Sean Kay is wrong because, like so many realists, he overvalues realism

Article Highlights

  • Realists have not been very good judges of international politics and power

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  • Lasting security lies in creating a world safe for justice

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  • the rest of the word would still prefer to “bandwagon” with the United States, not balance against it

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Sean Kay may be correct that I have misdiagnosed what ails the Obama administration’s foreign policy, though I would note that the level of elite anxiety about the Levant, Ukraine, and maritime East Asia seems only to be rising: Marc Ambinder is no neocon, but he declares the world to be “en fuego” and that, while “Obama seems to be flailing in front of everyone,” it’s also true that “there is no GOP alternative.”  If that’s not a measure of establishment meltdown, I don’t know what is.

Being a man of the realist persuasion, Kay naturally concludes that the problem with U.S. policy is insufficient realism.  But that is always the realist diagnosis; in their account, American leaders always exhibit insufficient realism regardless of who’s in charge.  While it’s Obama’s lack of action that troubles the establishment (along with the discomforting idea that George W. Bush’s “stupid, hard power” looks, in hindsight, to have been more effective than Obama’s – and Hillary Clinton’s – “smart, soft power”), it’s the excess of action that troubles Kay.  Thus, in Kay’s reading, the troubles of Libya come not from failing to follow through after deposing Gaddafi, as the president admitted in his interview with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, but from intervening in the first place.

Kay and other realists pride themselves on seeing the world “as it is, not as we wish it could be.”  Yet they fail their own test in two critical ways.  To begin with, realists have not been very good judges of international politics and power; they’re not so good at seeing the world as it is.  They’ve been forecasting a broad movement to balance excessive U.S. power since the end of the Cold War.  That is now coming in view, but from a very loose “axis of weevils,” as Walter Russell Mead calls them – China, Russia, and Iran – while the larger complaint from the rest of humanity arises from the fear of American weakness.  In political science jargon, the rest of the word would still prefer to “bandwagon” with the United States, not balance against it.   

More importantly, realists don’t see America as it is, and in particular America’s strategic culture – the lenses through which we view the world and the struggle for power. We congenitally have been prone to stick our noses into things.  That’s been true not just for the last two decades, or since World War II, but since English-speaking peoples colonized North America.  Trying to convince Elizabeth I – as cautious as statesman and strategist as ever was – to back Walter Ralegh’s scheme for Roanoke, Richard Hackluyt – just the sort of scholar-with-ambitions who would work in a think tank today – composed a position paper he titled A Discourse on Western Planting, claiming that the native peoples of North America would cry

Liberta, liberta, as desirous of liberty and freedom, so no doubt whensoever the Queen of England, a prince of such clemency, shall seat upon that firm of America, and shall be reported throughout all that tract to use the natural people there with all humanity, curtesy, and freedom, they will yield themselves to her government, and revolt clean from the Spaniard….

That Ralegh’s “Operation Caribbean Freedom” was first and foremost a scheme to find a convenient cove for plundering the Spanish treasure flota is less interesting than the fact that, even to the Elizabethans, the exercise of power demanded a larger purpose. They were realistic enough about the means of power, and Elizabeth had a very keen sense of her limits. But Elizabethans then and Americans now share a strong belief that lasting security lies in creating a world safe for justice — call it a “balance of power that favors freedom” if you like — not simply carving out a tiny and transitory refuge.

Both Sean Kay and Barack Obama would like to see America repudiate its traditional strategic culture, to stop intervening and to end our involvement in “other people’s” conflicts.  At least realists make no pretense about being attuned to others’ cries of “Liberta!  Liberta!”  But those cries still resonate in most American ears, and it’s the president’s tone-deafness that is souring his supporters.

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