When President George W. Bush decided on war with Iraq in 2003, the ostensible goals were to depose the dictator Saddam Hussein and destroy his alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Lying just beneath the surface, however, was a deep and bipartisan enthusiasm for using military power to spread American values.
The war was backed by neoconservatives in the White House and liberal internationalists in Congress. Members of this coalition didn’t agree on everything, but they shared the belief that the United States would benefit from overthrowing illiberal regimes.
Left out of the pro-war chorus were foreign policy realists, who warned about unanticipated consequences and wondered why invading Iraq, a thoroughly broken country, was necessary in the first place. Realists were depressed by the outcome of the debate but hardly surprised, given that a powerful liberal consensus had developed over decades and was deeply entrenched in Washington.
To intervene or not to intervene?
That consensus triumphed in part because liberalism is optimistic. Liberal internationalists — not to be confused with domestic liberals — argue that peace and prosperity flow from the expansion of democratic states, free-market economies and strong international institutions. The liberal tradition goes back centuries but has been especially strong in the United States since the 1960s. Policymakers gravitate toward liberalism because it offers a positive road map for making the world a better and safer place. The U.S. military can be a force for good, they believe, if it can help export American values abroad.
Foreign policy realism, on the other hand, as championed by theorists, such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, characterizes world politics as an enduring struggle for security and power. Because there is no world government to resolve disputes and enforce cooperation, states are usually wary of each other, even if they share similar political systems and norms about appropriate behavior.
Realists disagree with each other about such details as whether states will moderate their policies to ensure security or will inevitably seek to expand and conquer. However, they agree that policymakers should assess the balance of power before taking foreign policy actions, be wary of intervening in conflicts that have no obvious relationship to U.S. national security interests, and recognize that U.S. aggression may make other states feel less secure, prompting their aggression in return. Many realists advocate a restrained approach, under which the United States should reduce its forward military presence and its foreign commitments.
Realists opposed liberal internationalism under President Bill Clinton, when the administration unveiled a strategy of “engagement and enlargement” to expand the sphere of democracies and deepen trade relationships. They also opposed neoconservatism under President George W. Bush, a particularly muscular form of liberalism that unapologetically used military force to topple illiberal regimes, as with the invasion of Iraq. While some realists have hailed President Obama — especially in his second term — for his caution, others see him as continuing the tradition of trying to achieve security by spreading American ideals.
Now Daniel Drezner says he has good news for realists: They can rally behind Donald Trump.
After all, Drezner says, no other candidate approximates their basic policy preferences as closely as the Republican front-runner. Trump shares their disdain for neoconservative fantasies of democratizing the Middle East and has little enthusiasm for humanitarian intervention. Like realists, he believes world politics are dominated by self-interested nation-states rather than abstract ideologies, and he is perfectly comfortable putting aside moral qualms and working with authoritarian leaders when required.
The rise of Trump, Drezner concludes, “is realism’s moment in the foreign policy sun.”
But realists don’t need to wait for their moment; it’s already here. In fact, realist principles have animated American grand strategy for the last half decade.
Obama has been championing foreign policy realism
It is true that Obama’s foreign policy statements were firmly in the liberal internationalist mainstream when he entered office in 2008. Aside from opposing the war in Iraq, his views during the campaign were surprisingly similar to those of John McCain. Once in office, he proved perfectly willing to continue costly military campaigns, surging forces into Afghanistan to defend its quasi-democratic government, and intervening in the Libyan civil war in order to topple Moammar Qaddafi.
The president began fending off pressure from hawks among Republicans and Democrats alike. Much to their dismay, he resisted demands to get more deeply involved in civil wars raging in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Mali and Ukraine.
At the same time, Obama gave an important speech at West Point in 2014 in which he noted America’s durable advantages in the global balance of power. In it, the president outlined the many reasons the cadets should feel confident about their country’s place in the world:
America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War. Meanwhile, our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth; our businesses the most innovative. Each year, we grow more energy independent. From Europe to Asia, we are the hub of alliances unrivaled in the history of nations.
The West Point speech was more than standard rhetorical backslapping about American greatness. It was a clear-eyed assessment of the global balance of power and a detailed discussion of why that favored restraint. He gave that speech while horrendous civil wars were raging in Syria and Ukraine, while he was being pressured to do more in both conflicts.
The speech signaled reluctance to use U.S. forces to intervene after similar efforts over the last decade failed, a theme evident throughout the second term and summarized in his pithy slogan, “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Moreover, the speech suggested his confidence that the United States’ extraordinary power position made those conflicts irrelevant to its national security.
The only genuine long-term threat to that global balance of power has been China’s rise. Both its economy and military have grown extraordinarily over the last 20 years — and that’s significant, considering that China includes roughly one-sixth of the world’s population. In a classic realist response, the Obama administration has been reducing the U.S. presence in the Middle East and “rebalancing” military forces to East Asia.
This upset Obama’s liberal and neoconservative critics, who blasted the president for withdrawing forces from Iraq and stubbornly limiting U.S. involvement in Syria — all of which is more evidence that realism had returned to the White House.
The next president won’t be a realist. Expect more intervention again.
The next president is likely to bring back a liberal internationalist approach to foreign policy. Almost all the current candidates, with the exception of Trump and perhaps Bernie Sanders, say they will deploy U.S. forces more often. The establishment Republican contenders are historically hawkish. Anti-establishment Republicans accuse the administration of signaling U.S. weakness and emboldening its enemies.
Trump’s eagerness to pick fights suggests that — Drezner’s analysis notwithstanding — he is unfamiliar with realist wisdom about how U.S. belligerence will make other states more belligerent in response. His calls for a strong military — “a very, very strong military” — suggest a defense budget far beyond what any realist would support.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton remains the face of internationalism, though her policies may be more hawkish than Bill Clinton’s were. She famously voted for the Iraq War while in the Senate, and as secretary of state she pushed the president to intervene in Libya and lobbied for more active support for Syrian rebels.
Sanders is more cautious, especially about intervening in the Middle East; his approach appears similar to Obama’s. But Sanders’s broader strategic preferences are still unclear, as his campaign has focused overwhelmingly on domestic issues.
After the election, the U.S. turn to realism is likely to end. Given increasing public disapproval for Obama’s restraint, the next president may be pushed into one conflict or another.
The president himself has begun laying the groundwork for a more aggressive strategy in the next administration, especially in his rhetoric about the Islamic State. He also deployed an Army division headquarters to Iraq, which could accommodate many more than the 3,400 personnel currently in Iraq and Syria, and recently called to quadruple U.S. military spending in Europe. The White House may view these as temporary moves to placate domestic critics so that it can refocus diplomatic attention and military resources on Asia.
But it is increasingly hard to believe that the next administration will carry on with the president’s grand strategy, given continued regional instability, the pressures of domestic politics and the candidates’ statements.
Realism may be in power now, but its victory will almost certainly be fleeting.
Joshua Rovner is the John G. Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security at Southern Methodist University, where he also serves as director of the Security and Strategy Program (SAS@SMU).