A Challenge to Realism


The lesson that some people are taking away from the Iraq boondoggle is that values-driven foreign policy should be rejected. Since prominent neoconservatives plotted a course according to values and not interests, they say, we need to get back to pursuing interests.
The general neoconservative story could be summed up as follows: there are good guys and bad guys in the world; empower the good guys (when it’s convenient) and take out the bad guys.
Realists like Bill Richardson, Steve Clemons, and Anatol Lieven, have rightly countered that the good guy/bad guy dichotomy is at the root of a very serious problem in U.S. foreign policy.

We should be talking with everybody. Interests are permanent, not friends or enemies. That means a destructive actor can become a neutral or constructive influence with some smart diplomacy.
I take issue with the many realists who downplay the importance of international institutions and law, but generally, as an alternative to neoconservatism, realism’s return to prominence is a good thing. The good-guy/bad-guy thinking needs to go.
But it would be wrong to suggest, as some (though not all of those mentioned above) have, that values-driven foreign policy is to blame for the Iraq mistake and should be discarded. The Iraq failure didn’t happen because we followed our values at the expense of our interests; it happened because imposing democracy at the end of a gun barrel doesn’t work. Neither values nor interests were served by the course of action chosen by the administration and endorsed by Congress.
Smart thinking about values and interests are often compatible, and when they’re not, they need to be balanced. And yes, sometimes, values should win out. That’s what happened yesterday, when the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to condemn the Armenian Genocide.
In the traditional realist sense, acknowledging the genocide is counter to U.S. interests. It could make our effort in Iraq somewhat more difficult and will likely harm relations with a key NATO ally. Eight Secretaries of State have written a letter to that effect. And in terms of interests, Armenia’s gratitude doesn’t register as a concern on the same level as Turkey’s anger.
I can live with that sort of hit to short-term interests. Others can’t. Thoughtful people are on both sides of this debate.
The counterargument — which I support — is that U.S. foreign policy should also advance the values of American citizens. American citizens don’t like mincing words when it comes to genocides. Even though truth-telling may hurt immediate U.S. interests, we should do it because continuing to stay mum would be shameful. And if I might be permitted a moment of idealism, setting an example by doing the right thing might build some goodwill and encourage others to behave similarly, which would advance our interests in the long run.
Make no mistake – the return of realism is a good thing. But let’s not give up on values-driven foreign policy altogether.
— Scott Paul


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