Nick Serpe

Moments of crisis call for great vision. Barack Obama has become the leader of a nation unsure of its place on this planet. But his powerful words about what the United States can become to the world have inspired many. Still, no head of state forms a foreign policy in a vacuum. Like all those before him, Obama is in the process of forging a policy fully conscious of his predecessor’s positions.

In many ways his positioning of America in the world will be in dialogue with the legacy of former President George W. Bush. Obama has inherited a tense global climate and two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, only one of which he likely would have fought had he been president at the time. His administration will grapple with these conflicts, but also with the ideological legacy of the Bush years—and with the reaction against that legacy.

U.S. international affairs seemed only a minor area of concern toward the end of the 2008 presidential campaign. Disillusionment with the Iraq War was widespread among the American public, and Obama’s early opposition to the war resonated with the disaffected. But it was the economic crisis that truly occupied the nation, and Americans chose Obama’s plan over Senator John McCain’s. Platforms and speeches, however, only carry a candidate so far. Charisma and message do much of the leg work during campaign seasons, and here Obama held a clear advantage. He spoke with power and eloquence, and Americans gravitated toward two of Obama’s most oft said words: hope and change.

The words resonated with those who desired an altered course in economic policy. They also struck Americans who “hoped” for a “changed” vision of how the United States would affect the lives of people around the globe. Perhaps more than any country in the last fifty years, the United States’ identity has been centrally tied to its posture toward the rest of the world. This internationally oriented identity depended in part on structural conditions, especially its position as the most powerful state in the Western bloc during the Cold War. But it also found itself in such a central place because U.S. leaders have deeply invested the country in world affairs, both from a sense of necessity and national interest, as well as from the sentiment that it has a moral calling to act. The nature of U.S. engagements has varied greatly, however, and a hope for a change in policy does not point in a predetermined direction.

Hope can direct itself toward many objects, and the mantra of change usually says more of what was than of what is to come. Hope, however, never indicates an acceptance of the state of things as unchanging, of hard “truths” as given and immovable. Yet many have spoken recently of a return to foreign policy realism—the theory that power and the principle of national interest direct all affairs between states. In light of our hopeful mood, a return to realism comes as a surprise. Realism is more than hardheadedness and pragmatism in tough times. It is a theory, and a course of action, with its own values and ideas about how the world works. Is a robust realism on the rise in the United States? If so, why? Was Obama’s talk of hope merely a rhetorical strategy—or did Obama speak of hope of a different sort?


The theory of realism dates back to one of the earliest accounts of political history. In their reading of the “Melian Dialogue” in Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, realists claim an ancient precedent for their theory. In the dialogue, the powerful Athenians tell the small, isolated, and endangered Melians that their appeals to justice, neutrality, and international agreements cannot protect them in a world where “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” Athens, of course, eventually overreached and was defeated by the Spartans and Persians, ending its imperial expansion.

International relations theorists often identify Niccolò Machiavelli as the first modern realist. He rejected a Christian ethical framework for the analysis of political action, instead focusing on those qualities that are necessary for successful statecraft. Machiavelli’s powerseeking and power–consolidating statesman is above ordinary moral judgment, and has no duty to truth in his quest for stable rule (contrary to some interpretations of Machiavelli’s The Prince, he was not merely concerned with the political will to power, but also with the creation of an enduring political community). Thomas Hobbes, another theorist of the early modern period, focused not on the permanence of rule, but on the foundation of the body politic. Hobbes examines the pre–political human, isolated in a “war of all against all” where no aspirations beyond survival and the requisite acquisition of power could matter. The state provided an escape from the brutal conditions of the state of nature, a way of providing security, albeit of a fragile kind, in an insecure world.

Contemporary realists take Hobbes’s model of human beings without a government and apply it to the relations between states without a common authority. No state owes obedience to any other. Like people in the natural condition, states must look out for themselves: their only principal of action is survival through power. For one founder of contemporary realism, Hans Morgenthau, this anarchic condition results from a pessimistic assessment of human nature similar to that of Hobbes. For “neorealist” Kenneth Waltz, however, the conditions of international relations are independent of a particular idea of human nature. In his foundational work Man, the State, and War (1959), Waltz argues that the structure of the international system, where states of unequal strength vie for power to ensure their security, is the “permissive cause” of all conflict. Domestic ideology and the dispositions of a state’s leaders might make a state more or less willing to combat, but it is international anarchy that allows war. The aspirations of peace–seeking states cannot overcome this condition.

Waltz offers his work as an analysis of interstate relations, but he also claims that a foreign policy based on it “is neither moral nor immoral, but embodies merely a response to the world about us.” Realism, then, both analyzes international politics and recommends a course of action: Realpolitik. The term predates Waltz and refers to the Prussian foreign policy that aimed, through calculating alliances and prudent warfare, to unify the German state in the nineteenth century. These German statesmen intuitively understood what Waltz would later formalize: that statecraft does not require an idealized vision beyond the principle of securing the state itself. Suggesting peace and balance at some points and strategic war at others, a state’s power and security become the ultimate end, rather than the means to some other principle. By offering realism as an analysis of all international relations, however, Waltz suggests that even when states do not have a consciously amoral and anti–idealist foreign policy, their relations will ultimately assume such a character. Without an authority hovering above them, the domestic ideals of states might give them a more or less aggressive character, but in the end it is the anarchy of the international system that enables war and peace.


It is hard to say exactly how “realist” U.S. foreign policy has been at any given point, precisely because the practitioners of Realpolitik, on principle, can lie about their intentions. Certainly, at times, its practice was clearly evident. Under Richard Nixon, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s détente policies, which emphasized aimed at deescalating tensions with China and the Soviet Union, ran against the hyper–ideological postures of the Cold War. Kissinger, the archetypal realist statesman, believed that the position of the United States would best be served not by overemphasizing liberal capitalism, as opposed to Soviet communism, but by looking for balance between powerful states.

In part, the détente of the Kissinger era can be read as a reaction against the Vietnam War. In addition to antiwar advocates on the left, a number of realists had opposed the war, anticipating the quagmire it would become. The Vietnam War developed out of the strategy of containment, which aimed to stop the further spread of communism, while not attempting to topple already–communist regimes. Containment supporters worried that if new states fell to communism, the regime–type would soon spread to neighboring states, knocking over noncommunist regimes like dominoes. Containment ran against strict realism by suggesting that the character of these (communist) regimes themselves, rather than simply the structural conditions of the international system, would determine the level of their aggression and the degree of threat that they posed.

The tradition of non–realist foreign policy, however, dates to long before the Cold War. Some scholars have argued that, possessing a “manifest destiny,” the United States has conceived of itself in providential terms from the very beginning. At times this sentiment set it as a land apart, free from squabbles that occurred elsewhere. But it also led it to believe that its own particular national character should be universalized. The United States engaged in imperial ventures and “civilizing missions” during the Spanish–American War and the subsequent colonization of the Philippines, but it was Woodrow Wilson that first offered a comprehensive vision for remaking the entire world, so that it would be “safe for democracy.” Wilson’s Fourteen Points, advocating the spread of democracy and self–determination for all nations, were perhaps the earliest clear articulation of the belief in the messianic significance of the United States, a definition of the American international project.

This vision was certainly a part of the American ethos during the Cold War, although with important limitations—in many cases, the opposition to communism took precedence over the actual advocacy of freedom and democracy. This was certainly the case with Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy adviser Jeane Kirkpatrick, who successfully pushed the United States to support right–wing, authoritarian regimes in the Third World. When the Cold War ended with the United States on top, balance and management of the world order once again became the name of the game. Without an ideological enemy, ideals entered into U.S. foreign policy calculations only with regard to humanitarian interventions to stop the slaughter of civilian populations either perpetrated or unstopped by their own governments—and the 1994 Rwandan genocide demonstrated the limitations of this ideal.


George W. Bush, faced with a new threat after September 11th, revived the spirit of an ideological fight for America’s place in the world. Bush’s now–famous stance against nationbuilding during the 2000 election fell to the wayside as he commanded the invasion of Afghanistan, with the intention of rebuilding Afghani society. Yet the invasion still fell within the sphere of national security—there was a sense that the war was necessary to prevent further terrorist attacks.

The invasion of Iraq, however, sought to accomplish more than a secure and stable system. The true motives for the war remain debated, due in no small part to the constellation of justifications presented in both public addresses and internal memos that preceded the war. There is little doubt, however, that the argument for “democracy promotion” had an idealistic quality, tied to the ascendancy of neoconservatism in the Bush administration. According to the Project for a New American Century (a prominent neoconservative think–tank), neoconservatives believed in shaping “a new century favorable to American principles and interests.” This called for a “bold” and “purposeful” foreign policy, promoting “political and economic freedom” and a significantly larger military. Hardheaded talk about national security fused with an image of America as a beacon of freedom in the world.

The argument for forced democratic regime change in Iraq had elements of national interest—its advocates argued that the creation of democracies would build peace and stability. But freedom and democracy are also American ideals. Bush waged the Iraq War not only to defend the United States from attacks by weapons of mass destruction, but also to advance his vision of the “good life.” Bush wanted to make the United States safe by making the world safe for democracy.

Bush’s democracy promotion floundered early in his second term as Iraq became increasingly violent. Opposition to the war grew, and the antiwar left, opposed to war out of concern for civilian lives and purported American imperial aims, began to ally with the realists. In early 2003, before the war had begun, prominent neorealists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, professors at the University of Chicago and Harvard, respectively, published an essay in Foreign Policy arguing for the containment of Saddam Hussein’s regime through deterrent strategies, echoing the sentiments of many other realists at the time. The neoconservatives believed that Iraq could not be contained (a troubling claim given the absence of weapons of mass destruction and the falsity of claims that Hussein had ties with al–Qaeda). Some on the left did, as well, but often for different reasons—their justifications for war referred to the memory of Saddam Hussein’s murder of thousands of Kurds in the 1988 Halabja poison gas attack and to the particularly cruel nature of his dictatorship.i

The tone of a Mearsheimer essay published on the left–leaning website Open Democracy two years later is tellingly different. The article is a thought experiment informing us why the classical realist Morgenthau would have opposed the Iraq War, and its subtitle offers the simple choice facing critics of the war: “realism versus neo–conservatism.” Because Morgenthau opposed the Vietnam War and had a sober assessment of the power of nationalism as a force in international politics, the left should accept “balance” as not only a “realistic” but also a moral course of action. Mearsheimer leads the antiwar left to the supposition that, in order to fight the “Wilsonianism with teeth” of the neoconservatives, it must abandon any sort of Wilsonianism altogether. Mearsheimer says that realists like democracy, but he argues that it cannot be spread through military means. Yet he never directly confronts a crucial fact: a realist foreign policy can in fact undermine democracy abroad, so long as it is in the interest of the state to do so. Mearsheimer’s focus on neoconservatism obscures his larger point that all idealism is wrong. In an issue of The New Republic last September, contributing editor David Greenberg aptly described the phenomenon that Mearsheimer celebrates: “Ashamed of the deeds done in the name of their principles, liberals turned not just on Bush but on the very espousal of those principles. They ceded them to the neocons, and ran as far away from foreign policy idealism as they could.”

Some on the left hail the advent of the more “realistic” approach that they foresee Obama taking. In 2006, Eyal Press warned, in the Nation, against a left–idealist and realist alliance, stating that “terms like human rights, freedom and democracy should not be thrown away, but salvaged” from the Bush years. Yet the Nation recently published an article by Jonathan Schell that, with an air of relief, announced that we can look forward to “Obama and the Return of the Real.” While Schell does not associate the “return of the real” with a realpolitik foreign policy, he argues that the crises faced by the United States (and the rest of the world) have their roots in “the wholesale manufacture of delusions.” The claim has merit. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no tie between Saddam Hussein and al–Qaeda. But Schell’s announcement of a crisis of illusion recommends no course of action other than “adjusting” to “the real world.” He never faces the question of how we should best interpret our problems—or if realists have an exclusive claim to that “real world” he describes.


Realists claim that their own views will fix U.S. foreign policy. In a February interview in the National Interest, Brent Scowcroft warned that the unstable international system leads us to “hope” that “America has had enough of transforming the world.” Scowcroft, the national security adviser to Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush and the chair of George W. Bush’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, sees “encouraging” signs of a realist reorientation in Obama’s approach and in his cabinet selections. Indeed, in February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that human rights must take a back seat in our relations with China: “our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.” Clinton is right to recognize that the U.S. relationship with China is unique, but her statement only marginalizes political reformers and activists in China. The broader question is whether human rights will take a back seat not only in China, but in all American foreign policy—whether Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s call for “balance” as a “defining principle” in his recent Foreign Affairs essay will be the hallmark of this presidency: the Obama Doctrine.

Leading realist theorists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer whose views have become increasingly prominent in the past five years.

Obama’s personal beliefs might lead us to think otherwise. Despite selecting Gates and Clinton, not visionary idealists by any measure, for his cabinet, Obama clearly believes in a bolder role for the United States. In his 2007 essay in Foreign Affairs, Obama rejected the temptation “to turn inward and cede our leadership in world affairs,” seemingly in direct dialogue with liberals embarrassed (or frightened) by the United States after Iraq. The essay does not avoid hardheaded analysis, but its emphasis is on “tough–minded diplomacy” and “strengthened institutions and invigorated alliances and partnerships.” To be sure, Obama shares with neoconservatives a special vision for the United States. However, his kind of U.S. “leadership” diverges in important ways from the policies of the last eight years. For Obama, it is “tragic” that many have come to associate the discourse of “freedom” with “war, torture, and forcibly imposed regime change.” There are different ways to lead—and different ways to advocate for the values in which one believes.

Perhaps the best insight to Obama’s kind of hope lays in his much discussed comments on Reinhold Niebuhr in a 2007 David Brooks New York Times column. Niebuhr, the great Christian theologian and anticommunist liberal of the Cold War, advocated a “Christian realism” based in the inherent sinfulness of humanity. For Niebuhr, even avowed Christians, actors confident in the moral rectitude of their conduct, must recognize their fallibility in a fallen world. Yet Niebuhr also recognized both the unavoidability of conflict and the sincerity of American hopes “to make a new beginning in a corrupt world.” Obama told Brooks that, for him, Niebuhr teaches us that

there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction...[W]e have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.

Niebuhr’s realism, then, departs from the standard realist position on the moral sources of our foreign policy. Niebuhr recognized that the wars the United States fight would have elements of national interest, but he also believed that no U.S. war could continue unless “something much more than national interest is at stake.” Obama’s interpretation of Niebuhr, however, seems closer to the somewhat more radical assertion made by two anticommunist socialists, Irving Howe and Stanley Plastrik, in the inaugural issue of the left–wing journal Dissent in 1954: “Today, in an age of curdled realism, it is necessary to assert the utopian image. But this can be done meaningfully only if it is an image of social striving, tension, conflict; an image of a problem–creating and problem–solving society.” One would be hardpressed to find a more pessimistic (though not dystopic) account of the utopian image.

The realism asserted as an ideal–type model for today’s U.S. foreign policy rejects the projection of such an image. It ignores the insight of Karl Marx, in his Theses on Feuerbach, that deterministic materialists who assert “that men are products of circumstances” forget “that it is men who change circumstances.” The attempt by realists to forge an alliance with the left, akin to their union during the Vietnam War, demonstrates the true Realpolitik skill of the realist theorists themselves. The left that now advocates either isolationist or balance–ofpower politics has reached that conclusion from a deeply moral reasoning—that the misuse of American power has led many to their deaths and hindered authentic self–determination. The realists who reach such a conclusion, while occasionally paying lip service to ideals, have a different morality—that of preserving the stability of the international system at the expense of meaningful changes in the lives of people around the world.

Realists and some on the left might have reached similar conclusions, but these conclusions spring from radically different principles. The left would be better served by engaging in debate about how to revive idealism and shape it so that it is not merely a smokescreen for self–interest or a justification for the reckless endangerment of human life. Hope for change does not necessarily lead inward, and indeed, times such as these should forbid it. It is difficult to find a common thread that runs through the history of the left, but its clearest and most enduring idea has been that things need not always be the way they are now. Idealism has a checkered past. But the future is open.

NICK SERPE is a Columbia College junior majoring in philosophy and political science. He is the Letters Editor of The Current. He can be reached at

Above image: A cartoon from 1866 depicts the European equilibrium balanced on the points of bayonets, alluding to the delicate balance of power system then dominating European politics.

i However, these “liberal hawks” had a tough time explaining “Why Iraq?” instead of Burma and North Korea, and they often conflated the idea of a responsibility to protect preemptively civilian populations from ethnic cleansing or mass slaughter with the notion of preventatively ridding a regime that denied political freedom.

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