Commentary Magazine


The Big “R” Theory Known as Realism

I have the utmost respect for Robert Kaplan, one of our greatest travel writers. With his combination of vast historical knowledge, willingness to travel under the most shabby and dangerous conditions, and his acute powers of observation, he is a fitting heir to Sir Richard Francis Burton, Freya Stark, Rebecca West, and other masters of the genre. But I believe he is somewhat offbase in his Financial Times paean to “realism” today.

He claims the way President Obama has conducted the Libya intervention is along realist lines. This may or not be true when it comes to small “r” realism (that remains to be seen); it is definitely not true when it comes to the big “R” theory known as Realism, or Realpolitik, defined by Wikipedia as follows:

“In the study of international relations, Realism or political realism prioritizes national interest and security over ideology, moral concerns and social reconstructions. This term is often synonymous with power politics.” I’m not a political scientist, but that strikes me as more or less accurate, and it shows why fundamentally the Libya intervention–undertaken to prevent a dictator from slaughtering his own people–was not Realism in action; it was actually the height of idealism, albeit tempered by concerns of national interest.

Kaplan goes on to praise Obama’s haphazard policy in the Middle East–“supporting democracy where he can, and stability where he must”–as another example of Realpolitik, but again he seems to confuse “realism” with “Realism”: There is nothing remotely “Realistic” about U.S. interventions in other countries’ politics to support change; classic Realpolitikers prefer to deal with existing regimes, no matter how distasteful, rather than usher in more liberal alternatives. Classic Realpolitikers in this regard were Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Kaplan is off the mark again in praising them as follows:

The humanitarian interventionism in the Balkans notwithstanding, the greatest humanitarian gesture in living memory was U.S. President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, engineered by Henry Kissinger, his national security advisor. By dropping the notion that Taiwan was the real China, they obtained China’s agreement to stop supporting communist insurgencies throughout southeast Asia.

Also, with the U.S.  implicitly providing protection against the Soviet Union and an economically resurgent Japan, China was able to devote itself to the peaceful growth that would lift most of Asia out of poverty. As more than a billion people saw their living standards rise, there was a consequent explosion of personal freedoms. Such can be the wages of realism.

Did all these consequences really flow from Nixon’s amoral willingness to clink glasses with Mao Tse-tung, one of the greatest mass murderers in history? Hardly. Mao most assuredly did not repay Nixon’s kowtow by stopping support for “communist insurgencies throughout southeast Asia”; in fact, China continued supporting both the North Vietnamese Communists and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, both of whom seized power within three years of Nixon’s visit to China. The real transformation in China did not occur until after the death of Mao in 1976 which allowed for the ascension of the reform-minded Deng Xiaoping who instituted the changes which have led to a growth in Chinese living standards. In other words, the story of China provides repudiation for the cynical theories of Realpolitik which holds that savvy statesman can change history with their daring diplomatic forays; in fact, a nation’s internal politics is usually far more important in determining its course–a point argued by international relations “idealists.”

Finally, Kaplan is offbase, or at the very least premature, in suggesting Obama’s “impatience for troop withdrawals in Afghanistan implies a rejection of nation-building in the Middle East, so as – in effect – to focus on something more crucial: maintaining U.S. maritime power in Asia.” I see scant evidence Obama is doing anything to maintain U.S. power in Asia given the fact the U.S. fleet is at its smallest level since 1940 (280 ships and falling) while China is in the midst of its biggest naval buildup ever. In fact, Obama is determined to cut U.S. defense spending, which could leave the U.S. unprepared to deal with China’s rise. We have already cancelled the best-in-the-world F-22 Stealth fighter even as China fields its own Stealth aircraft for the first time.

I do not mean to suggest Kaplan is entirely wrong in this article; in fact, I agree with many of his points about the need to pick our spots and make strategic decisions about where to commit resources. That is the essence of leadership, but it is hardly a defining feature of Realism or any other international relations
system. All preconceived ideologies or systems must–if a statesman is to be successful–be tempered by the realities of the world. In fact, what I think Kaplan
is arguing for is not “Realism” but rather simply prudence–an idea all foreign policy practitioners can endorse even if they differ about what’s prudent and what isn’t.


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