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


7 comments on “A Challenge to Realism

  1. JohnH says:

    David N: Scott said, “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.” In other words neocons claim to have the ‘right’ values–freedom, democracy, human rights, etc. The bad guys support terrorism, islamofascism, etc. Neocons believe in a benevolent American hegemony based on American exceptionalism–superior American values. It’s all spin, PR and BS, though they might believe what they say if they’re delusional.
    If they’re not delusional, neocons would realize that their behavior shows that they’re hidden agenda is freedom (economic freedom for US companies), economic rights of oil companies, promotion of the defense industry, and Israel. Hardly a morally uplifting set of values.
    The religious right has a different set of values from those of the neocons. For them, freedom is right to proselytize; democracy is the right of the people to chose Chrisitianity as their state religion; and human rights is Christian law–no abortions, no gays, etc.
    And they both support Israel, but for different reasons.


  2. David N says:

    You forget about the millions of Iraqi refugees, being treated in the same way as the Palestinians by Syria and Jordan. This is so important a story it’s even being reported on by the corporate media (though without the obvious connections and conclusions that we can reach).
    Bush, etc. have simply created a whole new set of generations of potential terrorists. Undereducated, stateless, jobless, hopeless, and able to blame all their troubles on the U.S. and be told that Islam has all the answers.
    Ye Gads!!!


  3. rollingmyeyes says:

    “JohnH I am a bit confused at your criticism of the neocons for promoting values. You are confusing the religious right with the neocons. They are not the same. Neocons are committed to a pure realist foreign policy — with a healthy dose of pure fantasy (“remaking the Middle East”?
    If we think about how the Middle East has been affected by the Palistinian camps, etc., and now imagine how the world will look like in another fifty years as this huge new group of wonderers goes through its various revenges. Ugh. These “realists” are remaking the Middle East, alright.


  4. Kathleen says:

    DavidN… what were they smoking?
    Probably smuggled Havanna cigars, which if you watch Rush Limbaugh mouth his, seem to be like penis pacifiers. Obvisouly, they weren’t smoking anything that would pacify their lust for war.


  5. David N says:

    I have taken numerous training courses and classes in government and foreign relations. Every one starts with the professor asking the students to define the “national interest.”
    And every time, the professor then explains that the “national interest” is whatever the speaker wants it to be, whatever serves the agenda of the person invoking this magic mantra.
    In other words, there is no national interest. At the least, those who pretend to be serving the national interest are lying (big surprise).
    JohnH I am a bit confused at your criticism of the neocons for promoting values. You are confusing the religious right with the neocons. They are not the same. Neocons are committed to a pure realist foreign policy — with a healthy dose of pure fantasy (“remaking the Middle East”? What were they smoking!!!) added for flavor.
    One can easily show that Cheney and his cronies simply used the neocon fantasy as an instrument in their real goal, which was control of world oil supplies.
    Remember, the only real conflict in today’s world is that between people and corporations. Trouble is, our side doesn’t pay as well . . . .


  6. JohnH says:

    This is the kind of false dichotomy that drives me nuts. First, the neocons. If they gave a hoot about values, they would be publicly outraged–livid–at the behavior of countries like Saudi Arabai, Angola, and Azerbaijan. But they’re not, because they recognize that these governments serve our national interest of reliably supplying oil. The only countries that they get livid about are nations like Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela who have not pledged 100% allegiance to our international petroluem market framework. All their talk about values is simply prattle, designed to provide a cover of nobility and to generate public support for their resource wars.
    The realists on the other hand foreswear values in favor of national interests but steadfastly cloud the question of what the national interests are. Most probably their view of national interest is not that different from that of the neocons. So the difference is one of style, not of ambitions.
    But we’ll never know what the true differences are, because one hides behind the values cover and the other stays silent. And to make matters worse, realists never provide any kind of alternative narrative to the neocons false pretenses for war. They just remain silent, conveniently letting the neocons take the heat for pursuing interests that they share.
    What’s desperately needed is a little honesty and transparency in the development of foreign policy. If America’s “strategic interests” were made public, there could be open debate about how to satisfy them. The public’s values would most likely force politicians to conduct a foreign policy that consisted of more than naked economic self interest and included some measure of values. However, the game is played in secret precisely to prevent having narrow economic interests exposed and to avoid having values ever impinge of that self interest.


  7. David N says:

    All binary choices are false and illegitimate.
    I have written an essay in which I conclude that any foreign policy which leaves out either realism or values is doomed to fail and endanger our security and our freedoms.
    This has happened time and time again, but the Washington culture believes that mistakes are failures of character instead of normal life that is used to learn from and improve. Thus, those who most fully inhabit this culture are doomed to fail time and again, and never learn, because they can never admit that they have failed or made mistakes. Think about how often this question comes up — and gets evaded — in presidential and other elections. In the real world, failure is both normal and valued; it means you’ve learned.
    Success within the Washington culture is thus guaranteed to produce policies that will fail.
    Something has to be done about the whole culture, which is very hard because only those who accept the culture wholeheartedly are accepted into the inner ranks by their predecessors. Thus, failure is rewarded and continued year after year.
    And those who fail even by Washington standards, and lose their government positions, are rewarded by being given book contracts and positions in think tanks, academic institutions, lobbying firms, and major corporations who depend on government contracting, and thus — by their own standards — do not fail. These are the people the media depend on to comment on events, thus guaranteeing that outside, unconventional perspectives are never heard.
    The basic rule in Washington is: Any time someone does something wrong, everyone else gets punished.
    Try to think of a counter-example.


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