Commentary Magazine

On the Road to Isolationism?

With the death of Communism and the waning of the cold war, a three-sided strategic and moral debate over the future course of U.S. foreign policy has emerged. The anti-Communist coalition that won the “long, twilight struggle” has splintered; erstwhile colleagues in the formulation and execution of the Reagan Doctrine find themselves at cross-purposes. Traditional isolationism, long associated with the Old Right, has been resuscitated through a Hatfields-and-McCoys wedding to the neoisolationism of the Vietnam-era New Left. And as if that were not enough, a new argument has erupted about the viability of realism (in either its classic European/Realpolitik form or its modern American/Niebuhrian construction) as a guide for American action in the world. The parallels to the 1930’s are unmistakable: “back to the future” may well define the foreign-policy debate in the 1990’s.




Perhaps the most curious of these related phenomena has been the isolationist renaissance. Once regarded as having been consigned to the murkier nether regions of our public discourse, isolationism (or, as its exponents prefer, the new nationalism or “nonintervention-ism”) has once again become a significant voice in the argument over the national interest and the national purpose. (It may seem passing strange that people who drive Hondas, shave with Braun razors, watch Sony TV’s, prepare their pesto sauce in Cuisinarts, sip Perrier, Corona, and Glenfiddich, and listen to Deutsche Grammophon recordings should be susceptible to the siren songs of autarky; but, as the metaphysician Yogi Berra said when a Jew was elected mayor of Dublin, “only in America.”) It is even possible that the next two presidential elections will be fought in part on ground defined by the renewal of the old McGovernite call to “Come home, America.”

The political potency of the new isolationism derives in large part from the puzzling rapprochement between two hitherto antithetical perceptions of the United States and its role in world affairs. Old Right isolationism, of the sort championed during the 1941 Lend-Lease debate by figures like Senators Gerald Nye of North Dakota and Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, taught U.S. withdrawal from the raw world of European politics because engagement with morally malodorous foreigners would inevitably sully the American experiment in democratic republicanism. They were corrupt; we were pure; we should stay out. The neoisolationism of the New Left during the Vietnam period inverted this analysis. America should “come home” because a racist, imperialist, militarist (and, latterly, sexist) United States would corrupt the emerging nations of the third world. We were corrupt; they were pure; we should get out.

The debate over U.S. policy after Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait brought to the surface the truce that had been arranged between these antinomies, now reconciled (if only tactically) by their common aversion to “interventionism” and President Bush’s New World Order. During the argument over whether Desert Shield should give way to Desert Storm, one wag (a Quaker activist, actually) had rather prescient campaign buttons printed up that read: “McGovern/Buchanan: The PEACE ticket for ’92.” In view of Patrick J. Buchanan’s forthright embrace of “America First” as a campaign theme and the announcement speeches of several Democratic presidential aspirants in the fall of 1991, other buttons, reading “Harkin/Buchanan” or “Kerrey/ Buchanan” (or, in the fullness of time, and perhaps most dangerously, “Gephardt/Buchanan”), would capture this sensibility just as nicely.

This bizarre symbiosis has acquired more intellectual credibility than it might otherwise enjoy because the visceral isolationism of the Old Right/New Left activists has been tempered, and the new-nationalist prescription amplified, by the emergence of libertarian scholars and publicists like Ted Galen Carpenter and Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute, and harder-to-classify analysts like Alan Tonelson of the Economic Strategy Institute, all of whom have pressed the new isolationism vigorously (and without the xenophobia so sadly characteristic of some of Buchanan’s writing). It was, in fact, a potent sign of the times that the work of Carpenter, the Cato libertarian isolationist, should be prominently displayed in a recent issue of Foreign Policy, originally founded as the establishmentarian vehicle for the propagation of the Vietnam-era neoisolationist creed. Whatever its ideological wellsprings, though, isolationism is back; and considering its resonance with deep-running currents in the national culture and psyche, to ignore it is preemptively to concede the argument to it.



The most visible challenge to the new isolationism has been mounted by a cadre of academics and commentators who might be styled the “democratic internationalists.” This cluster of opinion, which emphasizes the inescapable necessity of American leadership in a newly unipolar world, and which stresses the possibility of that leadership’s effectively creating the conditions for peace with freedom and security through the defense and advance of democracy, includes representatives from chastened liberalism (Joseph S. Nye, Jr. of the Kennedy School at Harvard), neoconservatism (the columnist Charles Krauthammer and Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute), and the Kemp wing of the Republican party (Gregory Fossedal of the Hoover Institution).

The democratic internationalists insist that theirs is an analysis shorn of the moralistic illusions often associated (rightly or wrongly) with Woodrow Wilson and (quite rightly) with Franklin D. Roosevelt. And indeed, the democratic internationalists tend to be far more skeptical of international organizations and institutions than the liberal internationalists of the interwar and postwar periods. In the post-cold-war, unipolar world of the 1990’s and beyond, the democratic internationalists argue, the alternative to American leadership is not multipolarity, but chaos.

Moreover, the democratic internationalists maintain that the Reagan Doctrine—of vigorous support for democratic forces, whether in Chile, Afghanistan, or Poland—was not simply an interim or emergency measure whose rationale was provided by its repulsive mirror image, the Brezhnev Doctrine. Rather, democratic internationalists see the post-cold-war task of the United States—defending democratic allies and resisting aggression by crazy states where necessary; promoting democratic transitions where possible; and supporting democratic consolidation in countries formerly run by commissars or caudillos—as emerging from the very nature of the United States itself (a country founded on certain claims about the inalienable rights of the human person), from America’s successful leadership of the Party of Freedom in World War III (the cold war), and from a prudent calculation of the national interest.

Then there are the realists. The democratic internationalists claim to have learned from the critique of Wilsonian idealism mounted by the realist school of the 1930’s and 1940’s, but several prominent commentators who self-consciously identify with that critique beg to differ. Irving Kristol, Owen Harries, and Robert W. Tucker (all of the National Interest), Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, and Henry Kissinger do not agree on everything (neither, for that matter, do Krauthammer and Nye, much less Harkin and Buchanan). But they do seem at one in thinking that the democratic-internationalist proposal is too optimistic in its reading of the possibilities at the end of the 20th century, too sanguine about the relationship between democracy and international cooperation, and too little attentive to the fundamental conflicts that still define the fault lines in international public life today.

The realist counter-proposal, for a return to “normalcy” in the conduct of our foreign policy, is built around the concept of the “national interest,” which is defined in political-military and economic terms. The realists are not autarkists. While they would cringe at the word “interdependence,” they understand the facts of modern international economic life, and they take seriously the claim that the Great Depression was caused at least in part by the tariff wars of the 1920’s. The realists are not, in other words, isolationists with a big stick and an aggressive exports policy.

On the other hand, the realists deny that defining the national interest involves calculations beyond the strictly political-military and economic. They stress the limits of American power and the inevitability of chaos and unpredictability in world politics. They understand that “intractable” is a sad but accurate description of the nature of certain conflicts (such as the Middle East). And they have grave doubts about the willingness of the American people to support (and pay for) a democratic internationalism whose immediate benefits to the United States, particularly in an era of domestic austerity, collapsing infrastructure, and massive trade imbalances, are not immediately evident.




In the world of ideas, the outcome of this triangular debate among the isolationists, the democratic internationalists, and the realists is still undecided, but in the world of policy it is realism that is winning. Yet the realism that has quietly emerged at the higher altitudes of the Bush administration as a strategic frame of reference is a particularly constrained, even wizened, version of the doctrine. For George Bush and his people, the New World Order is not to be understood, in even a chastened or tough-minded way, in Wilsonian terms—i.e., as a matter of American leadership in the construction of an international political community. Rather, Bush’s New World Order resembles nothing so much as the Concert of Europe between, roughly, the Congress of Vienna (1815) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870).

In this respect, Bush-administration realism is far more akin to classic European Realpolitik than it is to the realism of, say, Reinhold Niebuhr or even Dean Acheson, both of whom were deeply influenced by biblical concepts of the inherent irony, pathos, and tragedy of the human condition, and by Augustine’s seminal distinction between the City of God and the earthly city. So it is probably a good idea to distinguish the Bush approach—call it “conventional realism”—from the more richly textured realism of Niebuhr and Acheson and their contemporary heirs like Kissinger, Kristol, Harries, and Kirkpatrick.

Conventional realism à la Bush has several defining characteristics. It seems, first, quite leery about committing the United States to the pursuit of any great principle in the conduct of our foreign policy. Indeed, one of the striking things about the President’s repeated call for a New World Order is the lack of content in the operative word, “order” (the same is true for the President’s pursuit of “peace”). Thus it should have come as no surprise that, in his September 1991 address to the United Nations General Assembly, less than a month after the new Russian revolution, Mr. Bush carefully avoided rhetoric that could be construed as endorsing the claim that the events of recent years had been an unprecedented triumph for Western conceptions of human rights and a dramatic confirmation of the superiority of democracy as a political system. (Perhaps the thought of a Saudi presiding over the General Assembly made the White House speechwriters even more circumspect than usual.) The President did say soothing (and unexceptionable) things about free markets and free politics. But there was no ideological or moral passion evident in his rather flaccid address.

The Reagan Doctrine, which was about the struggle between ideas and values as much as it was about the clash of interests, seems as dead in the Bush administration as it would have been under Michael Dukakis. The Bush men have even seemed at times to be going out of their way to distinguish their “pragmatic” approach to the world from the more “ideological” style of the previous administration. And while there may well be something to be said for the realist critique of general moral principles as tactical policy guides (given the endless complexities and imponderabilities of world politics), the failure to articulate the meaning of such terms as “peace” and “order”—and thereby to lend some guiding shape to the definition and execution of policy—tends to yield an American approach to the world reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s famous description of a disappointing dessert: “This pudding lacks a theme.”

Then there is the President’s much-remarked fondness for personal diplomacy. Realism has always been skeptical of popular and congressional involvement in the foreign-policy process (and, on the evidence supplied by Congress over the past twenty years, not without reason). But Bush seems to have sharpened this aspect of realism to an especially fine point, not least in his successful and admirable creation of the broad coalition that challenged Saddam Hussein and ejected him from Kuwait. Conversely, however, the strength of the President’s personal diplomacy under certain circumstances has not infrequently been transformed into a weakness when circumstances changed. The Emir of Kuwait and the Saudi royal family were far more cooperative before February 28, 1991 than they have been afterward. That was, perhaps, to be expected. But can we not wonder whether the personalization of the relationship between President Bush and these allies made it more difficult than necessary to keep them on board when the issue became winning the peace rather than winning the war?



Insofar as it has a guiding concept, the Bush administration’s instinctive passion seems to be for “stability.” It is here that the President and his foreign-policy advisers most resemble the statesmen at the Congress of Vienna. Like Metternich, Castlereagh, and Talleyrand, President Bush, Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft are men made profoundly uncomfortable by revolutionary ideas, and indeed by revolutionaries—and yet they are responsible for U.S. foreign policy in an age of revolution. Here, the issue of personalization intersects with the administration’s insistence on stability: confronted with the choice between reform Communist and centralizer Mikhail Gorbachev on the one side, and radical democrat and decentralizer Boris Yeltsin on the other, the administration unhesitatingly chose Gorbachev. (Even more oddly, but just as predictably, the President and his men got around to recognizing the Baltic Republics, whose independence the United States had asserted for 50 years, only after Iceland and Denmark.)

Perhaps the best way to sum up the conventional realism of the Bush administration is to say that it is a realism deeply skeptical of ideology and its role in the affairs of men and nations. This seems curious (as the realist Owen Harries has himself noted) in the age of Lenin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot; of Gandhi and the Fabian professoriate at the London School of Economics in the 1930’s; of Churchill and the founders of the state of Israel; and, more recently, of Havel, Michnik, and Wojtyla. That ideas have consequences is a cliché whose truth has been proven beyond cavil over the past century, and not least in international affairs. But it is a truth that seems not to have much impressed itself upon the minds and hearts of the conventional realists of the Bush administration.



This profound skepticism about ideology—and particularly the ideology of democratization and its roots in the Reagan Doctrine—seems the best explanation for the administration’s actions (or inactions) at four defining moments over the past three years.



Tiananmen Square.

Critics of the Bush administration’s response to the shooting of nonviolent, pro-democracy Chinese dissidents in Peking’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989 have sometimes suggested that the administration had within its power the capacity to bring down the regime of Deng Xiaoping and thus to usher in a democratic era in China. Yet what one sensed at the time now seems even clearer in retrospect: China has not yet developed that critical mass of “civil society” that made the revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe and the new Russian revolution of August 1991 possible.

That being said, however, the administration’s response to the Dengist repression was distressingly tepid, and illustrated the perils of both a self-consciously amoral or Realpolitik policy calculus (our interests could be best pursued with the repressers) and the personalization of diplomacy (the President and Deng were old friends). The administration could and ought to have declared its support, and even enthusiasm, for the goals of the student dissidents and their nonviolent methods; they were, after all, modeling their revolution explicitly on ours, and the icon they erected in the square, the “Goddess of Democracy,” was deliberately evocative of a familiar statue in New York harbor.

What would such a declaration by Bush have accomplished? It might have provided a minimum of protection to the students, by signaling Deng and his gerontocratic comrades that they would pay a steep price for repression. It might have strengthened the hand of reformist forces (and they do exist) within the Chinese Communist party—precisely the party forces we ought to encourage in the run-up to a post-Deng China. It might have positioned the United States for a brokerage role in the scramble for power—which could well involve massive civil unrest—that will follow Deng’s departure for the bosom of Lenin. It might, in other words, have created conditions for the possibility of American leadership in assisting the process of de-Stalinization in China.

Instead, by its emphasis on stability, and by its subsequent insistence on maintaining most-favored-nation trading status for the Dengist PRC, the Bush administration has effectively removed the United States from the calculations of the chief actors in the unfolding drama of China. The Dengists do not fear us, and are thus far less likely to change their ways. The reformists do not quite trust us, and thus we will have less leverage with them in the post-Deng power sweepstakes. And the radical democrats feel betrayed. In the name of stability, the Bush administration seems to have helped create circumstances in which the prospects for an orderly transition beyond Deng have been sadly diminished.



The Endgame in Iraq.

President Bush’s masterful assembly of the anti-Saddam coalition after the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, his firm resistance to the pusillanimity of the Democratic congressional leadership, and the effective conduct of the air and ground wars against Iraq between January 16 and February 28, 1991—none of these accomplishments can, or should, be gainsaid. What is troubling, however, and precisely in terms of parsing the administration’s conventional realism, is what happened before August 2, 1990, and after February 28, 1991.

Prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Bush administration seemed bent on engaging Saddam Hussein as a potential ally in the pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement. Counsels to the contrary—counsels that stressed the nature of the Iraqi Baathist regime and the pathologies of Saddam himself—were ignored, presumably on the grounds that Saddam was the major Arab military power in the region and thus had to be dealt with. (As Lyndon Johnson would have put it, it was better to have Saddam “inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.”)

Accordingly, Americans, and the rest of the world as well, were treated to the spectacle of the now-infamous April Glaspie interview, in which the Iraqi dictator was assured by the U.S. ambassador that we were not about to take a position on intra-Arab disputes, such as Saddam’s claims on Kuwait. That Ambassador Glaspie’s message to Saddam—both the text and the subtext—was of a piece with views long prevalent in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs does not mitigate the damage done by the administration on this front. For it was within the administration’s power, particularly as the cold war was declining and the unipolar nature of power in the world was coming into clearer focus, to challenge the appeasement strategies that State had been urging, precisely in the name of creating conditions (psychological as well as political-military) more conducive to the pursuit of a genuine peace.

That the President and his men responded so forcefully to a crisis which they had, in part, helped bring about is to their credit. It is easy to imagine several of the Democratic candidates in 1988 adopting precisely the pre-August 1990 approach taken by the Bush administration, and then, after the invasion of Kuwait, waiting for sanctions to work. And waiting. And waiting. The Bush administration did, not just the expedient thing but the right thing in mounting Desert Shield and Desert Storm. And the decision to eject Saddam from Kuwait by military means if necessary was couched in precisely the right terms: as a matter of obligation as well as of necessity.

But then, with Saddam hanging on to power by the thinnest of threads, Bush’s policy seemed to lurch back to the orthodoxies of conventional realism. To be sure, there was a concern within senior administration circles that the relentless pursuit of the Iraqi army out of Basra would have led to a breach of the Just-War principle of proportionality. But there were options between what amounted to a unilateral ceasefire and rolling the tanks up to Baghdad. Moreover, it now seems ever more obvious that the endgame policy was being driven by other concerns: by, once again, concerns about stability.

Thus, the Saudis were reported to be nervous about the break-up of Iraq and the possible creation of a Shiite state (or autonomous region) in southern Iraq. So, it was said, were the Turks—with the Kurds as the potential problem child in the north of Iraq, along the Turkish border. The decision was therefore made to stop military action; to preserve the Iraqi state and the Baathist regime in their present form; and to hope that, somehow, Saddam would be removed from power by the normal means for the transfer of power in the Middle East: assassination and/or coup.

But when that hope proved vain, the administration was even prepared to let Saddam and his Baathist thugs slaughter Shiites and Kurds by the tens of thousands, in the name of preserving the stability that a unitary Iraq, under Baathist leadership, would putatively help create in the region. Charles Krauthammer put it sharply but accurately when he wrote in Time that Bush’s “first choice was Saddamism without Saddam. But his second choice was Saddamism with Saddam.” The reason for that otherwise inexplicable choice was that it was demanded by the administration’s version of conventional realism.




If Yugoslavia—a nation-state in name only, a misbegotten child of the Versailles Peace Conference now coming apart under the inexorable pressures generated by the Communist manipulation of ancient ethnic and religious feuds—graphically illustrates the perils of Wilsonianism, Bush-administration policy toward that unhappy land has been a poignant reminder that the fundamental principle of sound diplomacy should be the same as the basic principle of sound medicine: first, do no harm.

That Yugoslavia was in dire straits, indeed on the verge of civil war, by the summer of 1991 ought to have been evident to any informed observer. Yet Secretary Baker went to Belgrade in June and defined America’s interest in Yugoslavia as the maintenance of stability and order. Not without reason, this was seen by the Serbian Communists then in control of the Yugoslav federal leadership and the federal army as a signal that the United States would not object to a little head-knocking, if that was what it would take to preserve the unitary Yugoslav state. Shortly after Baker’s visit, Ljubljana became the first European city to be bombed since 1945.

Could the United States have prevented a civil war in Yugoslavia? Perhaps not. But Baker’s ill-advised realist emphasis on stability made civil war more, not less, likely. Worse yet, it strengthened the hand of the very man who is the chief obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Yugoslav dilemma, the Serbian Stalinist Slobodan Milosevic. Had Baker stressed that America’s interest lay in a peaceful, democratic, nonviolent, and negotiated settlement of the crisis (even if that meant a radical restructuring of “Yugoslavia”), and had he challenged the Yugoslavs to emulate the success of their Slavic brethren in carrying out just such revolutions in Poland and Czechoslovakia, things just might have been different. Instead, and two years after the revolution of 1989, we gave effective support to one of the few remaining Communist leaders in Eastern Europe. The bloodletting followed in short order.



Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and the August Revolution.

Stability, rather than democracy and nonviolent change, has been, yet again, the watchword for Bush-administration policy toward the Soviet Union. That policy has also been shaped in considerable part by Bush’s evident fondness for Mikhail Gorbachev, and his advisers’ nervousness about the less “clubbable” Boris Yeltsin. But the element of personality does not fully account for the way in which Bush came down strongly on the side of Gorbachev’s centralist reform Communism in the paradigmatic formulation of the administration’s pre-August-revolution perspective—his August 1 address to the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev, which William Safire of the New York Times acidly dubbed the “Chicken Kiev speech.” That speech, with its dire warnings against the perils of “suicidal nationalism,” may well appear, in time, to be the most comprehensive statement of the conventional-realist position—and the most telling example of that position’s failure to grasp the meaning and power of the ideas and passions that drove politics during the breakup of the external and internal Soviet empires.

The pattern established by the Chicken Kiev speech was maintained throughout the August revolution. In the early going, the President was just right: calm, measured, quietly defiant. But in the wake of Yeltsin’s victory in Moscow, Bush seemed as little able as Gorbachev to comprehend that a sea-change had taken place in the correlation of forces within what was rapidly becoming the former USSR. Once again, the rhetorical weight was on stability, with virtually no presidential acknowledgment that what was under way throughout the Soviet Union was a great triumph for Western political values. The President did celebrate the triumph of democracy when the coup imploded. But he immediately went on to suggest, against the evidence of Gorbachev’s own astonishing press conference (in which he defended the Communist party he would abandon 24 hours later), that “democracy” and “Gorbachev” were somehow synonymous. Then there was the President’s petulance about the demands for diplomatic recognition coming from the Baltic states, his deprecatory references to Ukrainian democrats, and his staffers’ off-therecord trashing of Boris Yeltsin as a crude and unstable demagogue who threatened, yes, the supreme value of stability.

In the weeks following the August revolution, as in his phone-a-thon prior to the September announcement of nuclear-weapons cuts, the President seemed to move toward a recognition of Yeltsin’s position and stature as, minimally, co-leader with Gorbachev of whatever-it-was that the late Soviet Union had become. Then, in late November and early December, Gorbachev’s inability to meet his payroll and the voters of Ukraine finally forced the administration’s hand. But until then, it was the Chicken Kiev speech, with its stress on the importance of maintaining “the center” (at precisely the time when the center was being revealed as a fiction), that was the chief intellectual template against which post-Soviet U.S. policy toward the collapsed superpower was being measured and cut.



Some might argue that this cautious approach to the post-Soviet endgame—as well as to the events in Tiananmen Square, during the last phase of Desert Storm, and on the brink of the Yugoslav civil war—is but the application of that chief of political virtues, prudence, to policy-making in a volatile period in world affairs.

Yet what the administration imagines to have been the prudent call in these four instances has proved to be anything but, if by prudence we mean the skill of applying principle to practice in a way that allows for the maximum possible embodiment of that principle in the political order, within the limits imposed by circumstances. The People’s Republic of China has become a more repressive place, farther removed from reform and just as troublesome in the world arms markets, in the wake of the administration’s tepid response to the Tiananmen Square shootings. Saddam Hussein is still in power in Baghdad, and is still pursuing a nuclear-weapons capability: this is stability? Yugoslavia has been plunged into civil war. And the United States seems increasingly out of touch with those who are going to be running the post-Soviet Union in the future.

In sum, given the revolutionary circumstances with which our policy has had to come to grips, the stress the administration has put on stability has been precisely the imprudent call.




The Bush administration’s imprudent pursuit of a “prudent” foreign policy illustrates the first of the three chief defects of conventional realism: its inability to deliver success, even (or especially) as measured by its own definition of success.

Conventional realism rightly promises no rose gardens; but it does promise that diplomacy can produce stability, which is the best that can be hoped for in this kind of world. And yet, as we have just seen from the record of the Bush administration, it is precisely stability that conventional realism fails to produce. The root of that failure lies in conventional realism’s blindness to the power of ideas—of ideology—in world politics, and the capacity of peoples motivated by ideas and moral passions to bend history to their wills. Thanks to this crippling myopia (which is rooted in the belief that the world of ideas is epiphenomenal to the “real world” of economic and military power), conventional realism has missed the sine qua non of the revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe and the August revolution in the late Soviet Union: the revolution of the spirit, the revolution of conscience, that preceded and made possible the (largely nonviolent) overthrow of Communist power.

This grave weakness in the intellectual armamentarium of conventional realism should not surprise anyone familiar with the diplomatic history of the 20th century. Conventional realists were, after all, in charge at 10 Downing Street and in the French Foreign Ministry when the most urgent questions of the day were: who is Hitler and what does he want? Conventional realism, incapable of grasping revolutionary ideologies and passions, fundamentally misconstrued Hitler who, it was said, had legitimate, post-Versailles grievances which could be redressed by “appeasement” (a good word, then). The same incapacity to comprehend the revolutionary mindset, this time in the case of Stalin, crippled Western strategy and diplomacy from the Teheran conference through Yalta.

The second failure of conventional realism is its misunderstanding of morality, and particularly of the moral reasoning appropriate to statecraft. Conventional realism, with its pretense of toughmindedness, denies that the world of politics has a normative content: politics is, at best, amoral, and international politics is even more the arena of the amoral than domestic affairs. The only calculus that counts in foreign policy is a calculus of national interest, and those charged with the responsibility of securing that interest are somehow thought to have been absolved from grappling with the question, “But what ought we to do?” At its most perfervid, conventional realism even imputes a kind of stoic grandeur to the lonely amoralism of the statesman; as the eminent realist Hans J. Morgenthau once put it, “To know with despair that the political act is inevitably evil, and to act nevertheless, is moral courage.”

In fact, however, this is not moral courage, but rather a particularly offensive form of melodramatics. The philosopher Charles Frankel took Morgenthau to task for his bloviated formulation at just the right level of analysis:

Professor Morgenthau is pointing only to the fact that man cannot have or do everything he wants, that he must choose, and that he must do so though inadequately informed and equipped. To turn these not entirely recondite facts into evidence for the proposition that politics is no place for ethics is a resounding non sequitur. Human fallibility and choice are not evil. They are the conditions that make the moral life, and therefore both good and evil, possible.

Conventional realism is, then, defective as a moral theory. It considers the norms appropriate for decision-making in interpersonal relationships the sum total of the meaning of morality and then, finding these inapplicable to politics among nations, declares foreign policy to be the realm of the amoral calculation of interest. In this, conventional realism resembles (and in fact probably derives in no small part from) that form of American evangelical Protestant moralism that drove a wedge between morality and politics by insisting that the former was solely derived from the norms of the Sermon on the Mount. But as the vigorous Just-War debate that preceded Desert Storm illustrated, there are other sources of moral understanding—preeminent among them the natural law—and these can provide far more supple instruments for serious moral analysis of the exigencies of statecraft.

Finally, on this point, the conventional realists’ insistence that the national interest is the sole concern of the statesman tends to ignore the fact that the calculation of what constitutes the national interest is itself an exercise in moral judgment, not an exercise in algebra. It inevitably involves choices among desiderata, choices that are inescapably involved with issues of “ought.” Once again, it was Charles Frankel who got this exactly right:

The heart of the decision-making process . . . is not the finding of the best means to serve a national interest already perfectly known and understood. It is the determining of that interest itself: the reassessment of the nation’s resources, needs, commitments, traditions, and political and cultural horizons—in short, its calendar of values.

Conventional realism of the European/Realpolitik sort is thus not an escape from morality; it is a defective and deficient form of morality. Nor is the alternative to conventional realism utopianism or idealism run amok. The alternative is better moral reasoning. It is an approach to the construction of foreign policy that grasps ideas and values as motivators of men and nations; that takes seriously the distinctive nature of social ethics, and particularly its necessary concern for consequences; and that does not throw up its hands in despair over the inevitable fact that there is going to be a gap between our ideals and their implementation in the doing of our business with the world.



The third disability of conventional realism is its incapacity to engage the imagination and commitment of the American people. Conventional realism does not suit the political temper of a people whose constituting experience as a political community involved the assertion of universal moral norms. A nation founded on ideas and values cannot but make those ideas and values a formative part of its encounter with the world.

Margaret Thatcher used to distinguish between “conviction politicians” and “consensus politicians.” The United States, for good and for ill and usually for both, is a conviction nation. Our convictions cannot determine policy in all particulars. There are limits to our capabilities, and there are limits posed by the intractabilities of situations, cultures, and personalities in the world. On occasion, for example, we may have to enter (or even lead) coalitions with partners whose polities we find odious.

But the real danger is not that we will somehow lose our innocence in such ventures. Americans are not so naive as that. Moreover, the arguments of the democratic internationalists, given added weight by the empirical evidence of democracy’s power as an energizing principle in politics within and among nations, and sharpened by the cautions of the more developed realist thinkers like Kristol, Harries, Kissinger, and Kirkpatrick, will continue to offer a potent analytic framework for conceiving ways to bridge the inevitable gaps between what our convictions would lead us to want to do, and what the circumstances of a given situation require of us.

Contrary to much assumed wisdom (of the kind that thinks of itself as tough-minded and pragmatic, rather than idealistic and ideological), the fact of those gaps is no reason to fall back into the false intellectual and political safety net of conventional realism. Indeed, the real danger in the 1990’s is that the Bush administration’s experiments with principle-free Realpolitik will so estrange our foreign policy from the deepest convictions of the American people that they will retreat in disgust (or, at the very least, confusion) into the kind of hemispheric bunker now being designed by Buchanan and his tribe. And thus the great irony is that the conventional realism of an administration which prides itself on its expertise in dealing with the world may yet become a new road—the upmarket road—to the very isolationism it seeks to avoid.

About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author most recently of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins).

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