Are we entering a period of “new” realism in foreign policy - one that is defined by favoring allies, but cooperating with all in the pursuance of America’s interests? Consider an excerpt from this provocative TIME article:
One cold war is enough,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Putin to his face at a conference in Germany last year. In Washington, where policy fell prey to political fictions for much of the Bush administration, the mantra of the moment is “realism.” For too many years the White House looked at the world through a crude, dialectic lens—”with us or against us,” “war or appeasement.” Since Gates took over at Defense in late 2006, he has demanded from the waning administration “a pragmatic blend of resolve and restraint.” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for her part, talks about a “uniquely American realism.” It has an idealistic tinge favoring friends and allies who share Western democratic values. But, that said, Rice’s brand of realism readily allows an autocratic Russia, or for that matter China, to be accepted as competitive on some issues and embraced when cooperative on others.
The approach harks back to the days 60 years ago when University of Chicago professor Hans J. Morgenthau led what came to be known as the realist school of international relations. “Foreign policy must be conducted in such a way as to make the preservation of peace possible and not make the outbreak of war inevitable,” he wrote. Moderate, reasonable, focused on clearly perceived national interests, he warned against “the crusading spirit,” insisted on looking at the political scene from the viewpoint of other nations, and advocated compromise on any issue not absolutely vital to a country’s well-being.
Such views have always been a hard sell with the U.S. public. Especially after an incident like the invasion of Georgia, Americans tend to hanker for definitive confrontations and conclusions that smell like victory. To talk about responding with what Gates calls “nonmilitary tools of national power”—what others call “soft power”—sounds soft, period. (You won’t hear the phrase cross the lips of any presidential candidate.) But when you have the preponderance of power, you can husband your resources and still contain your adversary.
But in the 21st century, foreign policy shouldn’t be limited to relations with nation-states to achieve immediate national interests. Of course foreign policy will always contain that strand, but America needs to think bigger. National security is now the enterprise of both state and non-state actors, and we need to protect America’s interests by cultivating relationships with other governments, but also with the world’s publics, particularly in the Middle East as Shadi Hamid argues.
That’s why “new” realism only answers part of the puzzle.