Realism’s utopia: Why academic realism almost never works in Washington

Last week in Foreign Policy magazine, Stephen Walt’s asked “What would a realist world have looked like?” He argued that realism has a much better track record over the past two decades than liberal internationalism or neo-conservatism. The article has generated considerable debate among foreign policy types in recent days.

Walt is an exceptional theoretician who has influenced generations of international relations students. He is justified in pointing out that realists recognized the dangers of invading Iraq and challenges of nation-building when many others did not. 

This is a part of the long tradition of realist opposition to wars of choice on the periphery of the global chessboard. This aspect of his message often resonates in America—even in Washington. After all, the American people elected a president in 2008 who agreed with realists about Iraq, and many more policymakers have come around since. The lack of support for a full-scale intervention in Syria is a further sign that Washington is a little more realist than before.

Undoing America’s global role

Realism is a broad church with much insight to offer for U.S. foreign policy. However, one of the reasons it is not more influential is that the people who actually think about realist doctrine for a living—that is, academic realists, including Walt—have gone in a strategic direction that would abruptly overturn six decades of American foreign policy tradition. 

The core foreign policy belief of modern academic realism, as it has developed since the Cold War, is that the United States is relatively safe and secure given its geographical position, its large arsenal of nuclear weapons, and the absence of a potential hegemonic challenger overseas. Realists believe that America’s vast array of overseas commitments and interventions poses the greatest threat to U.S. interests. These commitments, they say, are prohibitively expensive, entrap the United States in unnecessary wars, needlessly aggravate other countries in ways that threaten the United States, and encourage free riding by so-called allies as they let the American taxpayer pay for everyone else’s security. 

Realists believe that America’s vast array of overseas commitments and interventions poses the greatest threat to U.S. interests.

Consequently, these realists are arguing for a radical overhaul of U.S. strategy. Realists widely regard MIT Professor Barry Posen’s book “Restraint” as the most sophisticated and coherent description of a realist foreign policy. In it, he argues that the United States should “replace NATO with a new more limited security cooperation agreement” without a mutual defense clause like Article V. He further advocates for dramatically reducing the U.S. commitment to Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, as well as reducing U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Academic realists across the board widely support his recommendations, and some would go further. 

This is something truly new and revolutionary. If there is a core foreign policy principle in Washington, it is the sanctity of U.S. alliances and the U.S.-led international order as a whole. Democrats and Republicans alike want to strengthen alliances, even as they differ over burden-sharing and other issues. No one in the establishment favors large-scale retrenchment from what have come to be recognized as vital interests for over 60 years. 

Interestingly, this was a core belief of academic realists not too long ago, as well. Posen himself was of this view immediately after the Cold War. But it is this principle that academic realists have now made their primary target. They believe that if the United States pulls back from the world, others will be forced to do what the United States currently provides. Japan and other states in Asia will do more to balance China. European countries will reverse their defense cuts. This, in the view of realists, will enhance security competition in some regions, particularly in East Asia—while that may be unfortunate for the people who live there, it will work to the benefit of the United States, or so the argument goes. 

Balancing act

For realists, the United States only has to worry about East Asia, Europe, or the Middle East if a rival power is poised to dominate there. The sheer physics of balancing mean this is very unlikely to happen—but if it did, there would be enough time to intervene and tip the balance against the rival. 

I heard one leading realist explicitly make this point at a conference a couple of years ago (it was under the Chatham House rule, allowing me to share the insight but not identify the speaker). He argued that the United States should look to the 1930s as a model: allow other states to duke it out and intervene only later on, when absolutely necessary, and under favorable conditions. 

The 1930s is not typically depicted as a model, and there are easy points to be scored there. But there is a much more fundamental issue at stake: Manipulating regional insecurity is a core goal of the strategy commonly called “off-shore balancing.” The off-shore power (in this case, the United States) should encourage disunity and rivalry between regional actors and take advantage of the opportunities it provides. 

For Kissingerian realists, the most important aspect of U.S. alliances is that they exist and are widely accepted as a cornerstone of a legitimate international order.

This strategy could not be further from the mainstream in Washington. For over seven decades, the United States has sought to reduce regional security competition in Western Europe and Asia. One purpose of the Cold War alliances was to exert U.S. control over allies, to prevent them from aggravating their democratic neighbors. Thus, the United States provides security to Japan so it will not build capabilities that worry South Korea or others. 

This was also originally one of the reasons for NATO. Since the Cold War, even after the Soviet threat disappeared, the United States has gone to extraordinary lengths to promote regional integration and cooperation in Asia and Europe. Academic realists believe that many of these steps, including NATO expansion, were mistakes. When it is put to them that if the Baltics were not in NATO today, Russia may have invaded, their response is that the United States has no interests there. 

A new generation of realism

Back in the era of Henry Kissinger, realism was about preservation of the international equilibrium. It was about incremental change from within the system, rather than revolutionary acts. This advice provided guidance for how to handle rivals who sought to upset the balance and for exercising restraint oneself. For Kissingerian realists, the most important aspect of U.S. alliances is that they exist and are widely accepted as a cornerstone of a legitimate international order. 

Realism today is unrecognizable from its antecedents. It proposes to voluntarily dissolve an order that is quite popular in Europe and Asia on the basis of an untested theory. To disband or greatly weaken America’s traditional alliances, either tacitly or formally, would be a revolutionary act. It would surely shake the equilibrium. Classical realists would have recoiled at such an experiment. Modern-day realists embrace the prospect of chaos and uncertainty. 

Realism today is unrecognizable from its antecedents.

It is academic realism’s new direction, more than anything else, that has detached it from the policy debate in Washington. Academics often discuss how to be policy-relevant, but now they find themselves in an unusual position. They are writing on topics that are relevant and of great interest to policymakers, but their ideas on alliances and retrenchment are so far out of the political mainstream to ensure that they will be cast aside. 

The great irony is that post-Iraq, there appears to be a market in Washington for classical pragmatic realism that provides a prudent way of strengthening and preserving the U.S.-led international order, including particularly reducing somewhat the U.S. commitment in the Middle East. Chasing the revolution, few if any in the academy feel it is a call worth their while answering.