Sunday, December 04, 2005

Foreign policy "realists" aren't always very realistic

Iraq is a mess, Afghanistan a disappointment, our allies loathe us, and the promise of a foreign policy based on humility has turned into finger-wagging lectures about responsible discourse--not to mention declarations about being either with us or against us
writes Eliot A Cohen as he reminds us of the (in)famous tiny part of an 1820 speech, the remainder of which was forgotten just as much as the remainder of George W Bush's "axis of evil" was dropped from our memories.
This (admittedly caricatured) view of the current American predicament has yielded up a yearning for what the managing editor of Foreign Affairs has called "the perennial hangover cure" for American foreign policy--realism. No less a pillar of the establishment than Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the father, has deplored the foreign policy of the son, and in print, no less, and has done so on the basis of this doctrine.

The realists--members of the policy and intellectual elite who approve and even envy the cool acumen of a Talleyrand, Metternich or Bismarck--believe that in foreign policy what matters is the national interest coolly calculated, the relationships of power, and the incurable nastiness of the human condition. They agree with Charles de Gaulle that "states are cold beasts," and that international relations are about the hard, unsentimental doings of statesmen. Domestic politics, including massacre or mere repression, is no one else's business: Foreign policy is the purview not of do-gooding charities and international organizations, of crusading idealists or enthusiastic naïfs, but of prudent politicians, who understand that attempting to carry the values of American civil society beyond our shores can lead only to trouble.

You know that you are about to get a lecture on the merits of realism when someone reaches for a line by John Quincy Adams, that superbly successful diplomat and unhappy president. The United States, he said, "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." But herein lies a misunderstanding.

The unrealistic quality of realism can be found in this oft-quoted dictum, which formed a tiny part of a July 4 speech that Adams delivered in 1820. Yet he also insisted in his peroration that…
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