Roger Cohen JAN. 11, 2016, New York Times
Is realism really, really what America wants as the cornerstone of its foreign
Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard
University, has an eloquent ode to realism in Foreign Policy magazine. He
argues that, with realism as the bedrock of its approach to the world over the
past quarter century, the United States would have fared far better. Realists,
he reminds us, “have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and
are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological
Pessimism is a useful source of prudence in both international and
personal affairs. Walt’s piece makes several reasonable points. But he omits
the major European conflict of the period under consideration — the wars of
Yugoslavia’s destruction, in which some 140,000 people were killed and
Realists had a field day with that carnage, beginning with former
Secretary of State James Baker’s early assessment that, “We don’t have a dog
in that fight.” This view was echoed by various self-serving assessments from
the Clinton White House that justified inaction through the portrayal of the
Balkans as the locus of millennial feuds neither comprehensible nor
True, discerning a vital American national interest in places with names
like Omarska was not obvious, even if the wars upset the European peace
America had committed to maintaining since 1945. The realpolitik case for
intervention was flimsy. Sarajevo was not going to break America, less even
than Raqqa today.
The moral case was, however, overwhelming, beginning with the Serbian
use in 1992 of concentration camps to kill Bosnian Muslim men deemed
threatening, and expel Muslim women and children. These methods
culminated at Srebrenica in 1995 with the Serbian slaughter of about 8,000
male inhabitants. In the three-year interim, while realists rationalized
restraint, Serbian shelling of Sarajevo blew up European women and children
on a whim. Only when President Clinton changed his mind and NATO began
concerted bombing was a path opened to ending the war.
I covered that conflict and its resolution. For my baby-boomer generation,
spared Europe’s repetitive bloodshed by American military and strategic
resolve, it was a pivotal experience. After that, no hymn to realism pure and
simple could ever be persuasive. Walt calls me “a liberal internationalist;” I’ll
take that as an honorable badge.
He describes the expansion eastward of NATO after the end of the Cold
War as “a textbook combination of both hubris and bad geopolitics” that
needlessly poisoned relations with Russia. This argument is in fact a textbook
example of the cynicism and smallness inherent in realism.
Guaranteeing security as the basis for a liberal order in nations from
Poland to Estonia emerging from the trauma of the Soviet Imperium amounts
to a major American strategic achievement. (Baker was instrumental in it,
proof he was more than a Walt-school realist.) Ask any Pole, Lithuanian or
Romanian if they think America erred.
Realists tend to dismiss human suffering; it’s just the way of the world.
Hundreds of millions of people in Europe were ushered from totalitarian
misery to democratic decency under the protection of the United States and its
allies. A debt incurred at Yalta was repaid. European peace and security were
extended, an American interest. There is little doubt that President Vladimir
Putin would today have overrun at least one of the Baltic countries, absent
their NATO membership.
Putin has created havoc precisely in the no man’s lands — Georgia and
Ukraine — rather than in the NATO lands. Russia’s interest, post1990, was in
the dismemberment of the European-American bond, most potently expressed
in NATO. That was the real problem.
The United States, almost alone among nations, is also an idea. Excise the
notion of the global extension of liberty and its guarantees from American
policy and something very meager remains. Putin is a fierce, opportunistic
realist. But Americans — Donald Trump notwithstanding — do not want that
dish on their tables.
They especially do not want it after the Syrian debacle. Walt argues that
realists would have dissuaded President Obama from saying President Bashar
al-Assad “must go” and setting a “red line.” But the problem was not that
uttering these words was unrealistic. It was that failing to follow up on them
Syria has illustrated the limits of White House realism. Realism has
dictated nonintervention as hundreds of thousands were killed, millions
displaced, and Islamic State emerged. Realism has been behind acquiescence
to Assad’s barrel-bomb brutality. If Iraq illustrated disastrous American
pursuit of an “ideological blueprint,” Syria has demonstrated a disastrous
vacuum of American ideas.
Realism is an essential starting point for American foreign policy. It was
absent on Iraq: The result was mayhem that, as Walt rightly says, cost America
several trillion dollars. Realism brought the Iran nuclear accord, a signal
achievement. More of it might help on Israel-Palestine.
But this is more a time to acknowledge the limits of realism — as a means
to deal with the evil of ISIS, the debacle of Syria, or the desperate European
refugee crisis — than to cry out for more, or suggest that it is underrepresented
in American discourse.