Crafting a Realist Resurgence

By Matt Purple

In This Town, Mark Leibovich’s romp through Washington officialdom, we’re introduced to several “formers,” ex-civil servants who have parlayed their experience into sinecures at lobbying firms and think tanks. “Formers,” Leibovich writes, “stick to Washington like melted cheese on a gold-plated toaster.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the foreign policy establishment. Populated mostly by formers—former ambassadors, former advisors, former senators, former speechwriters—D.C.’s international relations gurus make up a small constellation, but one that’s tightly clustered. The result has been a groupthink that’s part Cold War idealism and part post-9/11 interventionism, applied to modern conflicts and blind to the wreckage it’s caused in places like Iraq and Syria.

American foreign policy is thus in tatters: hysterically over-reactive, exorbitantly costly, hewed to ideology rather than sound strategy, and impenetrable to change. “We’ve amassed all the downsides of empire, while seeing few of its benefits,” as John Allen Gay put it. Clearly, there’s a need for a foreign policy reformation, and yet a prospective Martin Luther has yet to emerge. Instead, the Democrats have nominated for president the country’s most visible heir to establishment thinking, and while Donald Trump continues to rattle the GOP’s foreign policy china, the Republican intelligentsia is as hawkish as ever.

Enter the Charles Koch Institute’s Advancing American Security conference, which took place last week. Reporting on Washington galas can get one in trouble, since they generally elicit the same level of public interest as the mechanics of underground plumbing or the finer points of horticulture. But here, an exception should be made. There were two features that distinguished the Koch conference: first, that it was the first-ever official gathering of intellectuals like Andrew Bacevich and John Mearsheimer, who advocate a more restrained approach to foreign policy; and second, that it was funded by the deep-pocketed Koch brothers—important in a town where money equals longevity.

The keynote speaker was Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor, who blueprinted his alternative foreign policy during a culturally discombobulated lunch of cheeseburgers and Chinese noodles. Walt called his approach “offshore balancing”—not a tax trick native to the Cayman Islands, it’s a surprisingly accessible approach to global strategy.

Power needs to be balanced, it stipulates, to prevent nations from conquering their respective regions. If a country amasses too much power, the job of keeping it in check falls first to regional neighbors, incentivized by self-preservation. So European nations should step up their defense spending to counter Russia, the Middle East’s Gulf powers need to play a greater role in corralling ISIS, and Japan must beef up to balance China. If that fails, then Walt allows for the sagacious use of American force. He rejects the regnant “liberal hegemony” that sees America tossing its weight around the world, but he also repudiates Fortress America-style isolationism, which he views as an anachronistic temptation.

Walt’s address was less a hammering of theses to the church door than a “duh” moment. Distill his strategy into slogan form—stay out of other nations’ affairs, use the military as a last resort—and it aligns with what the public instinctively believes. A recent Pew survey found that 57 percent of Americans think we should deal with our own problems rather than meddling abroad. There’s little appetite for another Iraq-style intervention; only against the Islamic State, which beheaded several Americans, does the public sound hawkish. The foreign policy consensus has fallen out of sync with the country it purports to protect.

In contrast, the Koch conference wasn’t much of a consensus at all. Disagreement was expressed across several panels, with more hawkish voices like Michael O’Hanlon on hand to provide dissent. Before each discussion, the words “Let’s explore…” were projected on the wall. Will Ruger of the Charles Koch Institute told The Intercept that he wants to “increase the range of arguments on the table…so the best ideas can win.” Both are acknowledgments that realists, as a group challenging a status quo, benefit from any dialogue in which they can air their opinions.

Too often, that dialogue is one-sided, and consists of the establishment belching out pejoratives like “isolationist” and “defeatist.” But allow for a genuine intellectual exchange, and the elites quickly find themselves on their heels, defending 15 years of their own failures against the trend of public opinion. The Koch conference demonstrated that this is a fight realists are salivating to have. Their position is, to quote an architect of our present crisis, “Bring it on.”

Still, plenty of hurdles remain. How do you unite the disparate strands of realist thought? How do you sell realism in an election? How can policymakers resist the emotional charge to intervene? There’s also the challenge of expanding realism outside of academia and into popular discourse. (The National Interest, The American Conservative, and Rare, among others, have begun this process.)

To prevail, realism must be made genuinely competitive with neoconservatism and liberal internationalism. It’s a daunting task, but given how shambolic our foreign policy has become, it’s about time someone gave it a try.

Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities and deputy editor of Rare Politics.

This piece was originally published by Rare on May 20, 2016. Read more HERE

Photo courtesy of wikimedia.