The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s foreign policy team is full of idealists who keep getting people killed

They show little evidence of strategic humility — or understanding of how other nations see the world.

Libyan rebels gather at a site bombed by coalition air forces in the town of Ajdabiya, Libya, in March 2011. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

"In the debate about the future Biden foreign policy I’m seeing people self-identify as ‘progressive realists,’ ” Michael McFaul, ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, wrote recently. This unfamiliar label, brandished by some left-leaning critics of the president-elect, worried McFaul. After all, “realism” has long signified a tight focus on national interest, with little regard for the welfare of people abroad. The famously pitiless Henry Kissinger called himself a realist. Maybe McFaul had Kissinger in mind when he lamented the “deaths & horrific repression” that past realists had countenanced and then asked plaintively, “Where are the ‘progressive idealists’?”

I have good news for McFaul: They’re everywhere. If by “progressive idealists” he means left-of-center people who wax idealistic about America’s global mission — who think our foreign policy should emphasize spreading democracy and defending human rights abroad — then progressive idealists pervade liberal foreign policy circles and will be running the show in the Biden administration. Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s picks for secretary of state and national security adviser, are progressive idealists.

That’s the problem. Though McFaul and others consider realism an ideology with blood on its hands — Kissinger surely has plenty of blood on his — the fact is that, in recent years, naive idealism has also been responsible for much death and suffering and dislocation. And a lot of that happened on the watch of the Obama administration, where Blinken and Sullivan were top aides.

How might things have been different had realists been in charge? Here are four basic principles of progressive realism, along with examples of their violation by the Obama team, which Biden seems to be reconstituting.

Strategic humility. One thing contemporary realists of the left and right share is a healthy respect for the law of unintended consequences — an awareness, in particular, that the best-intentioned military interventions tend to make things worse. Idealists like Sullivan and Blinken have supported past interventions that made things worse. Both backed the 2013 proxy intervention in Syria, when America joined Middle Eastern and European allies in arming various rebel groups that were said to be fighting for freedom and democracy. (Some were, some weren’t.) This led to the same outcome that nonintervention would have produced — Bashar al-Assad is still in power — except with lots more dead bodies and refugees.

I can see why idealistic interventionists might have viewed realists who wanted to stay out of Syria as coldblooded. Assad is a brutal authoritarian who responded to peaceful protest viciously and who sought to suppress the insurgency ruthlessly. Still, the fact remains that the intervention led to much more death and suffering on all sides than ruthless suppression would have produced. That’s not a morally superior outcome.

Many of the same idealists also supported an earlier Obama intervention — the NATO-led bombardment of Libya in 2011 — that worked out badly in both humanitarian and geopolitical terms. In helping rebels depose Moammar Gaddafi, the United States and its allies left Libya mired in bloody chaos. Meanwhile, its suddenly liberated stock of weapons flowed, with lethal and destabilizing consequences, into African and Middle Eastern countries.

Cognitive empathy. Hans Morgenthau, the chief architect of realism, wrote in the mid-20th century that an effective strategist must have a “respectful understanding” of all relevant actors and so “must put himself into the other man’s shoes, look at the world and judge it as that man does.”

Cognitive empathy helps explain why many realists are critical of the Obama administration’s attempt in 2013 and 2014 to help opponents of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych depose him. From Vladimir Putin’s point of view, it was unacceptable for American officials to come to a country on Russia’s periphery, egg on protesters who sought the ouster of its pro-Russian president, and maneuver behind the scenes to select and anoint a new head of government. This interference became only more outrageous, from Putin’s perspective, when, with armed opponents roaming the streets, Yanukovych fled the country for fear of his life.

There’s no way to know what a hands-off American policy would have produced — whether Yanukovych would have been deposed at all, or perhaps removed from office in more orderly fashion. But the hands-on policy left us with this: Russia invaded Crimea and backed Ukrainian rebels, keeping the country violently divided. Then Russia, in what Obama adviser Ben Rhodes thinks was in part payback for Ukraine, meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Idealism has its virtues. But when an exercise in “democracy promotion” culminates in the forcible overthrow of a democratically elected president and is followed by many Ukrainian deaths and badly damaged relations between Moscow and Washington, you have to wonder whether this particular kind of idealism is a reliable moral lodestar.

Fewer troops won’t end wars. Most U.S. combat involves airstrikes.

Deficits in cognitive empathy don’t just lead to specific bad policies. They can lead to large-scale delusion about America’s goodness, and hence to dangerous hubris, by rendering American officials oblivious to how the country is viewed abroad. Consider this passage from an ode to American exceptionalism recently penned by Sullivan: “At a gathering of Asian nations in 2011, I heard the Chinese foreign minister address the issue of Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea this way: ‘China is a big country, and other countries here are small countries. Think hard about that.’ This is China’s way, and Russia’s way. It generally has not been America’s way.”

That’s a lovely flight of rhetoric. Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, the claim that America doesn’t muscle small countries into compliance with its will would be greeted by laughter in small countries near and far. And even when U.S. muscle is about economic leverage and not American or proxy military forces, the suffering can be considerable — as with our sanctions against such countries as Cuba, Syria, Iran and Venezuela.

Sullivan said last year that America should be “doubling down” on Venezuelan sanctions. So an idealist, in hopes of liberating the masses, supports policies that immiserate them, even though history shows that sanctions aimed at regime change basically never work. Realists, in contrast, ask a simple question: What vital American interest is served by inflicting misery on a small, faraway country in hopes that something magical will eventually happen?

Anti-Manichaeism. Realists resist the temptation to divide the world’s nations into blocs of good and evil. Obama wasn’t as guilty of this as his predecessor, but much of his foreign policy team had strong Manichaean leanings. Blinken sees the world as a battle “between techno-democracies on the one hand, and techno-autocracies, like China, on the other hand.” Accordingly, he wants to create a “league of democracies” to advance a “common strategic, economic and political vision” and strengthen “military security.”

For every action there is a reaction. Almost inevitably, a “league of democracies” would lead to a de facto league of authoritarians — and to deep fissures between the two. Which might be okay if everybody were in the mood for another multi-decade Cold War. But progressive idealists profess to see the urgency of addressing various problems — like climate change and pandemics and weapons proliferation — that will be hard to address in a polarized world.

This is the fundamental tension within the worldview of progressive idealists. On the one hand, if you ask what distinguishes them from neoconservatives — who share their enthusiasm for military interventions, proxy interventions, economic sanctions and ridiculous claims about American exceptionalism — they will probably start talking about climate change, arms proliferation and other issues that call for international governance of the sort progressives like and neocons view more skeptically.

The coming sea change in American foreign policy

Yet the interventionist inclination shared by progressive idealists and neoconservatives has created so much chaos and antagonism around the world that the challenge of building such governance is now steep. And the determination of many of these progressives to rally the world’s democracies in an existential struggle against authoritarianism (another thing they share with neoconservatives) would further raise the odds. All the more so since China, with nearly a fifth of the world’s population and one-tenth of its economic output, would be among the nations on the other side of the divide.

Progressive realists put even more emphasis on building strong international governance than the average progressive idealist. They envision it as dealing not just with familiar environmental and arms-control challenges but with weapons in space and cyberspace, and even research in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence (which could go badly awry in a world with fierce competition among nations and no rules of the road). They also want to equip trade agreements with strong labor and environmental provisions. All of which helps explain a fourth principle of progressive realism:

Respect for international law. Contemporary realists of both left and right are inclined to stay out of the internal affairs of other nations, and in that sense they show respect for national sovereignty. But progressive realists are more likely than conservative realists to couch that respect in terms of international law. One reason is their belief that effective international governance requires robust international laws and norms. Another reason is the recognition that, had the United States abided strictly by international law over the past couple of decades, a number of big mistakes — such as the invasion of Iraq and the proxy intervention in Syria — wouldn’t have happened.

At the same time, international law does sometimes permit military intervention. The 1995 NATO action in Bosnia, in which the United States used airstrikes to protect civilian populations, was authorized by the U.N. Security Council. Even the 2011 Libyan intervention was briefly eligible for progressive realist support. The initial stage — the aerial defense of residents of Benghazi, whom Gaddafi’s forces were poised to attack — was approved by the Security Council on humanitarian grounds. But the Obama administration then turned the mission into an unabashed regime-change effort, which arguably violated the letter of the U.N. resolution and certainly violated its spirit.

By progressive-realist lights, this regime-change mission — spearheaded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (while Sullivan was one of her top aides) — entailed a cynical exploitation of international governance and a disingenuous invocation of international law. So its downside went beyond the humanitarian and geopolitical disaster it ushered in; there was damage to the machinery of international governance and the normative authority of international law.

The emphasis placed by progressive realists on strengthening international law and governance may be their most distinctive feature. It separates them from progressive idealists, neoconservatives and many realists to their right.

But progressive realists ground this distinctive emphasis in something they share with other realists: a focus on national interest. They believe that as technological advances make relations among nations less zero-sum — with more threat of lose-lose outcomes and more promise of win-win outcomes — enlightened American self-interest calls for greater institutionalized international cooperation.

Another way to frame this non-zero-sum logic is to say that the fates of people around the world are growing more intertwined. Disease jumps across continents, arms races make both hemispheres unsafe, and grievance abroad can morph into trans-border terrorism or authoritarian populism that works in synergy with dark forces at home. So progressive realists like me do — if only out of national self-interest, though nobler motivations are permissible — care about the welfare of people abroad.

But we believe that the expressions of concern for that welfare emanating from the American foreign policy establishment are suspect. They tend to be selective in focus, often dovetailing conveniently with the aims of interest groups and corporate actors. And even when they’re pure, our dysfunctional political system translates them into bad policies, unless your preferred policy outcome is death and disarray.

Progressive realists believe that the pursuit of humankind’s long-term welfare has to be governed by principle and restraint if it is to succeed; our good intentions have to be disciplined, guided by the imperative of building a true global community.

Progressive idealists — the people who ran Obama’s foreign policy and will be running Biden’s — say that they, too, want to build a global community. But they’ve got a funny way of showing it.