Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

Realism About Foreign-Policy Realism

| Feb. 02, 2022

In a world of sovereign states, foreign-policy decisions naturally should account for national interests and the broader balance of power. But unlike the World War II era, when this realist perspective gained greater purchase, today's international politics call for a much more nuanced approach to power.

Was the current crisis in Ukraine caused by a lack of realism in US foreign policy? According to some analysts, the liberal desire to spread democracy is what drove NATO's expansion up to Russia's borders, causing Russian President Vladimir Putin to feel increasingly threatened. Viewed from this perspective, it is not surprising that he would respond by demanding a sphere of influence analogous to what the United States once claimed in Latin America with its Monroe Doctrine.

But there is a problem with this realist argument: NATO's 2008 decision (heavily promoted by the George W. Bush administration) to invite Georgia and Ukraine eventually to join the Alliance can hardly be called liberal, nor was it driven by liberals. In making such arguments, realists point to the aftermath of World War I, when US President Woodrow Wilson's liberalism contributed to a legalistic and idealist foreign policy that ultimately failed to prevent World War II.

Accordingly, in the 1940s, scholars such as Hans Morgenthau and diplomats like George Kennan warned Americans that they must henceforth base their foreign policy on realism. As Morgenthau explained in 1948, a "state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action." Or, in the more recent words of the University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer: "States operate in a self-help world in which the best way to survive is to be as powerful as possible, even if that requires pursuing ruthless policies. That is not a pretty story, but there is no better alternative if survival is a country’s paramount goal."

In a famous historical example of this approach, Winston Churchill, in 1940, ordered an attack on French naval vessels, killing some 1,300 of Britain's allies rather than letting the fleet fall into Hitler's hands. Churchill also authorized the bombing of German civilian targets....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr.“Realism About Foreign-Policy Realism.” Project Syndicate, February 2, 2022.