It is a question worth asking considering the likelihood of a Susan Rice appointment to Secretary of State. Rice during her brief time on the stage as UN Ambassador to the United Nations, has shown she is an interventionists in the liberal mold. Walter Russel Mead stated it this way.
The Obama administration is moving from a realist, in some ways Jeffersonian approach to foreign policy—limiting commitments, looking for compromise solutions with opponents regardless of ideology—to something more Wilsonian: giving democracy promotion and human rights a higher profile in the national security portfolio.
Mead then follows up with Realists Stephen Walt’s points of concern.
It’s a question of balance, and my sense is that the administration’s world-view is getting narrower over time. Realists like Robert Gates have been gone for some time, and Clinton will be gone soon. James Jones left the NSC years ago, and independent thinkers like the late Richard Holbrooke are no longer with us. Instead of vigorous and creative debate and a willingness to rethink past decisions or priorities, we’re likely to get groupthink and a tendency to circle the wagons and defend past decisions…
In other words, both men worry over the prospects of more direct US involvement and interventionism instead of balancing and containment.
Susan Rice will continue to push towards a more engaged and ideal driven foreign policy—replacing what one could call the conservative internationalism of the neocons with the more traditional but equally ambitious liberal internationalism that many Democrats prefer.
What exactly does Realism offer? Realism offers are strength, security, and balance. All of these can be achieved without conflict for the US while maintaining its level of predominance in the international system.
What exactly does Realism prescribe? Realist theory prescribes that if great powers wish to maintain their security and advance their interests, they should balance against other great powers and contain minor powers by virtue of their hegemony and power capabilities.
I state these prescriptions because the system is an anarchical and brutal arena where states look for opportunities to take advantage of each other. This is not to be understood as chaotic but rather is the absence of any authority above the state to guarantee security and execute justice. Therefore, states provide for their own security in the form of self-help. Since one state cannot know the intentions of another, a premium must be placed on relative power vis-à-vis other states. From a Realists perspective, power and survival means military and economic capabilities.
All of this means exactly as Hans Morgenthau, the father of classical Realism stated it, “the restoration of the balance of power by means short of war.”
Realism’s fundamental prescription is that great powers should balance against competitors, maintain or buildup their capabilities, and use strong diplomacy to communicate to their competitors. Effective communication reduces the possibilities of misinformation and miscalculations. For example, a great power such as the US should unequivocally state that behavior which conflicts with its immediate interests will not be tolerated. Where its indirect interests are concerned, the US should adhere to the principles of containment through balance in the region where interests are at stake. The balance of power comes as close to a guarantee for stability as can be imagined in that it may prevent wars and limit those that erupt.
Conflicts in recent history will serve as a case study for the importance of Realism in foreign policy. Particularly in the examination will be America’s two most costly and controversial wars, the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. The conclusion of this section will show had Realism been followed, America could have avoided the political, military, and economic costs of the two wars.
The first departures from Realism in both cases are readily identifiable. In the case of Vietnam, it was the fear and ideological opposition with communism. In the case of Iraq, it was the dedication of spreading democracy to the Middle East. In neither case does Realism find these as suitable causes for war.
Vietnam was a weak, poor and minor power that had no ties to direct US national security. Its victory would have done nothing to enhance US security and its defeat did nothing to harm its security. Ben Mollov writing for the journal Israel Affairs notes that Morgenthau “did not view a communist Vietnam as in itself desirable, neither did he view such an outcome as inherently threatening to American interests.”
Given these factors, Realism’s prescriptions argue against becoming involved in these kinds of wars. The US’s involvement in Vietnam was ideologically and politically motivated and determined upon projected communist threats.
The ideological reasons behind the Iraq war serve as a compelling case study. The Bush administration embraced neoconservativism after 9/11. The polices carried out later to be known as the Bush Doctrine embodied strong support of American hegemony, preventive use of force, unilateral action, and a strong commitment to democracy on moral grounds. This gave over to the belief that regime change was necessary. With this being the prescription, the removal of Saddam would increase security in the region while planting democracy in a thoroughly autocratic region. A liberal democracy in an oil rich nation would undermine the anti-Western forces in the Middle East. Consequently the Iraq War made sense only to neoconservatives and liberal interventionists.
The fact is Iraq could have been contained. It was already considerably weakened from its eight-year war with Iran, its defeat after invading Kuwait, and from the cumulative effect of Western sanctions. Additionally, the US with its regional allies represented superior strength to Iraq. Containment and aggressive deterrent policies could have limited Saddam to Iraq without ever having to take large-scale military action.
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote in their essay titled “An unnecessary war”:
“The belief that Saddam’s past behavior shows he cannot be contained rests on distorted history and faulty logic. In fact, the historical record shows that the United States can contain Iraq effectively – even if Saddam has nuclear weapons – just as it contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Regardless of whether Iraq complies with U.N. inspections or what the inspectors find, the campaign to wage war against Iraq rests on a flimsy foundation ” (Foreign Policy, 2003, p. 134).
From review in both cases “passions and hope, not by reason and careful calculation” makes for a good description. The US’ military occupation in both countries was similar to the grave actions of the Athenian invasion of Sicily during Thucydides time. In that the invasion revealed “the emotional nature of the decision and how poorly connected it was to any strategic logic or estimation of the likely costs” (Richard Lewbow).
In light of these case studies, it is worth reviewing what Realism suggested in terms of security and balance. Realism recommends deterrence, alliances, and maintaining an advantage in power capabilities as a way to keep adversarial powers in check. Realism also recommends restraint and balancing against hostile minor powers (unless war becomes a necessity). In all cases, Realism is concerned with power (not for power’s sake), maintaining the status quo, and keeping the status of predominance (for the US) in the international system. National security, interests, and stability are the foci for these principles.
I did not mention the concept of peace for three reasons. Peace can exist only if there is stability. Stability can exist only if there is security. Security can exist only if power exceeds that of hostile powers. Peace, in other words, is the product of the status quo and successful balancing. It will exist as long as there is no conflict, but it can never be permanently established. Liberal interventionists and other liberal scholars who insist on moral or ideological grounds for a reason to engage in conflict opens the door for abstract reasoning. It offers policy influenced from ideas or impulses motivating the hour. This is precisely what led policy makers to enter the US into Vietnam and Iraq.
With these points in mind, consider a Realist theory as an alternative for American foreign policy moving forward. Given the US’ relative power advantages over all its competitors, a policy of balancing, deterrence, and containment is in order. The Realists approach of deterrence, balancing, and containment is preferable to preventive strikes or a military invasion. Security competition will certainly be taxing but the US will enjoy its advantages because of its monopoly on power. Realists attempt to capture the world as it exists. Meaning, states act on self-interests and power and are not indifferent to gains made by other states. What is more, power capabilities across the system are unequal. Therefore, security is always at stake and states tend to be opportunistic in an anarchical system. The US is not insulated from this environment. Moreover, as the lone superpower in the world, the US should embrace its role as the balancer and focus on security and stability, not police action and advocacy.
The concept of peace and moral reasons for war often prove to be misguided. War is unpredictable and considerably taxing on a nation. If the US embraces these Realist concepts, the less likely the US is to be drawn into another protracted war. Instead, its goals and security needs can be realized without war.