The Magazine

John Kerry, Reactionary

From the July 19, 2004 issue: He's against a heroic foreign policy.

Jul 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 42 • By THOMAS DONNELLY and VANCE SERCHUK
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The Nixon-Kissinger strategy of détente with the Soviet Union remains perhaps the purest American example of the practice of realism. It sought simply to manage the relationship with the Soviet Union by "balancing" the Communists in Moscow with the Communists in Beijing. It was in these years that "moral equivalence" between East and West slipped into the mainstream of U.S. strategic thought, and so a critique advanced by left-wing dissenters during the Vietnam years was adopted by a right-wing administration in the White House. Not even Ronald Reagan could thoroughly uproot this entrenched ideology, for with the collapse of the Soviet empire, many realists pressed to maintain the balance of power--by restraining America.

Thus, Senator Kerry, in voting against the first Gulf War, explained that he feared the conflict would augur a "new world order" in which the United States would shoulder disproportionate responsibility. "Can it really be said that we are building a new world order when it is almost exclusively the United States who will be fighting in the desert, not alone but almost, displaying pride and impatience and implementing what essentially amounts to a Pax Americana?"

FOR THE PAST DECADE, this fear of American power has defined political realists of both parties. Steeped in an understanding of international politics that held balancing as the highest virtue, this analysis warned against "hyperpower" and jumped excitedly at the slightest sign of its decline--whether absolute or relative. Our hegemony was itself marginally more tolerable during the Clinton years, when the president and his lieutenants were content to lecture the world on theories of "assertive multilateralism," and threats against the U.S. homeland appeared less pressing. (Notably, however, after President Clinton in his second inaugural address described the United States as "the indispensable nation," Senator Kerry reportedly recoiled, asking an aide: "Why are we adopting such an arrogant, obnoxious tone?")

Initially, of course, George W. Bush seemed the very model of a modern, post-Cold War realist. During his campaign, his foreign policy advisers--the so-called Vulcans--adopted the same disdain for the puerile vanities of a moralistic foreign policy as many conservative critics of President Clinton. But since 9/11, the realists think the president has lost his perspective. As Lawrence Kaplan has observed, the insurgency in Iraq has ushered in a "springtime for realism," complete with a Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. Founding member Gary Hart sniffs: "The extravagance, not to say the arrogance of this epic undertaking [of transforming the greater Middle East] is sufficiently breathtaking in its hubris to make Woodrow Wilson blush."

Alas, in a one-superpower world, it's hard to be a humble hegemon. But the problem is not just that realism fails as an assessment of the actual balance of power--the United States enjoys an unprecedented preponderance of strength, a fact that will not soon change, regardless of what happens in either Iraq or the White House. The root of the problem is that "realism" of this sort is deeply at odds with both American political principles and American national interests.

There is a reason that Richard Kerry felt himself a "dissident" from the "intensely moral outlook" of the Cold War. In the long twilight struggle against the Soviet Union, it was Americans' faith in the universality of liberty, capitalism, and self-determination that sustained our commitments to like-minded allies around the world and weakened our enemies, ultimately converting them to our principles. But just as realism disdained that broader war of ideas, today it disparages the intensely moralistic outlook of President Bush and the "forward strategy of freedom" he has articulated in the fight against Islamist terrorism.

Perhaps, for many on the left, this is simply the expression of an intense loathing for President Bush. Still, it is notable that the Kerry camp--presumably more clear-eyed about such matters--is attacking less the often-bumbling means by which the administration has tried to bring democracy to Iraq, than the wisdom of the effort itself. Rand Beers, Kerry's top foreign policy adviser, recently told the Los Angeles Times, "We have been concerned for some time that Bush's position about having some kind of democratic state [in Iraq] was too heroic."

To be sure, there is a huge risk of hubris in attempting to foster democratization across the greater Middle East--a danger that the Bush administration has not appreciated as keenly as it should. Yet the status quo is intolerable, and there are worse offenses than excessive ambition in trying to change it. And just when did the American left begin to sneer at heroic efforts to improve the world?