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April 16, 2009

Why Have Realists Become Marginalized?
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Joseph Nye and Steve Walt both decry how academia has become removed from practical policymaking and provide some steps for how it can get more engaged.  It’s also worth pointing out that for all of academia’s faults, in some cases this has a lot to do with the policymaking process itself.  If policymakers don’t like the political implications of solutions proposed by academics, they tend to just dismiss the advice and by doing so ignore some pretty proactive and thoughtful thinking.

I’m thinking specifically here about the case of academic foreign policy realists.  I wrote a few months ago about the fact that a foreign policy consensus had emerged in Washington that included pragmatists like Gates, as well as liberal hawks and liberals.  As was soon pointed out to me, one group that is clearly missing from this list is the academic realists, who have traditionally been an important voice in American foreign policy.

It’s not as if this strand of thinking ever fully dominated American foreign policy (I don’t think we would have built thousands of nuclear weapons during the Cold war if realists were in charge).  But important and influential American foreign policymakers such as Kissinger, Brzezinski and Kennan all came out of the realist school.  And even into the 1990s when you had real opposition from conservatives in Congress to interventions in the Balkans, the realist school held some real sway. 

But that seems to have evaporated.  These days the realist perspective is all but non-existent in Washington.  A large part of that has to do with the fact that their ideas are so politically unpopular that they are simply dismissed out of hand as unrealistic.  Many realists have come to the conclusion that as an unfettered unipolar power the United States will inevitably overextend itself and scare others into aligning against it, and thus over time weaken itself.  The best prescription for this is retrenchment that includes dramatic reductions in military spending and the reduction of our presence around the world – very politically unpopular ideas.

So, When Barry Posen writes a thoughtful piece about the need for restraint, or when Richard Betts has a compelling article about U.S. military strategy for the 21st century that involves large cuts in military spending, policymakers may read it.  They may even think it is very smart.  But then they tell themselves that this idea is politically unrealistic and go on about their business.

The sad irony is that realist theory predicts its own political irrelevance during a period of unipolarity.  After all, if one believes that unipolarity will likely lead to imperial overstretch, then you would expect that in a democracy there would a political consensus around an activist foreign policy and that voices that are calling for restraint would be ignored

Of course, you could argue that realism’s irrelevance also has to do with the fact that it has a harder time explaining the post cold war world or dealing with very real transnational issues that do need to be addressed.  The financial crisis, global warming, global epidemics, or terrorism all have real national security implications and realism doesn’t do a great job in explaining these phenomenons or providing prescriptions of how to deal with them.  There is no question that realism has its limits.

But it’s not as if realism doesn’t have anything to contribute anymore.  It is often ahead of the curve.  To take just one example, prior the 2004 elections a broad coalition of realist thinkers, including some of the biggest names in the business, signed onto a letter in the NY Times calling for swift end to the war in Iraq.  This came at a time when almost no one in the mainstream political establishment, Democrats included, was talking about withdrawal.  And policymakers would be wise to at seriously take into account the warnings that realists are currently voicing about Afghanistan.

Realists have played an important role over the years in checking American tendencies towards ideology and injected some cold hard calculations about the nature of power into the foreign policy conversation.  Even if one doesn’t agree with many realist ideas, policymakers would be wise to take the realist school more seriously instead of automatically dismissing it because of the politically difficult choices that it prescribes for a unipolar world.

Update:  Matt Yglesias adds a nice corrective to my piece arguing that it's not really "popularity" in the traditional public opinion sense of the word, that is the barrier here.  It is the various pressure points that when combined put the idea of restraint outside the political mainstream.  When I wrote about "popularity," I wasn't strictly referring to public opinion.  But I could have been much clearer about that point and I think Matt's description is dead on.


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