The Magazine

Giving 'Realism' a Bad Name

The demise of idealism in Obama's Washington.

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Yet granting the Bush critics part of their point, it can be admitted that pursuing democracy became too inflexible a doctrine. Foreign policy is a practical realm in which the primary aim is to promote the nation's security and interest. There is no room for an ethics of intention, only for an ethics of results or responsibility. No nation should follow a formula for its own sake. But this obvious counsel of prudence leaves open the question of what it is that promotes our security and interests. The masters of so-called realism have all too often missed opportunities for fundamental change. Their "tough" acceptance of order turns into a worship of order, and they discount the prospects of change even before it has the chance to test its strength. Just where, one wonders, would the current realists have stood at the time of the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon or the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine? The question answers itself. They would surely not have been "meddling" in the Syrian or Russian zone of influence, but checking with Assad and bowing to Putin.

One thing is certain. President Obama in five brief months has taken not only his administration, but his entire party, a long way down the road to this new posture of celebrating order. The current silence of Democrats on the Hill, once passionate defenders of democracy, speaks volumes. Meanwhile, the president has not only cultivated the art of publicly apologizing before the world for George W. Bush's sins, he is preemptively removing America from taking any strong public stands out of fear that they will backfire in the current environment. Only, it seems, when the world realizes that this is Obama's America, and not the America of the past, can our moral authority carry any weight. Evidently, we have not yet reached that point.

Realism as practiced has become an inflexible response to an imaginary idealism. Its costs will soon become obvious, if they are not so already. These include not just an inability to fashion a moral or principled domestic consensus for foreign policy, but also harm to reformist forces around the world that are struggling to establish constitutional government in the face of authoritarian rulers. It might be quaint in our pragmatic age to speak of the intrinsic value of honor, but honor does have its practical benefits. It instills the confidence in others that, at least to the measure of your ability, you will have their back. Does anyone believe that democrats in Tehran, Havana, or Caracas are celebrating today the triumph of the cool realists in Washington?

It is a dictum of our new foreign policy that "moral hubris" is out and "humility" is in. This is fine so long as humility does not turn into its own form of hubris, giving the green light everywhere to the forces of oppression. Democrats now run the risk of turning their vaunted new doctrine of realism into a rigid ideology. It would be much better to follow the sober advice of that unerring scholar of international relations, Polonius: Neither an idealist nor a realist be.

James W. Ceaser is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of politics at the University of Virginia.