What if realists were in charge of U.S. foreign policy?

Discussion in 'Americas' started by ejazr, May 3, 2012.

  1. ejazr

    ejazr Stars and Ambassadors Stars and Ambassadors

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    walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/04/30/what_if_realists_ran_us_foreign_policy_a_top_ten_list

    Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has been largely run by a coalition of neoconservatives and liberal internationalists. Both groups favor a highly activist foreign policy intended to spread democracy, defend human rights, prevent proliferation, and maintain American dominance, by force if necessary. Both groups are intensely hostile to so-called "rogue states," comfortable using American power to coerce or overthrow weaker powers, and convinced that America's power and political virtues entitle it to lead the world. The main difference between the two groups is that neoconservatives are hostile to international institutions like the United Nations (which they see as a constraint on America's freedom of action), whereas liberal interventionists believe these institutions can be an important adjunct to American power. Thus, liberal interventionists are just "kinder, gentler neocons," while neocons just "liberal interventionists on steroids."

    The liberal/neoconservative alliance is responsible for most of America's major military interventions of the past two decades, as well as other key initiatives like NATO expansion. By contrast, realists have been largely absent from the halls of power or the commanding heights of punditry. That situation got me wondering: What would U.S. foreign policy have been like had realists been running the show for the past two decades? It's obviously impossible to know for sure, but here's my Top Ten List of What Would Have Happened if Realists Had Been in Charge.

    #1. No war in Iraq. This one is easy. Realists like Brent Scowcroft played key roles in the first Bush administration, which declined to "go to Baghdad" in 1991 because they understood what a costly quagmire it would be. Realists were in the forefront of opposition to the war in 2003, and our warnings look strikingly prescient, especially when compared to the neocons' confident pre-war forecasts. If realists had been in charge, more than 4,500 Americans would be alive today, more than 30,000 soldiers would not have been wounded, and the country would have saved more than a trillion dollars, which would come in handy these days. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive too, and the balance of power in the Gulf would be more compatible with U.S. interests.

    #2: No "Global War on Terror." If realists had been in charge after 9/11, they would have launched a focused effort to destroy al Qaeda. Realists backed the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a realist approach to the post-9/11 threat environment would have focused laser-like on al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that were a direct threat to the United States. But realists would have treated them like criminals rather than as "enemy combatants" and would not have identified all terrorist groups as enemies of the United States. And as noted above, realists would not have included "rogue states" like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea (the infamous "axis of evil") in the broader "war on terror." Needless to say, with realists in charge, the infamous 2002 National Security Strategy calling for preventive war would never have been written.

    #3. Staying out of the nation-building business. A third difference follows from the first two. Realists understand that transforming foreign societies is a difficult, costly, and uncertain enterprise that rarely succeeds. It is especially hard to do in poor countries with deep internal divisions, no history of democracy, and a well-established aversion to foreign interference. By avoiding the long-term occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States would have had little need to invest in counter-insurgency or "nation-building," and could have focused instead on more serious strategic challenges. Which leads us to #4.

    #4. A restrained strategy of "Offshore Balancing." Since the end of the Cold War, prominent realists have called for the United States to adopt a more restrained grand strategy that focuses on maintaining the balance of power in key areas (e.g., Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf) but reduces America's global footprint and keeps the U.S. out of unnecessary trouble elsewhere. Such a strategy would also force U.S. allies to shoulder more of the burden and discourage them from either "free-riding" or "reckless driving" (i.e., adventurism encouraged by overconfidence in U.S. support). For instance, realists would never have adopted the Clinton administration's foolish strategy of "dual containment" in the Persian Gulf, or the Bush administration's even more reckless effort at "regional transformation." Instead, realists would have maintained a robust intervention capability but kept it offshore and over-the-horizon, bringing it to bear only when the balance of power broke down (as it did when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990). Had we followed this approach from 1992 onward, it is even possible that al Qaeda would never have gotten rolling in a big way or never tried to attack the United States directly.

    #5. No NATO expansion. Realists weren't surprised when the United States decided to move NATO eastwards; it's typical of victorious great powers to try to press their advantage. But they were skeptical about the whole idea, fearing (correctly) that it would poison relations with Russia and that the U.S. was taking on commitments that it might not be willing to meet and that would make NATO increasingly unwieldy. A realist approach would have stuck with the "Partnership for Peace" initiative, a much smarter move that enabled many useful forms of security cooperation and kept the door open to a more constructive relationship with Russia. Over time, realists would have pressed Europe to take on the main burden of its own defense, fully aware that Europe faces no security problems at present that it cannot handle on its own.

    #6: No Balkan adventures. If realists had been in charge, the United States and its allies would have taken a different approach to the Balkan war in the 1990s. The United States might have stayed out entirely -- as former Secretary of State James Baker seemed to want -- because its vital interests were not at stake. Or it might have pushed for a partition plan for Bosnia, as John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape, and Stephen Van Evera proposed here and here. What would not have happened was the Rube Goldberg effort to cobble together a multi-ethnic "liberal" democracy in Bosnia (an effort that has largely failed and is likely to unravel if outside forces ever withdraw) or the subsequent ill-conceived war in Kosovo (which inept U.S. diplomacy helped provoke). Reasonable people can disagree about whether the world is better off for the U.S. having intervened, but it's by no means clear that the results were worth the effort.

    #7. A normal relationship with Israel. Realists have long been skeptical of the "special relationship" with Israel, and they would have worked to transform it into a normal relationship. The United States would have remained committed to helping Israel were its survival ever threatened, but instead of acting like "Israel's lawyer," Washington would have used its leverage to prevent Israel from endlessly expanding settlements in the Occupied Territories. An even-handed U.S. approach would have taken swift advantage of the opportunity created by the 1993 Oslo Accords, and might well have achieved the elusive two-state solution that U.S. presidents have long sought. At a minimum, realists could hardly have done worse than the various "un-realists" who've mismanaged this relationship for the past 20 years.

    #8: A more sensible approach to nuclear weapons. Realists have long emphasized the defensive advantages conferred by nuclear weapons, and have opposed the excessively large nuclear arsenals built up during the Cold War. Realists appreciate the deterrent value of nuclear weapons and believe complete disarmament is impractical, but they would have been much bolder in reducing the U.S. arsenal and would have focused more attention on securing nuclear materials world-wide. At the same time, realists would have acknowledged the technological futility of strategic missile defense as well as its dubious strategic rationale (i.e., even if missile defenses worked perfectly, an adversary could always deliver a warhead to U.S. territory through covert means, thereby making it harder to know where it came from).

    #9. No Libyan intervention. Realists (and some others) were skeptical of the wisdom of overthrowing the Qaddafi regime in Libya. This position wasn't based on any sympathy for Qaddafi or his supporters, but rather on a hard-headed calculation of the interests involved and the potential pitfalls. In particular, realists worried that Qaddafi's fall would lead to a prolonged power vacuum (it has), and that the groups we were supporting were unknown and unreliable. The intervention also set a bad precedent: Not only did the U.S. and its allies run roughshod over the Security Council resolution authorizing military action to protect civilians (but not regime change), but we were toppling an autocrat who had previously succumbed to Western pressure and given up his WMD programs. It's possible that Libya will settle down and become a success story for liberal interventionism, but the jury is still out.

    #10. A growing focus on China. Realists focus mostly on power and believe that the anarchic structure of world politics encourages powerful states to compete with each other for security. Not necessarily because they want to, of course, but because powerful states cannot take each other's benevolent intentions for granted. Accordingly, realists are skeptical of the claim that Sino-American rivalry can be avoided by "engaging" China, by fostering tight economic ties, or by enmeshing Beijing in institutions designed and led primarily by the United States. Accordingly, realists would focus on strengthening security ties in Asia (while getting our Asian allies to pull their weight), and work to establish clearer "red lines" with China's leadership. Over time, making it harder for China to translate its economic wealth into military power will be in order as well. Realists don't seek a war with China or regard it as inevitable, but they believe that avoiding it is going to take a lot of careful attention to Asian security issues.

    To be sure, both the Bush and Obama administrations have moved in this direction, as exemplified by the "strategic partnership" with India and the recent "pivot" to Asia. These shifts occurred in part because there were a few realists involved (e.g., former U.S. ambassador to India Robert Blackwill), and partly because the structural forces were impossible to ignore.

    Not all realists would subscribe to every item on this list, of course, and one could add other items to it. For instance, if the EU member-states had been led by realists in recent decades, their ill-fated experiment with the Euro would never have been tried and Europe would be in much better economic shape today. Similarly, realists would have followed a different approach toward Iran, and would almost certainly have tried to follow up on earlier Iranian efforts to improve relations with a "grand bargain" that acknowledged Iran's right to nuclear enrichment but put stringent safeguards in place to discourage weaponization. (That seems to be where we are headed right now, but it remains to be seen if Washington and Tehran have the patience and political will to get there).

    As noted above, realists may have wrong about some of these items (e.g., the interventions in the Balkans and in Libya) and it's possible that U.S. leaders ultimately did the right thing in those cases on humanitarian (as opposed to strategic) grounds. I'll concede that possibility, but on the whole, I'd argue that both the United States and some key parts of the world would have been far better off if the United States had used its power in a more realistic fashion. It's too late to avoid the past mistakes, of course, but at least we can try to learn from them.
     
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  3. W.G.Ewald

    W.G.Ewald Defence Professionals/ DFI member of 2 Defence Professionals

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    Obama just told the Afghans they don't have to be like Americans.
     
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  4. nitesh

    nitesh Mob Control Manager Stars and Ambassadors

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    But which group will support leaving the terrorist central of the world, which US supports come what may.
     
  5. pankaj nema

    pankaj nema Senior Member Senior Member

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    I would say that Stephen Walt is an IDIOT and it is good that he is just an academic and not in
    US State Department or Pentagon

    When you have SO MUCH power ie Economic technological and MILITARY you
    have to use it

    WHat is the use of power if you are just sleeping comfortably in your backyard

    That is what This person wants the USA to do

    Carry on USA Just go ON throwing around your power

    That is the USA we know and LOVE
     
  6. spikey360

    spikey360 Crusader Senior Member

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    Well, you know what the say, the brighter a flame burns, the sooner it extinguishes. That will be the case with the US also.
     
  7. LETHALFORCE

    LETHALFORCE Moderator Moderator

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    Most of the things on the list are against US interests. Why should US abandon them
    To be realists? There are players and there are spectators. US thruout history has
    Never been a spectator.
     
    Last edited: May 3, 2012
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  8. W.G.Ewald

    W.G.Ewald Defence Professionals/ DFI member of 2 Defence Professionals

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    "If ifs and ands were pots and pans there'd be no work for tinkers' hands."
     
  9. Damian

    Damian Defence Professionals Defence Professionals

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    With some points I would agree, but mostly because I see this in more economic and profits-non profits side.

    Iraq was huge waste of money, trained soldiers (great respect to them) and equipment...on the other hand it also gave incredible experience and changed some plans that were also possible waste of money, time and other resources.

    Afghanistan should be played differently, IMHO special forces cooperating with local anti taliban and al-Qaeda might be more effective and less waste of resources and people.

    I agree that Libya was not needed, in fact Obama shown he is weak politician that was maneuvered in to conflict by some EU leaders that seen opportunity to eliminate their not very comfortable "friend"... huge waste of fuel, ammunition and money.

    US policy is as in any other country, some things are ok, some not... maybe only the scale is different. ;)
     
  10. p2prada

    p2prada Stars and Ambassadors Stars and Ambassadors

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    If pigs could fly...
     
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  11. panduranghari

    panduranghari Senior Member Senior Member

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    Hasn't Pax Americana always been the basis of Presidential elections promises?
     
  12. W.G.Ewald

    W.G.Ewald Defence Professionals/ DFI member of 2 Defence Professionals

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    I don't have an answer in detail. There are so many other issues that are given higher priority, but lip service is always given to what you have identified.
     
  13. The Messiah

    The Messiah Bow Before Me! Elite Member

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    I hope not! We need the nutjobs because they will pursue our interests (since our's intersects) whilst weakening themselves in the process.
     
  14. Damian

    Damian Defence Professionals Defence Professionals

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    Very naive of yours. And what when these "nutjobs" consider your interests as threats, and their interest will be to eventually weakens you (or even destroy if nececary)? And remember that in case of "yours" military response in such situation you are allready dead? US is in a place that maybe one or two other countries can compete with them, and even these two countries can't compete with US on military strenght field, even after military spending cuts in US.

    This is a typical talk of people with their oversized ego, many of them talked such BS before, and it was even funny to see how they ended when "nutjobs" were angry.
     
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  15. asianobserve

    asianobserve Elite Member Elite Member

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    ...It means no more U.S.A. as we know it. Well, at least somebody here will be deliriously happy... :thumb:
     
  16. The Messiah

    The Messiah Bow Before Me! Elite Member

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    By the time our interests become threats usa would have declined and you would need to find a new master for yourself.

    Also your post further solidifies my view that we should be very careful of usa and leave no stone unturned when it comes to our defense. ie mirv icbm's with range over the whole world.
     
  17. Damian

    Damian Defence Professionals Defence Professionals

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    After black tuesday many people like You belived in decline of USA. This economic crisis is less serious than that previous one. As for master, Americans are very close to us Poles, many Poles are American Revolution heroes like Pułaski or Kościuszko not to mention that one of the biggest minorities in USA are Poles so I do not see USA as a threat to us nor they are masters, in fact USA have far less influance over us than Brussels (and thi is not something I am happy about, if I would have to choose I would preffer Washington than anything else), so please, save Your limited knowledge and silly opinions to Yourself.

    This is rather paranoia. You see everything as a threat to Your ambitions. But also these ambitions might be seen as a threat to others, be it superpowers or smaller countries, each medal have two sides, and world is not black and white. Future is never certain, and actually all developing countries are dependant on USA or other highly developed countries, where China would find for example such big market for it's cheap goods? It is only in USA, so it might sound ironic, but Chinas interest is in strong USA in nearest forsible future, and in China interest is not making anything stupid. Unless they are enough stupid to destroy these economic ties that are pofiting for them. Same goes for India, let's be clear here, if China would want, they would not have much problems in war if India (conventional one) and any of it's neighboures, so in interest of all these countries, also India, are strong USA stopping Chinas ambitions by economic and military means.
     
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  18. ejazr

    ejazr Stars and Ambassadors Stars and Ambassadors

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    Well here is my 2 cents for what its worth on this

    Just a quick backgrounder on what we mean by realists here. Realism is basically in International Relations the theory that nation states and their relationships are based on cold hard calculations of balance of power. And those nation-states who don't do so, do it at their own peril.
    The alternative view is that of liberalism where the theory is that nation states which are more democratic, have liberalized economies and participate in international institutions, then peace would prevail.
    The US has historically, taken a realist approach to International relations throughout its history. Hence you have the US siding with Communist China to tackle USSR or siding with Military dictatorship in Pakistan against a democratic India in 1971. It was a balance of power issue that Nixon wanted to address.

    Its only post Soviet demise that the liberalism and its different branches like neo-conservatism started dominating US foreign policy discourse. It is from these ideas that you get things like democracy promotion and "export" would lead to more peaceful countries. Both Clinton and Bush pushed these policies in their own way. Under Obama, we have kind of seen a slow reset towards a more realist policy although it may still take another term to a full decade for the US to go back to its historical association with Realist policies.

    I might start a thread with a paper I did in my initial years that did a summary and discussion on these views of International Relations as a primer for members who are interested in reading it.

    Taking the list given here

    #1. No war in Iraq.
    I think this is a no brainer. No one thinks the war in Iraq was a good idea. Even Republicans have dissociated with it. And neocon has become a pejorative term because of this disaster.

    #2: No "Global War on Terror."
    This is actually something that you have to look at a bit deeper and keep ethics aside. The idea is that the US should go after terrorists that attack it and nothing else. Because if these terrorist groups are attacking some other country, why should we care and spend our resources tackling them? And this is what the US did for many years. There was no point of targeting Iraq or North Korea or Iran which had terrorist groups targeting the US. What was needed was a laser like focus on the Af-Pak region and the wiping out of terrorists and their sanctuaries there.
    And the job was not difficult to do. The drone campaign and finally the OBL hit shows that if this was made a priority and all resources were put against this like Obama had done in 2008, it can be done.

    An associated tactic on fighting terror from this also means focusing on Al Qaeda and terrorists as criminals and using the right terminology. Something that we now know from the Abottabad documents was crucial in making OBL worried because the Obama administration now focused on him and his organization. Something that Bush and Obama understood and got right, but the current crop of Republican candidates particularly Santorum and Gingrich couldn't understand.
    War against Islam? Bin Laden’s documents show Obama was right, and Gingrich and Santorum were wrong. - Slate Magazine

    #3. Staying out of the nation-building business.
    Again, nation-building seems the nice thing to do. Help poor countries, do the ethical thing e.t.c. But what benefit does the US have in improving or rather maintaining the balance of power in its favour? Not much. Hence, national building and doing things like democracy promotion, women's right, schools e.t.c. are useless from a realist perspective.
    Its still a nice thing to do from a humanitarian perspective though.

    #4. A restrained strategy of "Offshore Balancing."
    This basically comes from the idea that don't get involved in wars if someone else can fight that war for you. So for example both in WWII, the bulk of the war fighting was done by the USSR against Germany while the US from behind provided the lend lease program to help it fight the war. This enabled it to emerge as the most powerful nation in both WWI and WWII.

    When we hear about talks of building up India against China, that is an offshore balancing policy in action by the US

    #5. No NATO expansion.
    I am not sure I agree with this one, although I do understand that US could have worked towards building a partnership with Russia with an eye on China. It would be just the reverse of Nixon goes to China. It is in US interests that both Russia and China do not combine together and form a anti-US partnership.

    And just like China played a spoiler against the USSR which was powerful then. It would be not hard to expect Russia to play the same role against China in the coming decades. Ofcourse, this means, that US manages its relationship with Russia well, but the AMD and NATO expansion has pretty much excluded that from happening any time soon.


    #6: No Balkan adventures.
    I don't have detailed info on the Balkans war so I can't comment too much on this.
    But I think the main argument again is the same point of nation building. What's the point of humanitarian intervention if it is not related to vital US interests. Sure it was a nice gesture for the US and NATO to protect Bosnian Muslims that were being slaughtered and killed but does that help US directly in any way? From the realist perspective if it doesn't, then don't do it.

    #7. A normal relationship with Israel.
    I think this part is self-explanatory. Something that for the first time we had a Republican presidential candidate (or Democrat for that matter) mention about in his campaign. That is Ron Paul.

    #8: A more sensible approach to nuclear weapons.
    While reducing nuclear arsenals is certainly understandable, I'm not sure I agree with the AMD comment. True anti-missile defense is not fully feasible at present and that you could deliver a warhead by other covert means. But an AMD system should be a part of defensive weapons system.
    This is a point that could be argued over and I can understand the point of view that Nuclear weapons inherently work on the principle of MAD doctrine to achieve a stable relationship. And that having an AMD destabilizes that relationship. This may apply to the US but I don't think it applies to India that is affected by non-conventional terrorist attacks. India needs an advanced credible AMD system or atleast a purposeful intent to move towards one to deter Pakistan from using terrorist attacks.

    #9. No Libyan intervention.
    This again goes with the Balkans war point. Realists don't see the point of doing a humanitarian intervention if there are no vital US interests involved. And Gaddafi afterall had succumbed to US pressure and become close pals to both the UK and US governments. The US cosies up to authoritarian rulers from Nicaragua to Saudi Arabia as long as they serve its interests so why not with Gaddafi?

    #10. A growing focus on China.
    And again, this is a no brainer. China will be the biggest challenge US will face to its position in the global system and it will most likely be more difficult than the USSR as well because the Chinese have a very hard headed realist view of international relations and have liberalised their economy unlike the Soviets. On the other hand, the US ruling elite are confused between following a Realist vision which doesn't' sound nice to voters vs a liberalist vision to International relations which is a vote getter whether you are a democrat or a republican.
    The US will most likely use a liberal rhetoric but shift towards a realist policy. The focus back on Af-Pak from Iraq was step one. Step two is the pivot to Asia where US moves away from its obsession with the Middle East and ties up with Phillipines, Indonesia and Vietnam in addition to its traditional allies S. Korea, Japan and Australia to focus on China behaves and acts in the International System
     

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