Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Con-Man Realism of Vivek Ramaswamy

| Sep. 05, 2023

The Republican presidential candidate’s foreign-policy platform is false advertising.

If a politician wants to convey a sense of gravitas and sound like a serious foreign-policy thinker, they are apt to declare that they are a "realist." Genuine realists may still be an endangered species in the Western foreign-policy community—not extinct but definitely outnumbered by liberals, neoconservatives, and other idealists—but embracing the realist label is intended to convey a certain tough-minded sophistication about the complex world of international politics. But caveat emptor: Experience suggests that such claims need to be viewed with considerable skepticism.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described his policies as based on realism and restraint, for example, even though he is more accurately described as a faith-based fabulist (and one of the least successful secretaries in living memory). One of his predecessors, Condoleezza Rice, used to write essays extolling a "new American realism," but the policies she helped implement and defend (e.g., the war in Iraq, the "Freedom Agenda," etc.) violated most realist precepts and were opposed by most genuine realist thinkers. Former President Barack Obama called the realist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr his favorite philosopher and occasionally displayed a realist's sense of prudence, but he never challenged the non-realist strategy of liberal hegemony that had repeatedly backfired before, during, and after his presidency. The moral: Some politicians want you to think they are realists; they just don't want to act as realism prescribes.

Given this tradition of misrepresentation, it should not surprise you that Vivek Ramaswamy—the latest slick neophyte to say that he knows how to set U.S. foreign policy right—has claimed the realist mantle for himself. Writing in the American Conservative, Ramaswamy advances what he calls a viable doctrine of "Realism and Revival." He embraces George Washington's 18th-century warnings about "entangling alliances,” associates himself with the supposedly "cold and sober realism" of Richard Nixon, and defends the principle of hemispheric dominance first espoused by James Monroe in the 1820s. A cursory read of his article might lead the unwary to see him as the answer to a realist's prayer.

Indeed, you might think I'd be giddy about Ramaswamy's shtick, insofar as some of what he seems to be proposing sounds like what I and other realists/restrainers have been advocating for some time. He thinks foreign policy should be designed to advance the national interest (though he never tells us what that interest is). He wants U.S. allies to do more for their own defense (a view shared by every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower), would like to minimize the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, and says he'll drive a wedge between Russia and China. When I read him calling for the U.S. to be a "balancer of last resort" but not a first responder all over the world, I can't help but wonder if he's been reading my stuff.

So why am I not clamoring to get a spot on his team, sending his campaign a nice fat contribution, and writing a column praising his remarkable insights?...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Con-Man Realism of Vivek Ramaswamy.” Foreign Policy, September 5, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt