Archangels in America – America’s Realists’ Crisis of Conscience

January 27, 2011 at 1:37 pm (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Realists throughout the world share two main characteristics: they are few and they are constant. In every foreign policy establishment one can find Realists. They are the essence of diplomacy, with their obsession for national interest and little appetite for the values of whatever may be the ideological soup du jour. Unfortunately they are also few: be it because Realism doesn’t appeal to the masses or because political factions struggling for power need an ideological platform. Most diplomats, politicians and statesmen prefer to whenever possible convey an image of piety and morality, in an ever elusive attempt at monopolising the moral high-ground.

As discussed before, ‘Pre-eminence Derived Universalism’ tends to corrupt the gains acquired through pragmatic competitiveness with prior great powers. This was the case with the reaction of America’s intelligentsia to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 with many political-realists defecting the Kissingerian canon for either side of the political spectrum. The ‘Wilsonian Realists’ saw before them the long sought opportunity of their youth years, to transform the world according to the vision of leaders such as Kennedy. Now, the Wolfowitzes of America could finally grab the opportunity to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ and become pro-active on ‘Democratic Peace’. Their long lost battles with the Kissinger doctrine or the Kirkpatrick doctrine, veritable Sisyphusian efforts within the government, at fighting all communists and forsaking illiberal allies, would finally pay off since they now possessed the empirical weapon of transformative democracy. ‘Jeffersonian Realists’ on the other hand now saw the political meddling of the US throughout the world as unnecessary given that there was no other global rival to American power and Offshore Balancing would offer an effective tool of management at little cost. There was little need for Washington to take a stand in regional conflicts since neutrality and local balancing would suffice to implement its national interest. Additionally America could begin to dismantle a far too onerous military-industrial complex which began to burden the quality of its democracy at home.

These tectonic shifts within American political-realism – colouring the grey, as it were – were exacerbated by Operation Iraqi Freedom and later epitomised by two seminal events in the academia: the 2005 take-over of ‘The National Interest’ by The Nixon Center and the 2007 publishing of ‘The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy’ by Mearsheimer and Walt. The first saw a secession of neoconservative minded academics such as Samuel Huntington or Francis Fukuyama from TNI going on to found their own ‘Realist’ publication ‘The American Interest’. The second consisted of a denouncing of American interventionism in the Middle East as counter-productive, using Washington’s Israelophile policies as case in point for a wider critique of burdensome military commitments all through the world.

As Trombly suggests in his article over at Slouching Towards Columbia, traditional Hamiltonian Realism is withering in America. The reason why is not terribly complex: America is the remaining superpower and does not need to seriously strategise its international moves. America’s power is as uncontested as to allow Washington to afford incurring in idealist or semi-idealist pursuits. Similarly I agree that super-presidential administrations are much more required in times of war – or imminent war – rather than in peace, and that this constricts arbitrary presidential decisions to employ less popular foreign policy experts (such as Kissinger).

There is yet another problem for America: being a young nation, ideology is still an intrinsic identity factor in the American psyche. As long as an American finds it politically incorrect to identify its nationhood with language, ethnicity or history, he’ll resort to values. This need only strengthened with the demise of the Soviet Union for America remains today an exceptionalist empire at odds with an international community composed of older and more cynical national experiences.

The attempt at harmonising the United States’ exceptionalism – as the forefront of the ‘free world’, the champion of the ‘end of history’ – with a globalised and interconnected world reality resulted in the – perhaps unavoidable – idealist contamination of Hamiltonian Realism and its slide to leftist anti-elitist trends.

Will traditional realists be forced to wait in the shadows of the American right, lingering in institutions such as the Nixon Center, the Kennan Institute or the Kissinger Institute, until a new global threat to America emerges? Or will the multipolar world push Washington into an offshore balancing act earlier than anticipated?

For the time being, it is the most irredentist trends that thrive and realists who remain isolated in the ideological shantytowns of foreign policy debates, sharing the exile from limelight with paleoconservatives and libertarians. Cold War dinosaurs like Kissinger and Scowcroft continue to be respected but their protégés don’t make the talk shows. As for Robert Gates, his position with the Obama administration is precarious due to his Republican credentials and the most likely Republican successors prefer to make noise using neocon undertones.

The Cold War forced into the academia and the intellectual elites a securitarian logic which constrained to a great extent any idealist temptations. The conclusion of what the neocons call the ‘Third World War’ brought with it the end of the convictions of a bloated realist intelligentsia. Realists have now returned to their position of general discretion and minority, having lost their less dedicated extremes to the easy peace time idealism. It is also worth keeping in mind that in times of ideological moderation – such as the era we live in – the relative difficulty in claiming distinctions in domestic policy areas, drives the ideological discourse to the foreign policy niche – among others. It is significant for instance that the Israelo-Palestinian conflict is as important as it is for the Left, given the loss of its Marxist platform with the fall of the USSR.

There are those who remain hopeful that a presidential candidate originating from the military might enact if elected a sufficient ‘imperial presidency’ to cut with the current tilt towards populism but for now this remains wishful thinking.

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1 Comment

  1. Wither classical realism? (II) « Slouching Towards Columbia said,

    […] M.N. Silva at the Westphalian Post and LFC at Howl at Pluto both have thoughtful and interesting posts up responding in part to some of my speculations about classical realism’s prospects in the United States today. […]

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