Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy has been dictated not by the pragmatism of Realism, but rather, it has been directed by a coalition of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists. Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, contends that this liberal/neoconservative alliance is responsible for the majority of major military interventions over the past two decades. Both groups favour a highly active foreign policy, intending to spread democracy, defend human rights, prevent proliferation and maintain American dominance. Both liberal interventionists and neoconservatives are hostile to “rouge-states”, are very comfortable using American power to coerce or overthrown weaker powers and are convinced that America’s power and political virtues entitle it to lead the world. The most prominent dividing point between liberal interventionists and neoconservatives is, that neocons consider international institutions like the United Nations to be a constraint on America’s freedom of action, whereas liberals believe these organisations are an important adjunct to American power. Realists, Walt argues, have been largely absent from the halls of power or the commanding heights on punditry.
Realists have been largely absent from the halls of power or the commanding heights on punditry.
Below I’ve included four examples of where Realism would alerter the current international landscape.
1) No Global War on Terror
Following the devastating attacks of 9/11, America responded immediately by issuing a demand to the Taliban, requiring the cessation of any direct or indirect support for al Qaeda. When the Taliban failed to comply, the US launched an invasion of Afghanistan. A realist approach, would have solely focused on al Qaeda and any terrorist groups posing a direct threat to the US, and launched a focused effort to destroy those organisations. Realists would have dealt with suspected terrorists as criminals, not as enemy combatants. Realists would have also omitted any “rouge states” from the War on Terror, including the infamous Axis of Evil, including: Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
2) No Libyan Intervention
Realists were skeptical of the wisdom of overthrowing the Qaddafi regime in Libya, in particular, the potential for Qaddafi’s fall to create a prolonged power vacuum. The US was toppling an autocrat who had previously succumbed to American pressure and had relinquished his WMD program. It seems the lacking of American interests in Libya would have prevented any realist from considering the state as a target for American power.
3) A normal relationship with Israel
Realists have long been cynical of the special relationship Israel has cultivated with the United States and would move to transform it into a normal alliance. The United States would remain by Israel’s side, committed to assisting Israel if it’s survival was ever threatened, but would instead use its leverage to prevent Israel’s endless settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories. A fair US approach might have even been able to capitalise on the 1993 Oslo Accords and have produced a two-state solution.
4) A growing focus on China
As Realists place their focus on power, and as security competition is fuelled by the anarchic structure of world politics, a Sino-American rivalry can not entirely be avoided through simply; engaging China by fostering economic ties and; by enmeshing Beijing in institutions designed and led by the United States, Realists would be focusing on strengthening security ties in Asia and establishing clear red-lines for the Chinese leadership. Realists would be attempting to make as difficult as possible, the opportunity for China to translate it’s economic wealth into military power.
This last point has not altogether been ignored by both the current and previous administrations. America’s strategic partnership with India and Obama’s recent pivot to Asia, including the stationing of Marine forces in Darwin, Australia, has shown that Realism is still a force within American foreign policy. Mearsheimer, who claims that while America speaks of liberal interventions, acts in accordance to realist doctrine, is not fully correct. It is unquestionable that American foreign policy is not solely dictated by a single theory of international relations. Stephen Walt has chosen a small time frame in which to assess America’s overseas engagements and has found that there are instances where the presence of realism is clearly in question.
It is unquestionable that American foreign policy is not solely dictated by a single theory of international relations.
The nature of American domestic politics has a profound impact upon the conflicts the United States enters into or choses to neglect. As Mearsheimer previously stated, there are numerous instances in which both liberal and realist principles coincide but, there are certainly cases where realism has played it’s part and where liberal/neoconservative criterion have been the sole rationale for engagement.
This post was written using the knowledge and opinion provided by Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University, through his article “What if realists were in charge of U.S. foreign policy?” published on foriegnpolicy.com (May 2012)