Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Unrespectable Realism?

Jonathan Rauch's column in National Journal regrets that, in his opinion, realism in foreign policy is confined to the crackpot extremes of the right and left and he laments that no public figure is articulating a foreign policy strategy based on realism.

Of course, my first reaction is to take issue with that--after all, what is TNI itself trying to do? Senator Hagel is a leading proponent of principled realism and in our summer issue discusses what that means; he used his realism to guide his thinking on Iran. Kissinger certainly is continuing to make the case (see our conversation with him in the summer issue). Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, two leading contributors, are about to release "Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World". And so on ...

But Rauch raises a much more fundamental point--that right now neither major political party really wants to embrace the label "realism" or formulate their foreign policy positions on a realist basis, even though its propositions resonate with the majority of Americans.

It speaks to the fact that realism has an "idealism gap"--a point I myself made several years ago when I wrote that "Lofty aims--however unrealistic--rather than practical objectives are what stir the blood of the citizenry, right?"

It also points to the extent the maximalist rhetoric has replaced analytical thinking. In theory and in the abstract, as I said at the Saltzman Forum last fall, no one disagrees with the proposition that, in the long run, people are better off living under democracies. From John Mearsheimer to David Rieff, one would find little dissent with the proposition. But, as Dov Zakheim wrote for us (and will speak this Friday at the magazine), strategy is moving from the aspiration to realization. And in the current climate of debate, it is far easier to be labeled an enemy of freedom than to be appreciated for providing cautionary advice.

The American people are not hurting. Once inflation/taxes eat into their standard of living and the cripples and corpses start coming back home then-like a death sentence- you would expect their minds to focus on Realism.
The Webb / Miller race today in Virginia may have an impact on how the debate is framed--a Webb victory increases the chance of a Democratic voice for realism or at least a more realistic foreign policy, perhaps could serve as a bridge for moderate Reaganism to be made more acceptable to the Democratic mainstream.
I think there is a point to be made that realism is on the defensive and is not part of the mainstream. Scowcroft, Kissinger, Schlesinger, and other identifiable Republican realists are retired; generally the realists are identified with George H.W. Bush's team. One cannot argue that there is a robust realist presence in the current administration or among most Republican members of Congress, Hagel and Lugar perhaps being partial exceptions.
A Webb victory in Virginia sends the message that the Democrats have no program of their own and need a recycled Republican approach; it also sends the message that the Democrats want to win more than stand for anything in particular.

If there is going to be a Democratic "foreign policy realism" it should be an organic outgrowth from the party's core positions and based on what the rank and file see as best for America, not something bought from DC consultants and from Republican circles.
The trouble is that to characterize foreign policy in terms of general policy orientations is to debate general principles rather than the particular circumstances in which the same principle might be right or wrong. More deeply, as I note on Daniel Drezner's site (he posted today on Rauch just before you did), arguing general positions deflects attention from the all-important question of timeframe.

In the interview he gave you for the summer issues, Henry Kissinger makes the point that the value of a policy depends on the period of time in which it is expected to apply. The corollary I think is that one must know the timeframe in order to solve the problem.
The question of time frame is important, thanks for raising it David. It seems to me that Americans have an ever shrinking time frame for results. Moreover the idea of policy continuity from one administration to the next especially if there is a change of party seems to be gone. This makes sustainable long term policies difficult to create.
Webb has won the primary in Virginia. Now let's see how he frames his arguments on foreign policy.
Anon 12:00 PM,

Happen to have just returned from Webb's primary victory party... You're right, I think he's going to have a lot to contribute to the debate within the Democratic Party on foreign policy... There are still a lot of people in the foreign policy elite within the Democratic party who blanche at the term realism, but Jim Webb's candidacy has shown that such a message has resonance with the party rank and file in the post-Iraq era. Democrats are tiring of the freedom crusade -- and want a foreign policy more focused on protecting our real interests, not trying to remake the world in our image.
democracy always has been a deal with the devil: a powerful tool offering great oppurtunity that is dependent on the good will of a largely ignorant polity. Such a situation is hoplelessly vulnerable to abuse. The question that becomes more and more relevant is: does the system still adequately correct for this abuse or has abuse and misuse overwhelmed the system? Karl Rove escapes charges and immediately gives a speech casting the situation in Iraq in entirely ideologcial terms for the sole purpose of pumping up Bush's poll numbers and making a merely rhetorical 'sale' to a gullible public. It's not surprising that an opposing politician would be wary of realism is such an environment: the question is are there countervailing forces out there still capable of correcting this situation?

How is Webb going to make the case against the freedom crusade when the DLC wants to intensify the crusade with all of their might?
I think a lot more is being read into Webb's victory than is probably the case. His winning a democratic primary in a generally red state that allows any registered voter to vote in a primary doesn't mean that the democrats have no program of their own or that his foreign policy ideas resonate with the rank and file dems. Most of the people I know who voted for him (and I know a few, which probably add up to a percentage point or two of the turnout) did so either because they felt he can make Allen spend more money on getting re-elected than Miller could, thus depleting his reserves for a presidential run (Democrats) or to have an actual choice in the election in November (Republicans). Not because of his foreign policy ideas.
Anon 7:19,

I guess I'd just point out that the DLC idn't the whole party, and neither is it the case that the debate is solely between 'DLC centrists' and the 'Deaniac/MoveOn/pacifist' left (which certainly isn't Jim Webb).

But there is, I think, more of a realization among the party rank and file in the wake of Iraq that sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the Beinart/muscular Wilsonian/"Dems could have done the Iraq nation building project better" message has very little resonance with Dems outside the DC/NYC/Boston chattering classes. Every time I've seen Jim Webb use the line about America not having a mission to 'spread democracy at the point of a gun', it's been greeted by applause, something which would make a lot of 'progressive' think-tank types cringe... (if you're curious enough to look up Harris Miller's FEC donor data, you'll find a couple of them listed there...)


Didn't mean to imply that Webb's primary win was solely about, or even mainly about, his foreign policy views. I think it was largely, as you say, about having a chance against Allen. Having said that, though, I think his candidacy will help to start a much needed debate within the party, which was why I became highly interested in it early on.
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