ten List of What Would
Have Happened if Realists Had Been in Charge.
No war in Iraq. This one is easy. Realists like Brent
Scowcroft played key roles in the first Bush administration, which declined to
"go to Baghdad" in 1991 because they understood what a costly
quagmire it would be. Realists were in the forefront of opposition to the
war in 2003, and our warnings look strikingly prescient, especially when
compared to the neocons' confident pre-war forecasts. If realists had
been in charge, more than 4,500 Americans would be alive today, more than
30,000 soldiers would not have been wounded, and the country would have saved
more than a trillion dollars, which would come in handy these days.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive too, and the balance of
power in the Gulf would be more compatible with U.S. interests.
No "Global War on Terror." If realists had been in
charge after 9/11, they would have launched a focused effort to destroy al
Qaeda. Realists backed the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a
realist approach to the post-9/11 threat environment would have focused
laser-like on al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that were a direct threat to
the United States. But realists would have treated them like criminals
rather than as "enemy combatants" and would not have identified all
terrorist groups as enemies of the United States. And as noted above,
realists would not have included "rogue states" like Iran, Iraq, and North
Korea (the infamous "axis of evil") in the broader "war on
terror." Needless to say, with realists in charge, the infamous 2002
National Security Strategy calling for preventive war would never have been
Staying out of the nation-building business. A third difference
follows from the first two. Realists understand that transforming foreign
societies is a difficult, costly, and uncertain enterprise that rarely
succeeds. It is especially hard to do in poor countries with deep internal
divisions, no history of democracy, and a well-established aversion to foreign
interference. By avoiding the long-term occupation of Iraq and
Afghanistan, the United States would have had little need to invest in
counter-insurgency or "nation-building," and could have focused
instead on more serious strategic challenges. Which leads us to #4.
A restrained strategy of "Offshore Balancing." Since the end of
the Cold War, prominent realists have called for the United States to adopt a
more restrained grand strategy that focuses on maintaining the balance of power
in key areas (e.g., Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf) but reduces
America's global footprint and keeps the U.S. out of unnecessary trouble
elsewhere. Such a strategy would also force U.S. allies to shoulder more
of the burden and discourage them from either "free-riding" or
"reckless driving" (i.e., adventurism encouraged by overconfidence in
U.S. support). For instance, realists would never have adopted the
Clinton administration's foolish strategy of "dual containment" in
the Persian Gulf, or the Bush administration's even more reckless effort at
"regional transformation." Instead, realists would have
maintained a robust intervention capability but kept it offshore and over-the-horizon,
bringing it to bear only when the balance of power broke down (as it did when
Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990). Had we followed this approach from 1992
onward, it is even possible that al Qaeda would never have gotten rolling in a
big way or never tried to attack the United States directly.
No NATO expansion. Realists weren't surprised when the United
States decided to move NATO eastwards; it's typical of victorious great powers
to try to press their advantage. But they were skeptical about the whole
idea, fearing (correctly) that it would poison relations with Russia and that
the U.S. was taking on commitments that it might not be willing to meet and that
would make NATO increasingly unwieldy. A realist approach would have
stuck with the "Partnership for Peace" initiative, a much smarter
move that enabled many useful forms of security cooperation and kept the door
open to a more constructive relationship with Russia. Over time, realists
would have pressed Europe to take on the main burden of its own defense, fully
aware that Europe faces no security problems at present that it cannot handle
on its own.
No Balkan adventures. If realists had been in charge, the United States
and its allies would have taken a different approach to the Balkan war in the
1990s. The United States might have stayed out entirely -- as former
Secretary of State James Baker seemed to want -- because its vital interests
were not at stake. Or it might have pushed for a partition plan for
Bosnia, as John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape, and Stephen Van Evera proposed here
and here. What would not have happened was the Rube Goldberg effort to
cobble together a multi-ethnic "liberal" democracy in Bosnia (an
effort that has largely failed and is likely to unravel if outside forces ever
withdraw) or the subsequent ill-conceived war in Kosovo (which inept U.S.
diplomacy helped provoke). Reasonable people can disagree about whether
the world is better off for the U.S. having intervened, but it's by no means
clear that the results were worth the effort.
A normal relationship with Israel. Realists have long been
skeptical of the "special relationship" with Israel, and they would
have worked to transform it into a normal relationship. The United States
would have remained committed to helping Israel were its survival ever
threatened, but instead of acting like "Israel's lawyer," Washington
would have used its leverage to prevent Israel from endlessly expanding
settlements in the Occupied Territories. An even-handed U.S. approach would
have taken swift advantage of the opportunity created by the 1993 Oslo Accords,
and might well have achieved the elusive two-state solution that U.S.
presidents have long sought. At a minimum, realists could hardly have
done worse than the various "un-realists" who've mismanaged this
relationship for the past 20 years.
A more sensible approach to nuclear weapons. Realists have long
emphasized the defensive advantages conferred by nuclear weapons, and have
opposed the excessively large nuclear arsenals built up during the Cold War.
Realists appreciate the deterrent value of nuclear weapons and believe
complete disarmament is impractical, but they would have been much bolder in
reducing the U.S. arsenal and would have focused more attention on securing
nuclear materials world-wide. At the same time, realists would have
acknowledged the technological futility of strategic missile defense as well as
its dubious strategic rationale (i.e., even if missile defenses worked
perfectly, an adversary could always deliver a warhead to U.S. territory
through covert means, thereby making it harder to know where it came from).
No Libyan intervention. Realists (and some others) were skeptical of the
wisdom of overthrowing the Qaddafi regime in Libya. This position wasn't
based on any sympathy for Qaddafi or his supporters, but rather on a
hard-headed calculation of the interests involved and the potential pitfalls.
In particular, realists worried that Qaddafi's fall would lead to a
prolonged power vacuum (it has), and that the groups we were supporting were
unknown and unreliable. The intervention also set a bad precedent: Not
only did the U.S. and its allies run roughshod over the Security Council
resolution authorizing military action to protect civilians (but not regime
change), but we were toppling an autocrat who had previously succumbed to
Western pressure and given up his WMD programs. It's possible that Libya
will settle down and become a success story for liberal interventionism, but
the jury is still out.
A growing focus on China. Realists focus mostly on power and
believe that the anarchic structure of world politics encourages powerful
states to compete with each other for security. Not necessarily because
they want to, of course, but because powerful states cannot take each other's
benevolent intentions for granted. Accordingly, realists are skeptical of
the claim that Sino-American rivalry can be avoided by "engaging"
China, by fostering tight economic ties, or by enmeshing Beijing in institutions
designed and led primarily by the United States. Accordingly, realists
would focus on strengthening security ties in Asia (while getting our Asian
allies to pull their weight), and work to establish clearer "red
lines" with China's leadership. Over time, making it harder for
China to translate its economic wealth into military power will be in order as
well. Realists don't seek a war with China or regard it as inevitable,
but they believe that avoiding it is going to take a lot of careful attention
to Asian security issues.
be sure, both the Bush and Obama administrations have moved in this direction,
as exemplified by the "strategic partnership" with India and the
recent "pivot" to Asia. These shifts occurred in part because
there were a few realists involved (e.g., former U.S. ambassador to India
Robert Blackwill), and partly because the structural forces were impossible to
all realists would subscribe to every item on this list, of course, and one
could add other items to it. For instance, if the EU member-states had
been led by realists in recent decades, their ill-fated experiment with the
Euro would never have been tried and Europe would be in much better economic
shape today. Similarly, realists would have followed a different
approach toward Iran, and would almost certainly have tried to follow up on
earlier Iranian efforts to improve relations with a "grand bargain"
that acknowledged Iran's right to nuclear enrichment but put stringent
safeguards in place to discourage weaponization. (That seems to be where
we are headed right now, but it remains to be seen if Washington and Tehran
have the patience and political will to get there).
noted above, realists may have wrong about some of these items (e.g., the interventions
in the Balkans and in Libya) and it's possible that U.S. leaders ultimately did
the right thing in those cases on humanitarian (as opposed to strategic) grounds. I'll concede that possibility,
but on the whole, I'd argue that both the United States and some key parts of
the world would have been far better off if the United States had used its
power in a more realistic fashion. It's too late to avoid the past
mistakes, of course, but at least we can try to learn from them.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images