What if Realists were in charge?

Interesting article by Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy regarding how different the world would be if we had a Realist at the helm of policy rather than a neoconservative or liberal interventionist (flip sides of the same coin. though one could argue that a Neoconservative is a Liberal Interventionist with more bloodlust and less aptitude with math). As you might remember, Stephen M. Walt was the scholar who got in all kinds of trouble with AIPAC after having the temerity (along with John Mearsheimer) to make the very obvious observation that our current Israel policy is extremely detrimental to American interests (and some would argue Israel's).

Here are the first two differences:

#1. 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.

#2: 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 written.

I think the problem with the term "American Interests" is that American Interests are whatever Interests Americans have. It would be better to call it American Power, and call Realists by a less (positively) biased name.

Everyone thinks they're a realist. The opposite of a Realist is not a Neo-con or a Liberal Interventionist: it's a...Magicalist, I guess. Not that NC's & LI's can't also be magical in their thinking when they allow their ideology to bias their analysis, but then again, a Realist can also be a Cynic when his analysis becomes too pessimistic in the attempt to 'keep it real'.

When I think of Realism in foreign policy, I think of the speech Tacitus put in the mouth of the chieftain Calgacus to describe Rome: "they make a desolation, and they call it peace."

Perhaps replace Realist with Rationalist? Or, as Dan Carlin likes to sometimes refer to himself, a "neo-Prudentist".

What exactly is a Realist? Is it an actual name describing a systematic approach to foreign policy, or is it more like People Who Use Common Sense or Folks Who Aren't Complete Silly Heads?

I believe in this context it's 'pragmatist'. It differs from the supposedly liberal POV in that only self-interest counts and humanitary motives are considered silly, and differs from the supposedly conservative POV in that the US should not take any disproportionate risk while promoting that self-interest.

Realism is a foreign policy theory that states that self-interest is the driver of relations between states (I looked it up). It is the opposite of liberalism, which assumes that people are innately benevolent rather than competitive. Realists only look for cooperation between states when the situation allows it, not as a motivation of other states.

Look like a left winger . He doesn't seem to like settlements I guess peaceful coexistence is a liberal thing.

As far as I understood from the list of points ( I didn't read all of them ) this is a do nothing policy . It has a lot of crying over spilled milk. I don't like suggestions that say " If we do nothing everything would be just fine" . I'd prefer a list of things to do rather than a list of what not to do. I prefer a list of good thing that could happen instead of a list of bad things that could have been prevented.

When Germany was exterminating Jews all the superpower didn't allocate any resources to save them. What eventually happened was that about 40% of the Jews who lived in the world at that time were killed.

What else happened , Rwanda, Sudan,Syria . Hush - you don't want to wake up the realists from their dream...

Robear wrote:
Realism is a foreign policy theory that states that self-interest is the driver of relations between states (I looked it up). It is the opposite of liberalism, which assumes that people are innately benevolent rather than competitive. Realists only look for cooperation between states when the situation allows it, not as a motivation of other states.

so it's like Objectivism for Countries? ; D

Self-interest, not selfishness. There is a big difference; my self-interest, for example, includes "helping others when I can". Cooperation can be (and probably usually is) based on the self-interest of the participants.

Selfishness is a winning policy only in small groups. As a group goes past a hundred or so people, maybe less, selfishness loses out to cooperative behaviors. I suspect this is one of the major flaws underlying Rand's thinking, that what works to put someone in a good position in a small group or organization will also work at larger scales. Many studies show that the opposite is true.

Robear wrote:
Self-interest, not selfishness. There is a big difference; my self-interest, for example, includes "helping others when I can".

Without trying to derail the thread, I'd simply say there's not a big difference in terms of what the underlying motivation is: good things happening to you--like you said, what the "winning policy" is. We can call it selfishness when that is done through competition and self-interest when it's done through cooperation, but in the end it's still all about winning, which I can no longer say in that way without thinking of Charlie Sheen.

I bring up Objectivism though, because that's what it reminds me of: this talk of "interests" with a squishy definition of what "interests" really are.

Interesting. I disagree; selfishness puts the individual first every time, while self-interest acknowledges that in order to get one's way sometimes, one must also give others their way a portion of the time. The difference is whether one cooperates only when forced by circumstances, or voluntarily. But as you say, it's another discussion.

I don't think it's like Objectivism; it's not "what's good for me", it's "what can I actually do". When you start a conflict, you need to be able to define a realistic set of criteria that will result in that conflict ending. There never appeared to be such a thing for the war in Iraq or the War on Terror in general.

It's a matter of seeing the difference between your goals and what is actually achievable. Sure, your goal may be to have a Western-style democracy full of religious tolerance in Iraq, but is that actually achievable based on the history of the area and simmering tensions? You may want Afghanistan to be a real, stable nation, but can you do that in a clearly defined way? Heck, go back in time, and say your goal is to have a Communism-free South Vietnamese state, but how do you convince the North to stop fighting? Stopping Communism was a noble idea, but, without an actual set of viable endgame criteria, it's pointless and stupid.

It's not about just doing whatever is good for you, it's about only doing the things you are capable of.

MilkmanDanimal wrote:
I don't think it's like Objectivism; it's not "what's good for me", it's "what can I actually do". When you start a conflict, you need to be able to define a realistic set of criteria that will result in that conflict ending. There never appeared to be such a thing for the war in Iraq or the War on Terror in general.

It's a matter of seeing the difference between your goals and what is actually achievable. Sure, your goal may be to have a Western-style democracy full of religious tolerance in Iraq, but is that actually achievable based on the history of the area and simmering tensions? You may want Afghanistan to be a real, stable nation, but can you do that in a clearly defined way? Heck, go back in time, and say your goal is to have a Communism-free South Vietnamese state, but how do you convince the North to stop fighting? Stopping Communism was a noble idea, but, without an actual set of viable endgame criteria, it's pointless and stupid.

It's not about just doing whatever is good for you, it's about only doing the things you are capable of.

Sure, but like I said above: everyone thinks they're the person you describe here. No one (okay, maybe besides some recent NeoCons) thinks a Flying Spaghetti Monster is somehow going to change what we are capable of depending on what the intent and goals of our actions are. It's not a matter of one's ideological stripes, it's a matter of how much a person allows their ideology to blind them to the limits of what they can actually do.

One of the best courses I took in college was taught by a "realist" Far East expert who had actually briefed President Clinton on how to handle a nuclear North Korea. From what I can remember from the class, there are two major drawbacks to the realist school of foreign affairs:

1. Realists don't deal well with pure insanity. For example, my professor pointed out that during the run-up to WW II, nobody actually believed the Nazis were capable of the Holocaust - it was just too insane to contemplate. Everyone thought that the hatred against the Jews was just propoganda that Hitler would abandon as soon as he consolidated power.

A similar problem exists today in terms of radical Islam. How do you negotiate or wear down an enemy who believes that even if you kill them, they get to enjoy happy sexy time with 72 virgins?

2. A rational public policy that benefits America first is all well in good, but policy is set by politicians with their own personal agendas. Moreover, it's almost impossible to set a rational public policy because special interests have so much power in the American system. Take China for example - every major corporation from Walmart to Apple is going to fight tooth and nail to make sure the US doesn't antagonize China too much. The Religious Right (both conservative Jews and Christians) will ensure Israel gets special treatment. The Progressive Left will always push for humanitarian intervention, etc.

My professor talked about how special interests were a huge problem, and that was back in the late 90s before the recent Supreme Court decision to give them unlimited influence in elections.

There's no such thing as a realist as long as we are all capable of interpreting reality in a different manner.

/Realist

I really enjoyed my international relations classes in college and it definitely changed my worldview. What I recall to be the most interesting thing about the liberalism v. realism debate was that the end game of a certain school of realism, called "offensive realism" is that the only way a nation can be 100% secure is the 100% annihilation of every other nation. Obviously, this is an impractical solution to national security, but I do suspect that's why the US maintains its large empire of international military bases.

I don't think realists or liberals can completely explain the international arena though. Liberalism does a good job of explaining how close economic ties make non-state actors very powerful on the international stage (i.e. corporations) and realism does a great job explaining why other organizations such as the United Nations are functionally impotent.

Edit: I just realized that offensive realism is the philosophy of an entire alien species in Pandora's Star. International relations applied to space fiction is always pretty freaking cool.


I really enjoyed my international relations classes in college and it definitely changed my worldview. What I recall to be the most interesting thing about the liberalism v. realism debate was that the end game of a certain school of realism, called "offensive realism" is that the only way a nation can be 100% secure is the 100% annihilation of every other nation. Obviously, this is an impractical solution to national security, but I do suspect that's why the US maintains its large empire of international military bases.

Um, that's doesn't logically follow. If the solution is impractical, then the military bases are not there to implement it, but rather for some other reason.

Robear wrote:

I really enjoyed my international relations classes in college and it definitely changed my worldview. What I recall to be the most interesting thing about the liberalism v. realism debate was that the end game of a certain school of realism, called "offensive realism" is that the only way a nation can be 100% secure is the 100% annihilation of every other nation. Obviously, this is an impractical solution to national security, but I do suspect that's why the US maintains its large empire of international military bases.

Um, that's doesn't logically follow. If the solution is impractical, then the military bases are not there to implement it, but rather for some other reason.

I think the logic is that if it is functionally impossible to destroy every other country, then it's worth the cost of to maintain an needlessly large military force who primary focus isn't the defense of American territory. Since our bases are everywhere, we make it "unnecessary" for our allies to build up their own militaries and we push against potential enemies by making it difficult to expand outside of their own geographical theater. I think the philosophy is, "If you can't destroy them, weaken them."


I think the logic is that if it is functionally impossible to destroy every other country, then it's worth the cost of to maintain an needlessly large military force who primary focus isn't the defense of American territory. Since our bases are everywhere, we make it "unnecessary" for our allies to build up their own militaries and we push against potential enemies by making it difficult to expand outside of their own geographical theater. I think the philosophy is, "If you can't destroy them, weaken them."

Hmmm. I take a simpler view - we are a country that has global interests, and we like to be able to project power in all parts of the globe. We are not actively weakening every country in the world - that would be *tremendously* offensive - but we *are* prepared, rightly or wrongly, to react quickly to military threats pretty much anywhere, not as a policy of aggressive strategic domination so much as in our interests to maintain commerce and (hopefully) prevent conflicts that would threaten commerce.

I seem to recall that back in the H.W. Bush presidency, the "Reality-Based" community were referred to derrogatorily compared to the faith or ideologically based communities. (wikipedia entry) So it does appear that Realist or Reality based community are already accepted terms in use and not considered to have derogatory connotations to those who chose other methods of making decisions.

A nice analogue might be the "Evidence based practice" movement in medicine. It is defined by a focus on current data in decision making processes. There are schools of thought outside of the EVP movement that use evidence to base decisions on. The name doesn't infer that *all* other schools of medicine are homeopathy or faith-healing, it just means that in this particular method, data trumps all other considerations.

In foreign policy, having a realist or data-driven policy would mean that evidence is priviledged over ideology in making decisions. There are plenty of policy wonks and experts that are perfectly comfortable priviledging ideology over data, (on both the neo-con and liberal sides of the aisle) so the name shouldn't be considered to be demeaning to other methods.

Doctors say I’m the illest, cause I’m suffering from realness.

Global Warming Ad Is Quickly Canceled

Drivers cruising along the city’s inbound Eisenhower Expressway on Friday may have been surprised to see Theodore J. Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, staring at them from a huge billboard. “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” the billboard said in large maroon letters. Just below was the Web address www.heartland.org.

The billboard, described as one of a series, was sponsored by the Heartland Institute, a libertarian organization based in Chicago that describes its chief mission as promoting free-market solutions to social and economic problems. Recently, though, the institute has drawn media attention for its efforts to advance skepticism about climate change.
...
The institute did acknowledge that “not all global warming alarmists are murderers and tyrants.”
...
“We do not apologize for running the ad, and we will continue to experiment with ways to communicate the ‘realist’ message on the climate.”

I don't even know what to say about this one. Aside from "wait, 'realist' means what?"

Realist means 'people who think exactly like I do'. It has no special connection to reality otherwise. People who call themselves 'realists' do not inherently see more clearly than others. In fact, I'd argue that 'realist' means 'fatalist', and preserving the status quo, because they don't like new ideas. Impractical, you see. Not real.

Once upon a time, it was hopelessly naive to think that kings shouldn't be absolute tyrants, or that the Catholic Church shouldn't be able to flay you alive because they thought you were challenging their authority.

Clearly it means a person that can make their own beliefs become reality by repeating themselves and ignoring evidence that contradicts them.

Stengah wrote:
Clearly it means a person that can make their own beliefs become reality by repeating themselves and ignoring evidence that contradicts them.

The belief that holding a position strongly makes it more likely to be true is a great curse of our age. It is the root of fundamentalism, but its use is not limited to the religious.

Personally, I don't think the term "realist" is too biased, especially since not just Republicans believe in representative democracy and not just Democrats believe in democracy. Even more so because "realism" is the counter to "idealism" going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. But perhaps we can substitute "evidence based" as a term?

Certis wrote:
Doctors say I’m the illest, cause I’m suffering from realness.

Every time I scroll past this post, my mind injects the next line as "Yo, my name is Certis" just because it sorta rhymes.

Actually, that sounds like the MC name of a white rapper in a bad movie: Sorta Rhymes.

Realism refers specifically to a school of thought in international relations espoused by political theorists like Walt, Mearsheimer and Clausewitz. Its opposite international political is considered to be liberalism. These are set expressions when discussing international political theory, not biased value judgments that people can re-define on a whim. When someone refers to realism, they are likely talking specifically about the primacy of the state in political affairs, not that opposing views are naive.

In other words, the definition of realism here isn't really what we're arguing about--it's about their applications in the "real" world.

Edit: To be clear, there are other schools of international political theory such as constructivism, which places value on international social norms such as interventionism (unthinkable a century ago). Plus, realism and liberalism both have countless permutations that usually begin with the word "neo."

Paleo, you can correct me if I'm wrong too. I'm pretty sure you're specifically talking about IR realism, but for all I know we could be talking about this kind of realism:

IMAGE(http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/de/Gustave_Courbet_010.jpg/350px-Gustave_Courbet_010.jpg)

You are correct, sir. I am talking about IR Realism.

Paleocon wrote:
You are correct, sir. I am talking about IR Realism.

The thing that jumps out at me is that one of the attributes listed is:

Realist theories tend to uphold that:

...

Sovereign states are the principal actors in the international system and special attention is afforded to large powers as they have the most influence on the international stage. International institutions, non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations, individuals and other sub-state or trans-state actors are viewed as having little independent influence.

and considering the effect of the non-sovereign trans-national actor known as al-Quaeda on the events of the last decade, shouldn't that cause us to think twice about how accurate this school of thought really is?

CheezePavilion wrote:
Paleocon wrote:
You are correct, sir. I am talking about IR Realism.

The thing that jumps out at me is that one of the attributes listed is:

Realist theories tend to uphold that:

...

Sovereign states are the principal actors in the international system and special attention is afforded to large powers as they have the most influence on the international stage. International institutions, non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations, individuals and other sub-state or trans-state actors are viewed as having little independent influence.

and considering the effect of the non-sovereign trans-national actor known as al-Quaeda on the events of the last decade, shouldn't that cause us to think twice about how accurate this school of thought really is?

Not any more than the examples of Pancho Villa or Sitting Bull do.

Yes, that's been the source of debate in political theory in the past decade. I seem to recall that realists say that non state actors depend upon the patronage or mercy of states to influence the global balance of power. You're right though, groups like terrorist groups create problems for the theory.