In search of realism

Given the recent uproar over this article defending the Iranian election results,* I think it’s important to distinguish between those of us who see a realistic, restrained foreign policy as the best way to promote both human dignity and American interests abroad and people who view the United States’ posture through a strictly amoral lens, with no thought to the interests and aspirations of foreign peoples.

So yes, I deplore the assertion that “[T]he Iranian government responded to the post-June 12 protests in a manner consistent with its own constitutional procedures.” Any measures responsible for killing nearly 250 people over the past 10 days cannot be justified by vague allusions to constitutional protocol. Like Freddie, I think we can acknowledge the profound gulf between our perspectives and the views of the Iranian protesters while sympathizing with their efforts and admiring their courage.

When I think of “realism,” I think of an analytical tool that encourages restraint, acknowledges other states’ legitimate interests, and generally recognizes the value of engagement while rejecting false moral equivalence. Its current usage, however, implies an amoral perspective that is only concerned with maximizing American interests. Non-interventionists and other skeptics of an expansive American role abroad have, in my view, been unfairly tarred with this brush. In fact, I think it’s more appropriate to attach the term (and all that it implies) to interventionists like National Review’s Andy McCarthy – someone who forthrightly acknowledges his lack of concern for the aspirations of Iranian demonstrators – or John Derbyshire, who coined the phrase “to hell with them hawks” to describe his fondness for no-strings-attached punitive military expeditions.

These commentators are “realists” in the sense that they believe in maximizing American interests and are generally unconcerned the interests and aspirations of foreign countries. They share a certain skepticism of expansive overseas commitments with non-interventionists, but this skepticism does not extend to any broader disenchantment with American military power. They also seem to reject international engagement or diplomacy of any kind, something that is entirely foreign to non-interventionists who favor peaceful economic and diplomatic cooperation with countries like Iran.

I’m not sure which side deserves the term “realist,” but those of us who favor peaceful engagement with oppressive regimes in the hopes of reducing regional tensions, fostering greater cooperation, and eventually inducing political change don’t deserve to be put in the same camp as narrow-minded advocates of American military power.

*As to the substance of the article, the authors may well be right about the election results. That certainly doesn’t justify the regime’s brutal response to peaceful protests, however.

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13 thoughts on “In search of realism

  1. Some questions:

    Is it the responsibily of the United States to right all of the wrongs in the world?

    (I presume that the answer to the above question is something to the effect of “no, that’s a strawman, why can’t you be serious, etc…” so I will move on to my follow up question)

    Why is this particular problem one that the United States is responsible for resolving? I assume that we agree that there is a set of problems that the United States is responsible for and a set of problems that the United States is not responsible for and the latter set is not empty…

    So why is *THIS* problem in the former set and not the latter?

    It is not obvious to me why our intervention is required, let alone warranted, let alone wanted.

    Moreover, it is not obvious to me that our intervention will have anything but negative (though, granted, unintended) real consequences… indeed, the whole “if we help, everything will be cool” reminds me of the whole “liberators, flowers thrown at our feet” thing and it’s not obvious to me why it shouldn’t.

    Please explain to me why I am being obtuse.

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  2. Jaybird – did you read Will’s post or not? He’s advocating non-intervention. He’s advocating the “realist” position that it is not our problem, but also that we can certainly at the same time sympathize with the protesters’ courage and moxie.

    Will, great post. I think one goal for me at least is to try to restore the realist foreign policy view and reduce whatever odd stigma is attached to that term.

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    • “I think one goal for me at least is to try to restore the realist foreign policy view and reduce whatever odd stigma is attached to that term.”

      The odd stigma attached is due to two things, primarily.

      1) Henry Kissinger.
      2) The tendency of realism to prefer stability over anything else. (E.g., the failure to give support to the attempted coup that followed Desert Storm I was a very realist failure.)

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      • Jaybird,
        Not supporting the coup wasn’t a stain on “realism.” The stain was calling for the coup then not supporting it.

        Had the coup succeeded in the early 1990s, Iraq may have destabilized the entire region and set off the kind of ethnic cleansing we’ve seen since our invasion. A realist would have stuck with the devil we knew.

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        • “Had the coup succeeded in the early 1990s, Iraq may have destabilized the entire region and set off the kind of ethnic cleansing we’ve seen since our invasion. A realist would have stuck with the devil we knew.”

          This is a far more eloquent example of why there is a stigma attached to realism than the ones I provided.

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            • For the record, I am pretty sure that we don’t disagree when it comes to issues of international intervention.

              I’m just talking about the stigma that realism has and why.

              The realist position, ideally, is that we would never have called for a coup and that Saddam would never have had to squash it and that we would have continued to have equilibrium in the Middle East… because that’s the best we could hope for, realistically.

              I can totally see how someone might say “dude, that’s morally appalling. It’s disgusting.”

              At that point, we have to ask the questions asked in my first comment.

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  3. Slightly confused here. With this:

    Its current usage, however, implies an amoral perspective that is only concerned with maximizing American interests.

    Do you mean that is what you believe the IR school itself holds, or that that its how it is portrayed/perceived by most people?

    Because if it’s the first, I think you are clearly not giving a reasonably detailed description of what the system of analysis you are characterizing holds. Because I think better of your argumentation approach than that, my sense is you mean the second. If that is the case, then I’d just like to point out that to this group:

    Non-interventionists and other skeptics of an expansive American role abroad [who] have, in my view, been unfairly tarred with this brush.

    …you could add actual IR realist-school thinkers, analysts, and observers themselves.

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