Two Readings on Realism

Robert Kagan, "America supports democracy, how novel," Financial Times, December 6, 2006.

It is astonishing how little Americans understand their own nation. Recently, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a man long on intellect and government experience, opined that the Iraq war has generated so much controversy because it is such an aberration: "The emphasis on promotion of democracy, the emphasis on regime change, the war of choice in Iraq - all of these are departures from the traditional approach."

Many Europeans would certainly like to believe that Iraq was the product of aberrant "neo-conservative" ideas about foreign policy and that a traditional America lies just around the corner. Many Americans would like to believe this, too. We prefer to see ourselves as a peace-loving, introspective lot, a nation born in innocence and historically never choosing war but compelled to war by others.

This self-image is at odds with reality, however. Americans have gone to war frequently in their history, rarely out of genuine necessity. Since the cold war, America has launched more military interventions than all other great powers combined. The interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo were wars of choice, waged for moral and humanitarian ends, not strategic or economic necessity, just as realist critics protested at the time. Even the first Gulf war in 1991 was a war of choice, fought not for oil but to defend the principles of a "new world order" in which aggression could not go unpunished. The US might have drawn the line at Saudi Arabia, as Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, proposed.

The first US military intervention of the post-cold war era, the 1989 invasion of Panama, was a war for "regime change" and democracy. President George H. W. Bush sent 22,500 troops to oust Manuel Noriega and, as he declared, "to defend democracy" in a conflict "between Noriega and the people of Panama". The conservative columnist George Will favoured this "act of hemispheric hygiene" even though American national interests, "narrowly construed", did not justify war. That was an argument "against the narrow construing of national interests".

Americans, in fact, have always defined their interests broadly to include the defence and promotion of the "universal" principles of liberalism and democracy enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. "The cause of America is the cause of all mankind," Benjamin Franklin declared at the time of the American revolution, and as William Appleman Williams once commented, Americans believe their nation "has meaning . . . only as it realises natural right and reason throughout the universe".

This is the real "traditional approach": the conviction that American power and influence can and should serve the interests of humanity. It is what makes the US, in Bill Clinton's words, the "indispensable na-tion", or as Dean Acheson colourfully put it six decades ago, "the locomotive at the head of mankind". Americans do pursue their selfish interests and ambitions, sometimes brutally, as other nations have throughout history. Nor are they innocent of hypocrisy, masking selfishness behind claims of virtue. But Americans have always had this unique spur to global involvement, an ideological righteousness that inclines them to meddle in the affairs of others, to seek change, to insist on imposing their avowed "universal principles" usually through peaceful pressures but sometimes through war.

This enduring tradition has led Americans into some disasters where they have done more harm than good, and into triumphs where they have done more good than harm. These days, this conviction is strangely called "neo-conservatism", but there is nothing "neo" and certainly nothing conservative about it. US foreign policy has almost always been a liberal foreign policy. As Mr Will put it, the "messianic impulse" has been "a constant of America's national character, and a component of American patriotism" from the beginning.

The other constant, however, has been a self-image at odds with this reality. This distorted self-image has its own noble origins, reflecting a perhaps laudable liberal discomfort with power and a sense of guilt at being perceived as a bully, even in a good cause. When things go badly, as in Iraq, the cry goes up in the land for a change. There is a yearning, even among the self-proclaimed realists, for a return to an imagined past innocence, to the mythical "traditional approach", to a virtuous time that never existed, not even at the glorious birth of the republic.

This is escapism, not realism. True realism would recognise America for what it is, an ambitious, ideological, revolutionary nation with a belief in its own world-transforming powers and a historical record of enough success to sustain that belief.

Whether the US conducts itself successfully or stumbles in the coming years will depend on the wisdom and capacity of the statesmen and women the American people choose to shape and carry out their foreign policy. But the broad direction of that foreign policy will remain much as it has been for over two centuries. Anything else would be an aberration.

Timothy Garton Ash, "Reality strikes back, but let's not have too much realism," The Guardian, December 28, 2006.

In world politics, 2007 may be the year of realism. If that means getting rid of dangerous illusions, it's a good thing. If it means abandoning idealism, it's a bad thing. In the way of things, it will probably mean some of both. Back in 2002, a senior adviser to President Bush told the journalist Ron Suskind that people in "the reality-based community" - journalists, for example - had got it seriously wrong. "That's not the way the world really works any more," the adviser said. "We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality." So, while ignoring the reality-based evidence for global warming, and relying on what wits described as "faith-based intelligence" for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Bushies set about transforming the world through a democratic revolution kickstarted by the use of force. The empire struck.

Five years on, the reality has struck back. As we move into 2007, all the talk is of sobering realities - Iraq, Afghanistan, climate change and global economics. This is a positive development. At least we have got our feet back on the ground, even if the ground is hotter than it used to be. On climate change, I see the beginning of a big shift. The Conservative leader, David Cameron, writing in the Economist's World in 2007, puts climate change top of his list of global challenges. "Global warming is a reality and portends a dire future for us all, should insufficient action be taken," says John McCain, the leading Republican contender to succeed Bush as president. Insufficient action will be taken in 2007, you can be sure of that, but at least the reality is no longer denied.

A similar realism can be seen in relation to the Middle East. Even Bush is no longer pretending that "we're winning" in Iraq. The Iraq Study Group (ISG) has reaffirmed the centrality of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement to the future of the west's relations with the Arab and Muslim world. Even if the Bush administration is not prepared to talk directly to Iran and Syria, the idea of crusading against an ostracised "axis of evil" is comprehensively discredited. Of the three alleged members of that axis, Iraq is now more of a recruiting ground for terrorists than it was five years ago, North Korea has nuclear weapons and Iran is stronger than ever. So much for a faith-based foreign-policy.

this new realism comes packaged with an older realism, or realpolitik - an approach, last seen in the administration of Bush Sr, which insists you must take your allies where you find them and not worry too much about the way they treat their subjects. The national interest, and the west's economic and security interests, justify good relations with friendly autocracies such as Saudi Arabia. James Baker, co-chair of the ISG, and Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to Bush Sr, are leading representatives of this approach. Although Bush Jr is resisting this return of the father, the trend in Washington is clearly from Bush II back towards Bush I.

A country to watch in tracking this trend is Iran. Before the invasion of Iraq, we wanted two things from Iran. First, to slow down, and preferably halt, its nuclear programme. And, second, to speed up the process of domestic political change, leading to more respect for human rights, pluralism and, eventually, democracy. Now we want three things from Tehran: those two plus its help in stabilising Iraq, through its influence with the Shia majority there. Iran is stronger and more hostile, yet we want more from it. There is no way we will get all three at once. So which area will the west go soft on in 2007? I bet it will be human rights and democratisation.

Signs of the new old realism are also to be found in the policy of the west's most articulate serving exponent of idealistic liberal internationalism, Tony Blair. Recently, London rolled out the red carpet for the friendly dictator of Kazakhstan. In southern Iraq, British troops are preparing their withdrawal, leaving something well short of democracy. In Dubai before Christmas, Blair said that in the struggle against terrorism, and facing the threat from Iran, we must strengthen our ties with "moderate", albeit authoritarian, Arab states. Challenged about the authoritarian character of the United Arab Emirates - where, in recent elections to an advisory council, just 1% of citizens were allowed to vote - Blair told the Financial Times: "It's got to move at its own pace, but the direction is very clear."

I'm waiting for someone to pen a new version of the late Jeane Kirkpatrick's famous article of 1979, "Dictatorships and double standards", in which she argued that friendly, anti-Soviet, rightwing autocracies should be treated differently from pro-Soviet, leftwing totalitarian regimes. Double standards? Yes, please. Today, a friendly autocracy will be defined partly by its positioning in the struggle with jihadist terrorism and partly by its readiness to sell its energy and natural resources to the west. Since China is competing for those resources and does not give a damn about the human rights records of its suppliers, our capacity to impose political conditions on our suppliers is correspondingly reduced.

What should this policy be called? Most people have forgotten that Bush Jr came to power in 2001 preaching a "new realism", in contrast to what he pilloried as the unfocused, liberal idealist interventionism of the Clinton years. However, after the 9/11 attacks and especially in his second term, he came to advocate a breathtakingly idealist policy of global democratisation. The American political writer Robert Kagan described Bush's new approach as a "higher realism". So that was the new new realism. Now we have the new new new realism, or new3 realism. If new2 realism had an unrealistically large admixture of idealism, believing that democracy would spread across the Middle East as it had across eastern Europe after 1989, new realism risks swinging back to the opposite extreme, making the old mistake of believing that a durable order can be built on friendly autocracies. So let us indeed have a reality-based international community in 2007, but let's not have too much realism. In the long run, nothing could be less realistic.