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“Realists” in Foreign Policy?

At his Foreign Policy blog, Stephen Walt makes a bold claim: If realists had been in charge of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy may have been more reasonable: no Iraq War, no Balkan adventures and no “nation-building”. Perhaps if American policy had been conducted by rigorous, unsentimental thinkers, America could have avoided the waste of vast amounts of blood and treasure, and would currently enjoy a stronger position on the world stage.

Walt’s piece is an interesting counterfactual, but it displays a fundamental lack of understanding of how American foreign policy works. Foreign policy is not driven by ideologues steeped in international theory, but by planners operating within a system of political and institutional constraints. Many of America’s foreign policy elite are self-described realists, many are not, but both groups advocate a range of policies informed more by their assessment of conditions on the ground than any ideological viewpoint.

Adam Elkus puts it best (h/t Dan Drezner):

. . . Walt misunderstands the relationship of theory to policy. IR scholarship is scholarship—it seeks to generate knowledge about the world around us. That knowledge can help aid action, but in and of itself does not constitute an operational approach for action. Carl von Clausewitz wrote in On War that theory prepares the mind for action, but cannot dictate action, and Alexander George has written extensively about the interaction between IR scholars and policymakers, and argues that general knowledge of international relations can only be an input to, not a substitute for, policy analysis within the government. General knowledge will aid the decisionmaker, but cannot tell him or her what the right answer to a given individual situation may be. IR theory is systemic in nature—it is about (within the framework of dominant big three IR) causal inferences. It was never optimized for the purpose of telling policymakers how to handle individual cases.

Aside from this, policymaking is distinguished by domestic political considerations, international policy linkages, and bureaucratic foodfights. Even if Walt’s realist policymakers understood the right solution, boning up on Offense-Defense Theory tells you nothing about how to operationalize it within the American political system. The invasion of Iraq stands as a paramount example of this problem. The confused termination of the first Gulf War, US sanctions policy, a bipartisan commitment to containing Iraq without thought of how to sustain such a policy in the long term, and the way domestic politics produced bipartisan support for regime change in the 1990s all most likely led to the 2003 war. And lest Walt blame it all on neoconservatives, I would point him to Candidate Bush’s 2000 speeches eschewing nation-building and Condoleeza Rice’s pre-9/11 writings about returning to realism. As John Lennon sang, life happens when you make other plans. A theoretical commitment to realism does not ensure more policies in line with realism.

These are very good points, and they should be heeded by anyone looking to pursue a career in foreign policy. Academic courses on international politics often spend a great deal of time teaching the subtle differences between the various schools of international relations.

The policy world is different. One could be present at thousands of high-level policy meetings and not once hear terms like “realism” or “constructivism” thrown about. When it comes to foreign policy, politics trumps ideology. A course of study that focuses on the political realities of policymaking would be far more useful than the arcane theory that currently dominates academic coursework on the subject, and schools are doing their students a disservice by failing to provide it.

[This post has been updated from its original version.]

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  • Anthony

    “Foreign policy is not driven by ideologues steeped in international theory, but by planners operating within a system of political and institutional constraints…The policy world is different.” Assessment of conditions on the ground matters…. That sums it up WRM and provides an interesting syllabus.

  • James

    As far as I understand Walt’s piece, there would be no terrorism, fewer nuclear weapons, no war, no Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no unpredictable revolutions, and no foreign power struggles if only people like him (or, him) were in charge. I get Mead’s even-handed approach, but Walt spends too much time basking in the attention of serious thinkers and not enough time being castigated by them.

  • thibaud

    WRM nails it. One of his best posts.

    “A course of study that focuses on the political realities of policymaking…”

    There are such courses to be found here and there, but they’re usually taught by former diplomats instead of academics. IR programs should place at their core the discipline of Diplomatic History and hire more former senior diplomats to teach them.

  • Will

    James Kurth wrote a fine piece for the National Interest years ago entitled “Inside the Cave: The Banality of IR Studies.” It’s worth reading in the context of Walt’s claim. Kurth begins by noting that most readers won’t recognize various IR schools because they have little relevance in policy or public discourse. My experience is that IR scholarship emphasizes the models and theory privilived within academic political science byt largely ignored elsewhere. The result is more ism than real, and I say that as someone approaching international politics from a realist perspective. My realism is more Metternich and Salisbury than Morgenthau and Mearsheimer. So I guess that’s not rigorous enough.

  • Mark Michael

    One measure of how in-depth and wise foreign policy experts are is to ask the question after an event like 9/11, “How many learned papers, discussions, seminars took place concerning how the West should deal with the spread of radical Islamist ideas across the Middle East, Africa, and SE Asia before 9/11 happened?” Then search through all of those expert journals and see what you can find!

    Actually, the first big red flag re: 9/11 & radical Islam, was the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the radical mullahs who quickly took over the country. The Saudis with their radical Wahhabi form of Islam aggressively spread their form of Islam throughout the Middle East, Pakistan, even Europe and America. Sooner or later, one would expect that some of their followers would take up violent jihad, given the nature of homo sapiens.

    Now, I don’t regularly read the elite foreign policy journals, but the occasional ones I did, never discussed handling radical Islam in the form we’ve seen since 9/11 ever that I can remember. (Actually, Al Qaeda-like jihadists attacked our World Trade Center towers in 1993 the first time. Jayna Davis asserts that Middle Easterners were accomplices of Terri Nichols and Tim McVeigh in the April 1995 Murrah Building truck bombing. She claims that truck bomb was the same as the one that bombed the Marine baracks in Beirut in 1983 and the WTC towers in 1993.)

    One could take any burning issue of the day and go back and search those elite journals and see what in-depth thought, analyses were done for each. Hmm. I now remember some expert doing exactly that! Almost none of them were discussed in any depth! One can excuse it, I guess, by saying so many things happen that seem to be random in nature.

  • Greg R. Lawson

    As Kissinger adroitly puts it,

    “High office teaches decision making, not substance. It consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it. Most high officials leave office with the perceptions and insights with which they entered; they learn how to make decisions but not what decisions to make.”

    “Realism” is a fluid term. There are many ways to be one. A classical realist like Hans Morgenthau may come to different conclusions about specific policy options than a structural realist like Stephen Waltz, much less an offensive realist like Mearsheimer.

    A realist could make the case for jettisoning Israel as an ally (something Walt and Mearsheimer seem to support from some of their writings). Another realist might say, we should have left Saddam in power as a permanent balancer to Iran, or at the very least installed another dictator quickly to maintain order in Iraq.

    Realism is a cast of mind, not a definite recipe for action as WRM mentions. Yet it is a useful antidote for utopianism which all too often infects the mindsets of many neoconservatives and liberal internationalists. It makes one think about how the world really is as opposed to how we wish it were.

    It allows you to think like Bismarck or Thucydides. That is a good way to think quite often. It allows one to avoid some of the excesses often attributed to ideologues who can become almost Jacobin like in their righteous parochialism and, all too often, bloodlust.

    I suspect that might be the subtext of Walt’s piece and in that sense, it is useful.

  • thibaud

    @Greg L – “the realist cast of mind” between the end of the first Gulf War and the start of the second settled upon sanctions as the wise and prudent course of action.

    By Nov. 2002, however, when Russia’s LUKoil and France’s Total had both signed multi-billion dollar oil deals with Saddam, the sanctions had collapsed.

    Realists at that point had nothing useful to say about Iraq. They argued for keeping Saddam in his “box,” when it had become clear that both Chirac and Putin were determined to spring open the box and do deals with him.

    We now hear of stories about high officials in the UK Foreign Office who supposedly counseled a “decapitation” strategy toward the Ba’athist regime – kill Saddam but leave the party apparat and technocrats in place – but I don’t recall anyone on either side of the pond publicly urging such a course of action. There were only halfhearted attempts to pretend that containment was working, or should be given another chance to work.

  • stan

    Some foreign policy experts advised us that the Sunni and the Shiite were incapable of cooperating with each other to fight against the US. Anyone who learned anything on the kindergarten playground knew these ‘experts’ were idiots.

    It must be quite vexing to the experts that foreign policy, like much of life, is conducted by real people.

  • SteveMG

    When it comes to foreign policy, politics trumps ideology

    That reminds me of a reply by the late Daniel Moynihan, someone who probably (other than perhaps James Schlesinger, Jr.) sat in on more presidential cabinet meetings than anyone in history, to a question about what was discussed in those meetings.

    Moynihan was asked: “During these meetings was political philosophy or ideas ever discussed? The thoughts of a Locke or Mill or others? Plato? Anything like that??”

    “Good God no!! We were just trying to make it through the damned day!” Moynihan replied.

    That about sums up how policy making is made. Just make it through the damned day.

  • Mark Michael

    Comment #5 (continued) The example I planned to cite and forgot was to anticipate/plan for an important possible event like the collapse of the Soviet Union. When it occurred starting with the East Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and then the collapse of Gorbachev’s government in 1991, I suspect there were next to no in-depth elite foreign policy journal articles discussing how the West should handle it. What should we do if that happens? How do we respond militarily, diplomatically? What about NATO, the UN?

    In hindsight, the Reagan and the H.W. Bush administrations probably did as well as one could expect, given the (likely) lack of on-the-shelf plans available to use from those “experts.” Given that it happened without major conflict, death and destruction is a reason to rejoice and say, “Whew! A job well done!” (Well, I recall H.W. Bush telling the Ukrainians they should stay in the USSR, though. Talk about valuing “stability” above freedom and self-determination – given the history of Ukraine in the 1930s under Stalin, oh, my!)

    As a near-libertarian conservative, I always felt our foreign policy elite were too “nice” towards the USSR. I recall reading “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” by Yale history prof Paul Kennedy in early 1989. One (understated) theme of that book was the U.S. is spending way too much on our military. We’re doing like other “great powers” in the past: ensuring our own demise by too many foreign commitments, too much being spent on our foreign adventures!

    Within a year of having read that, the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of too much expenditures on their military. It was stressed to the breaking point by Reagan’s military buildup. SDI sent them over the top, and Gorbachev cried “Uncle!” at Reykjavik, Iceland (well, later on, actually).

    I assume Paul Kennedy was reflecting much of the elite foreign policy thinking about the Soviets: America was the “Great Power” that was in big trouble. It just didn’t occur to them that it could be the Soviets in trouble. Fact is, even at the height of the Reagan buildup, our military didn’t spend more than maybe 7% of our GDP, while the Soviets spent at least 25% of theirs, maybe as much as 40% if you included their space programs, their forces occupying Eastern Europe, etc.

    I don’t think Kennedy came under lots of ridicule after his thesis was proven to be exactly backwards, since so many of his fellow “deep thinkers” about foreign affairs agreed with his thesis. Who was there to poke fun at him?

    Well, it’s been 22+ years since the Berlin Wall was torn down by East Berliners and 20+ years since the USSR collapsed. Yet, we in the US are struggling with what WRM calls the failure of the “blue” state model.

    The CIA regularly estimated the Soviet GDP at around 70% of our GDP. Yet, when it collapsed and we were able to visit the country and see firsthand, economists estimated it at something like that of Portugal’s or another smaller European country’s!

    The CIA (apparently) had been using the phony numbers put out by the Soviets and just adjusting them by a fudge factor. Our elite never thought to challenge them, presumably. (Sen. Moynihan used to make fun of the CIA and their economic estimates.)

    Bottom line: Leftist ideology may have influenced our foreign policy elite thinkers more than it should have vis-a-vie the old Soviet Union. How much does it still influence their thinking today?

  • ari

    Great Post. Greg, great Kissinger quote.

  • Greg R. Lawson


    Good point regarding some British discussion of decapitation strategy. I would argue that, even as part of the invasion, could have been realist. It ceased being realism when we turned the operation into a nation building exercise. Even if we had not “de-Baathified” Iraq and disbanded the military (in hindsight and for many in foresight, mistakes) it is unclear the outcome would have been much better.

    Interestingly, Walt’s brand of “realism” may not be cold eyed enough…

  • RedWell

    As an IR scholar, I’m both shaking and nodding my head.

    Yes, IR is abstract and distant from policy making. IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE. IR scholars are not policy makers on purpose: they want to understand how things work and seek to determine where lies the line between individual agency and immovable reality. You teach abstract physics, economics or grammer to students so they have a framework later. Similarly, if we only want to teach students about policy decision making and how to address immediate crises, fine. In fact, plenty of undergraduate and MA programs (especially in DC) focus on this kind of practical, professional application. That kind of approach, though, tells us nothing about whether and how international politics–like a mob or a market–may take on a life of its own.

    IR as an academic subject is overly professionalized and its prose is tortuous. But it’s not policy anaysis. IR scholars work on a meta level, but don’t forget that important ideas like Nye’s “soft power” derive from that context. And in any case, plenty of think tanks, publishers and others are constantly trying to gain an edge by bridging this gap. Walt is oversimplifying and falling into a common fallacy, but his claims sparked this kind of useful debate. That’s a practical payout. Certainly WRM, with his arcane course on Grand Strategy, appreciates the value of erudite, if impractical, discourse.

    We don’t expect any given article in a medical journal to make sense to an average person, why should we expect the same from scholarly IR journals?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Redwall: on the other hand, it would be a strange state of affairs if no doctor or surgeon anywhere ever felt there was anything worth reading in the medical research literature that could possibly help in the treatment of a patient. It’s not quite that bad, but it’s close.

  • RedWell

    @WRM: Apparently, policy makers require better technical tranining in IR scholarship.

    More seriously, I take the point. In fact, I hang around Via Meadia because I find the writing accessible, the insights compelling and the relevance clear. All things IR as a field should improve. Still, I’m leery about measuring academic pursuits based upon their obvious or immediate utility to practitioners. That’s an essay unto itself, though, so I’ll rest my case.

  • Mark Michael

    One more thought about our foreign policy professionals the collapse of the old Soviet Union: What seems unforgivable to me is the failure to have a more realistic/accurate knowledge of the economic state of the old Soviet bloc. Economics drives foreign policy in a major way – at least over any sustained period – so lots of effort should be directed at acquiring accurate data on your adversary’s economy.

    Yet, our foreign policy elite had a laughably way-too-rosy estimate of the state of the old Soviet bloc’s economy.

    Sure, they can’t predict events, since so many factors impinge on why things happen and when, but not doing the detailed digging and savvy analyses needed to piece together more accurate assessment of the economic state of that bloc is a failing for which they can be rightly castigated IMO.

    Yes, the old Soviets went to great lengths to cover up their amazing economic weaknesses, but our “experts” should have the savvy & skills to work around that and get closer to the truth.

    Heck, I visited East Germany twice before the Wall came down – just vacation visits (1979 & 1983) – and the sorry state of the E. German economy was obvious to me.

    I recall eating in an East Berlin restaurant, and a German lady seated next to me engaged us in conversation. She wanted to talk to a Westerner and had passable English.

    It turns out she was a high school Russian teacher who had spent some years in Russia on an exchange program. She taught in some smaller villages in Russia. She commented to me how poor the average Russian was! She sort of whispered, “You can’t believe how backward the Russian peasants are in the little villages! Only in Moscow & the very big cities are there any more advanced conditions!” The rest of the country lived in the 19th Century at best according to her.

    I remember thinking, “Lady! You think East Germany is advanced – you should see West Germany or America!” but I didn’t say it. Of course, East Germany before WWII was the economic powerhouse of Germany. It was also a center of great scientific achievements, and this lady still held that kind of attitude, at least towards the rest of the Soviet bloc, especially Russia. That was in 1979.

    On our 1983 visit, we rented a car and drove maybe 300 miles around East Germany, visiting the major cities. What struck me was how “frozen in time” it seemed. It was like driving around in a 1930s or 1940s time period – little or none of the advances we take for granted in America or W. Germany that occurred since WWII. (I recall visiting Dresden, Leipzig, E. Berlin, Luther places – Wittenberg, the Wartburg Castle near Erfurt, etc.)

    Surely, a professional whose job it was to estimate GDPs would try to visit countries in the Soviet bloc and see firsthand what conditions “on the ground” were – just to give a little “sanity check” to his estimating!

    If East Germany was quite poor compared to West Germany, and the German lady was right that Russia was much, much poorer yet, then the whole Soviet bloc was clearly an economic basket case of the first order! So why didn’t those professionals at least give that as a possible option to their bosses? (Maybe they did, but no one leaked it to the press! Trying to be understanding here!)

    Broken Record Point: I’d claim that leftist ideology has something to do with it! Our politically-oriented elite in general cannot bring themselves to accept Adam Smith, F. A. Hayek, and the “invisible” hand of the free marketplace vs. the “visible” heavy foot of a government-centric command economy, which was practiced in the old Soviet bloc – and to which they are ideologically wedded to this very day.

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