Entering an Era of Realism


Speaking in Europe last Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave our European allies a heads-up that future American presidents may require them to shoulder more responsibility defending the continent. His comments reveal that it is now possible, within the Republican Party, to speak in the language of realism.

This kind of thinking is good for both conservatism and America.

Henry Kissinger has argued that American foreign policy is tightly stretched between the two poles of realism and idealism. In America, idealism in foreign policy goes back to President Woodrow Wilson, and specifically to the Fourteen Points. Post-Wilson, the president most readily associated with realism is Richard Nixon, who opened the door to Communist China and became the first president to visit the USSR.

It is clear the public has become realist in almost every category, and now wants the U.S. to scale down commitments abroad and look after its own interests. Support for promoting democracy abroad has fallen from 29% in September 2001 to 13% in May 2011; support for reducing U.S. military commitments overseas has risen sharply from 26% to 46% over the same time period. Among Republicans, the percentage of those who see reducing our military presence abroad as a priority has jumped from 35% in July 2004 to 46% in May 2011. 

Many in Congress have taken note, most notably Republicans. A recent resolution that Obama withdraw all forces from Libya in two weeks drew the support of 87 Republican congressmen, many of them affiliated with the Tea Party. Then there was Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who questioned if the mission in Afghanistan required 100,000 men.

Realism does not exclude morality or American exceptionalism. Consider the career of George Kennan. Kennan was the deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Moscow when he concluded, in 1946, that the Soviets could fundamentally not be trusted. He penned the Long Telegram and an article in Foreign Affairs signed “X,” in which he spelled out the policy of containment that structured U.S. relations with the Soviet Union for the next 50 years. That policy, in 1989, led to the liberation of half a continent and the emergency of stable democracies 20 years later.

American exceptionalism is found precisely in an alternation of realism and idealism. Whether or not we ultimately succeed in bringing democracy to the deserts of Iraq has little to do with the strength of our nation’s faith in God or our respect for free enterprise. Now, at a time when our deficit has become the new red menace, roughly 10% of our GDP or $1.5 trillion dollars, and when the national debt ranges upwards of 100% of our GDP, at over $14 trillion, conservatives can draw on their own tradition of realism to refocus the country on what may be an imminent economic disaster at home. True exceptionalism demands nothing less.

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