A response to foreign policy “academic realism”

Brookings has a pretty interesting article on “academic realism” and its aims for U.S. foreign policy. In short, academic realism:

today is unrecognizable from its antecedents. It proposes to voluntarily dissolve an order that is quite popular in Europe and Asia on the basis of an untested theory. To disband or greatly weaken America’s traditional alliances, either tacitly or formally, would be a revolutionary act. It would surely shake the equilibrium. Classical realists would have recoiled at such an experiment. Modern-day realists embrace the prospect of chaos and uncertainty.

That is, greatly reduce the commitment to or dissolve NATO, stop backing Asian allies like Japan and South Korea, etc. As President Obama assured his audience in the State of the Union last week, we are not existentially threatened, so there is no need to panic. This modern strain of realism says we should be fine scaling back; even if other countries are attacked, the U.S. still has a powerful military, nuclear weapons, and geographic advantage.

One realist “argued that the United States should look to the 1930s as a model: allow other states to duke it out and intervene only later on, when absolutely necessary, and under favorable conditions.” That’s an interesting point. It did work out quite well for the U.S. in that case, though thousands of Americans had to die to make it work out that way.

But I think there is a subtle but serious counterpoint in this article: the fact that classical realists would be shocked by modern realists’ ideas. The question is, What kind of world do we want to live in? One where wars continue without abating, where there’s a new refugee crisis every month, where autocratic madmen spread totalitarian control over smaller democracies? Classical realists realized there was a cost to completely withdrawing–classical realists still remembered what the ultimate result of the 1930s model was. It may have worked out okay in the end for America, but it didn’t for the 60 million plus who lay dead when the smoke cleared.

I’m not saying we ought to have the most active, interventionist foreign policy possible. But let’s count the cost of the opposite, too.


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