Politics & Policy

Realism, Iraq, and the Bush Doctrine

Some clarification is desperately needed.

The release of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) report has caused the chattering classes to swoon over the “return of the realists.” Now the spectacle of people who loathe Henry Kissinger and the memory of Richard Nixon celebrating the virtues of foreign-policy “realism” is truly amusing and indicates a lack of seriousness on the part of critics of the Bush administration in their to approach the Iraq War. Of course, the critics’ embrace of realism is cynical — just another way to hammer the Bush administration. In fact, Bush’s critics misunderstand realism only slightly less than they misunderstand their nemesis, the hated “neoconservatism.”

Terms in Need of Clarification

In the context of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) report, realism is supposed to be synonymous with “pragmatism.” The “wise men” associated with the ISG, especially James Baker, are in love with “stability.” Thus the IRG seeks to achieve a stable Iraq by having the United States enlist the support of Iran and Syria. This recalls Chamberlain’s deals with Hitler in Munich regarding the German seizure of the Sudetenland. That too was the sort of pragmatism associated with this crude understanding of realism. We know how that pragmatic quest for stability turned out.

In fact, realism is more complicated than this. Indeed, what so many disparage as “neoconservatism” is a variant of a realist theory.

Realism is one of several schools of international relations (IR) theory and the most dominant. Realism stresses the importance of power and military security in international affairs. For the realist, the state is the only important actor in the international arena and relative power the only meaningful goal. In contrast to this second characteristic, liberals believe that actors in the international political system (IPS) can cooperate out of benevolence as well as self-interest. They contend that the goals of actors within the IPS transcend power and security. Liberals stress the importance of peace and prosperity. They see an important role for actors in the IPS other than states, including international institutions such as the United Nations. “Constructivism,” an increasingly popular school, argues that the categories of international relations, far from being natural or objective, are “socially constructed.” In the words of Alexander Wendt, “anarchy is what states make of it.” Finally, “Critical” IR theory essentially applies Marxist categories to the IPS.

The Varieties of Realism

Realism itself takes different forms. There are “human nature” realists, who argue that the conflict that characterizes the international realm is merely a reflection of the fallen nature of man. They can be said to be disciples of Thomas Hobbes.

Most modern realists are “structural realists,” who believe that the competitive character of international politics arises from the structure of the international political system (IPS), which is international anarchy. Since states have no common superior, they are the arbiters of their own security needs. In other words, the IPS is an “every-man-for-himself” system: each state must take whatever steps it believes will ensure its survival, regardless of the opinions of others. A state may form alliances, go to war, or build up its defenses. Of course, if state A takes what it considers to be defensive steps, state B may see these actions as threats to its security. This is called the “security dilemma” and is the source of arms races and preemptive war.

For the traditional realist, relative power is the key. “Defensive” realists argue that a state will pursue only the power that it needs to ensure its survival. “Offensive” realists, such as John Mearsheimer, believe that a state will seek to acquire as much power as it can.

Realism and the Bush Doctrine

Traditional realists have been critical of the Bush Doctrine, asserting that its Wilsonian character has caused the United States to overreach in the case of Iraq. Realists have predicted that the Bush Doctrine will lead to anti-hegemonic balancing on the part of other states — i.e., other states will takes actions to prevent the United Stated from establishing, or further establishing, international hegemony. But such an outcome has not occurred. There has been no anti-hegemonic balancing, even of the “soft” variety (the realists’ fall back position). This suggests that other nations consider the Bush Doctrine to be also in their own interests, or, at least, they do not worry that, in pursuing this doctrine, the U.S. intends to establish a hegemony harmful to their interests. This judgment is mostly likely based on an understanding of the nature of the political regime of the United States, and this suggests that the realists’ dismissal of the “regime question” –” which, according to the reductionist logic of structural realism, doesn’t matter when analyzing relative power within the anarchic structure of the international political system — is a little too parsimonious.

By ignoring the differences between a liberal democracy such as the United States and other states, realists are liable not to recognize that, apparently, even countries unhappy with the Bush Doctrine don’t really believe that Bush wants “to govern vast areas of the world by force,” as it was put by Stephen Walt. Because other countries understand the nature of a liberal democracy, they understand that the United States does not represent a threat to their interests or sovereignty. And, moreover, it is sure that other countries also see the need to confront radical Islamic terrorism. If one of the goals of a theory is to predict behavior, realism has come up short with regard to the Bush Doctrine.

Ironically, some realists themselves have called the premises of realism into question. Most famously, Ur-realists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have attacked the so-called “Israeli Lobby,” claiming that it has hijacked American foreign policy in behalf of Israel. But how can that be? After all, realist theory teaches that a state makes decisions based exclusively on an assessment of the international balance of power. In addition, realists denigrate the “regime question,” denying for instance that there is any difference between the behavior of a liberal democracy in the international political system and that of a more authoritarian government. If that is true, how can a domestic lobby exert such influence on U.S. policy makers who, as Mearsheimer argues in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, are always attempting to maximize the power position of the United States relative to other states?

The problem with academic IR theory, especially in the debate between realists and liberals, is that it involves disciples of Machiavelli and Kant talking past each other. For realists, liberals are too abstract and place too much emphasis on the “good side” of human nature. For liberals, realists are too pessimistic and cynical. In addition, their theory is too parsimonious; it fails to explain very much in the world. That is why neither school has satisfactorily explained American foreign policy, which brings us to the neoconservatives and the Bush Doctrine.

Neoconservatism and Realism

Unfortunately, the term “neoconservative” has been applied so promiscuously by the press that it is in danger of becoming nothing more than a meaningless term of opprobrium. But in foreign policy, the neoconservative enterprise is not that hard to grasp. In the words of Andrew Bacevich, a critic, the goal of neoconservatism is “to fuse American power to American principles, ensuring the survival of those principles and subsequently their propagation to the benefit of all humankind.”

As Francis Fukuyama observes in his recent book, America at the Crossroads, neoconservatives, unlike realists, believe that “the internal character of regimes matters and that foreign policy must reflect the deepest values of liberal democratic societies.” And unlike liberal internationalists, who seem to believe that international law and institutions alone are sufficient to preserve peace, neoconservatives contend that there are certain problems that can be addressed “only through the prudent exercise of [American] power.”

In fact, to the extent that it reflects neoconservative principles, the Bush Doctrine is based on a variant of realism. Some realists have argued that the today’s unipolar IPS is more hierarchical than anarchic, and that peace and prosperity are preserved, not by a balance of power, but by “hegemonic power.” This has given rise to the theory of “hegemonic stability,” which holds that a “liberal world order” does not arise spontaneously as the result of some global “invisible hand.” Instead, such a system requires, in the words of Ethan Barnaby Kapstein, a “hegemonic power, a state willing and able to provide the world with the collective goods of economic stability and international security.” The United States, as Great Britain before it, took up the role of hegemon not out of altruism but because it was in its national interest to do so.

According to the theory of hegemonic stability, the alternative to U.S. power is a more disorderly, less peaceful world. The precedent for such disorder is the decay of Pax Britannica, which many believe created the necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for the two world wars of the twentieth century. As British hegemony declined, smaller states that previously had incentives to cooperate with Britain “defected” to other powers, causing the international system to fragment. The outcome was depression and war. The decline of American power could lead to a similar outcome.

The Bush Doctrine is a species of “primacy” based on hegemonic stability. Primacy can be caricatured as a “go-it-alone” approach in which the United States intimidates both friends and allies, wields power unilaterally, and ignores international institutions. But the Bush Doctrine sees itself as having a “benevolent” primacy, an approach in keeping with its liberal political traditions, but which recognizes the world as a dangerous place in which a just peace is maintained only by the strong.

This form of primacy is based on the assumption that U.S. power is good not only for the United States itself but also for the rest of the world. The argument is that the United States can be fully secure only in a world where everyone else is also secure. The existence of liberal institutions is not sufficient for preserving this order. A liberal world order is possible only if the United States is willing and able to maintain it. In the words of Sam Huntington:

the maintenance of US primacy matters for the world as well as for the United States…

A world without US primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world 

Realists criticize the Bush Doctrine for its emphasis on expanding democracy. But such an approach can be found in Thucydides, who noted that an important goal of both Athens and Sparta was to establish and support regimes similar to their own: democracies in the case of Athens and oligarchies for Sparta. The inference one can draw is that the security of a state is enhanced when it is surrounded by others that share its principles and interests.

Indeed, the Bush Doctrine endorses this very Thucydidean perspective. As the president declared in a June 2004 speech at the Air Force Academy:

Some who call themselves “realists” question whether the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be any concern of ours. But the realists in this case have lost contact with a fundamental reality. America has always been less secure when freedom is in retreat. America is always more secure when freedom is on the march.

The poverty of mainstream realist thought is visible when we examine Washington’s “Farewell Address,” still a useful guide to thinking about foreign policy, especially for its noteworthy Lockean combination of interest and principle. After the passage that everyone misuses to prove that the real policy of the United States should be isolationist — “it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves…in the ordinary vicissitudes of [Europe’s] politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships and enmities” — Washington provides the Lockean synthesis.  

If we remain one People, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisition upon us, will not lightly hazard giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel. 

The “Farewell Address” is a surer guide to the practice of foreign policy than the ISG report.

– Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


The Latest