Politics & Policy

In Putin’s Interest

The National Interest’s so-called realism

There is a surprising new contender for the coveted mantle of America’s 40th president: Vladimir Putin.

At least according to Andranik Migranyan, who writes in The National Interest that “American conservatives should recognize Putin as the same type of ‘great communicator’ that Reagan represented — a bold leader and visionary who connects directly with the people and easily explains complex issues of domestic and foreign policy.” Not surprisingly, Migranyan “works closely” with the Kremlin as the head of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a four-person think tank in New York founded with Putin’s approval.

What is genuinely surprising is that Migranyan had the opportunity to publish his work in The National Interest (TNI), a magazine that “emphasizes realism in U.S. foreign policy,” along with “real debate” rather than “groupthink” or “clichés.” Migranyan has published five articles in TNI, three in the last month alone. Only his most recent byline identifies him as a de facto Putin publicity man.

The problem with TNI’s coverage of the Ukrainian crisis extends far beyond Migranyan, however. Although there is diversity in the dozens of articles TNI has run, its editorial staff leans heavily toward portrayal of the Kiev protests as an illegitimate coup d’état while encouraging concessions to Russia rather than a firm response to its aggression. While troubling by itself, this distorted view of events in Ukraine is intertwined with an angry determination to break the alleged neoconservative stranglehold on GOP foreign policy. Regrettably, TNI is pursuing that agenda at the cost of undermining its professed commitment to realism, defined as both an acceptance of facts and an unsentimental pursuit of the American national interest.

Kid Gloves for Putin

According to TNI’s top editor, Jacob Heilbrunn, “It’s time to get real. Ukraine may be about to get sundered in half.” But the U.S. should not threaten Russia because the most important thing now is to “defuse a conflict that should not be allowed to jeopardize the West’s relations with Moscow.” Why would it be so dangerous for the West to have a bad relationship with Moscow? Because “then the cold war that neoconservatives and liberal hawks have been dreaming about for decades would be reconstituted.” In other words, realism now amounts to doing whatever it takes to prevent neocons and liberal hawks from realizing their innermost wishes.

Additional advocates of treating Russia with kid gloves include Dimitri Simes and Paul Saunders. Simes is the publisher and CEO of TNI, as well as the president of the Center for the National Interest, the think tank that sponsors the magazine. Saunders is the associate publisher as well as the executive director of the think tank. To their credit, Simes and Saunders say the primary cause of the current crisis is Russia’s “desire to restore control over Crimea.” Imposing costs on Russia would not be prudent, however. “Specific threats are unwise and will serve primarily to provoke counterthreats, especially if stated publicly,” they write. Simes and Sanders warn, “While it will be tempting to punish or to isolate Russia, this could have profound and destructive unintended consequences.” In a separate interview, Simes accused the United States of hypocrisy for supporting violent organizations committed to the overthrow of an elected government in Kiev. If they had targeted a pro-American government, Simes explained, “we would not call them protesters, we would call them rebels.” He offered no condemnation of the violence inflicted on a protest movement that began entirely peacefully, nor did he seem to recognize the difference between ousting a brutal, unjust regime and a lawful, just one.

A low point of TNI’s coverage of Ukraine was Paul Saunders’s softball interview with Alexey Pushkov, a 9/11 truther, Putin loyalist, and chairman of the Russian Duma’s international-affairs committee. Almost no research would’ve been necessary to ask hard questions. A week before the interview, the State Department released a fact sheet entitled “President Putin’s Fiction: Ten False Claims about Ukraine.” Nor would it be unfair to play hardball with Pushkov, who accused the U.S. of fabricating evidence that Syrian forces used chemical weapons against civilians in 2013. Most offensively, Pushkov insisted in 2008 that a secret group within the Bush administration “decided to execute the plot [on September 11, 2001] that would give America a free hand” to intervene militarily in the Mideast. Rather than distancing itself from Pushkov, TNI even lists him on the magazine’s masthead as a member of its advisory council, alongside distinguished public servants such as Brent Scowcroft. Still, it would be interesting to know what kind of advice Pushkov has to offer TNI on how to be realistic and objective.

An Older, Tougher Realism

An unusual desire to accommodate aggression was not always a hallmark of realism. Four years ago, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a self-described realist, published War of Necessity, War of Choice, a memoir of his service in both Bush administrations. Coverage of the book focused mainly on Haass’s criticism of the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a reckless “war of choice.” What resonates now is Haass’s explanation of why the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 amounted to a war of necessity. In his introduction, the first argument Haass offers is that Desert Storm was “a limited, in many ways traditional war, one that sought to reverse Iraq’s external aggression and restore the status quo ante.” Haass then writes, “[Desert Storm] was essentially reactive and consistent with the universally accepted doctrine of self-defense.”

Later Haass observes, “Appeasement of Saddam would have sent a powerful message that aggression pays. Most likely aggression would’ve been replicated elsewhere.” This point seems especially salient with regard to Crimea because it is not Russia’s first act of aggression, but rather a follow-on to the invasion of Georgia in 2008, which the Obama administration rewarded (after taking office the following year) with a “reset” of U.S.–Russian relations.

Applying this logic to the case at hand, no less a realist than Henry Kissinger wrote, “It is incompatible with the rules of the existing world order for Russia to annex Crimea.” This advice is fully consistent with Kissinger’s observations from A World Restored (1954), the book that grew out of his doctoral dissertation at Harvard. “The balance of power is the classic expression of the lesson of history that no order is safe without physical safeguards against aggression,” Kissinger wrote. “Whenever peace — conceived as the avoidance of war — has been the primary objective . . . the international system has been at the mercy of [its] most ruthless member.” Strangely, the realists at TNI seem content to satisfy the appetites of one of our system’s most ruthless members.

It’s All about the Neocons

Of course, no one is talking about going to war over Crimea. What’s remarkable is that the TNI interpretation of realism condemns even diplomatic and economic pressure as desirable means to reinforce one of the most fundamental bases of stability and order. This hesitation becomes comprehensible only when set against the background of TNI’s campaign against neoconservatives and their alleged stranglehold on the Republican party.

While a casual observer might say that today’s GOP is most inclined to brawl over issues like when to shut down the government, TNI will tell you that foreign policy is where the action is. “A divisive battle over foreign affairs does not loom before the GOP. It has already begun,” wrote Jacob Heilbrunn after Chris Christie and Rand Paul spent a few days bickering last fall. In December, Heilbrunn thrashed Representative Peter King of New York for violating Ronald Reagan’s great injunction to speak no evil of fellow Republicans. He described King as a “vulgar demagogue” responsible for “McCarthyite hearings on alleged Muslim radicalization.” The occasion for this onslaught was King’s suggestion that Senator Paul has isolationist tendencies. Now forgotten, this minor spat represented an all-out assault on “the emerging realist wing of the GOP.” More ominously, Heilbrunn observed, “King’s remarks could prove to be the Fort Sumter of the Republican foreign policy debate.” If so, then we are overdue for the first battle of Bull Run.

In this imaginary civil war, TNI has cast Rand Paul as commanding general of the realist rebel forces (perhaps explaining the presence of a self-proclaimed “Southern Avenger” on Paul’s staff). After a notable speech at the Heritage Foundation in which Senator Paul declared himself a realist in the mold of George Kennan, TNI’s political editor, Robert Merry, enthused, “When such a prominent Republican senator embraces the realist label . . . a foreign-policy debate actually could emerge in a Republican Party long frozen in the tundra of neocon thinking.” Assistant managing editor Robert Golan-Vilella is confident that Paul has become “the only game in town” for those seeking an alternative to the Bush agenda of “aggressive use of military force to promote American values overseas,” which “is still deeply unpopular with the public.” Accordingly, “The prospect of Paul as the 2016 GOP nominee has caused a degree of panic among the party’s hawks and neoconservatives.” In January, Senator Paul was among the featured speakers at a 20th anniversary gala for the Center for the National Interest, sharing the stage with Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger. (Perhaps Alexey Pushkov was unavailable.) In his address, Paul expressed the very liberal hope that growing commerce would be a harbinger of peace with China. His words presumably raised many an eyebrow in the audience, since realists have never forgotten the bold predictions, circa 1914, that the triumph of open commerce had ushered in a new era of peace in Europe. The main consolation of Paul’s speech was his readiness to caricature neoconservatives à la TNI. “Everyone who doesn’t agree with them is the next Chamberlain,” Paul said. “Anyone who doesn’t clamor first for the military option is somehow an isolationist.”

Wrestling with Shadows

Right now should be a very good time to be a realist. Neoconservatism is hardly the juggernaut of TNI’s imagination. Is there a significant Republican leader who calls himself a neoconservative? Even scholars and intellectuals tend to reject the label, because it has become little more than a term of derision. The problem is that TNI-style realists have become so doctrinaire and unrealistic that they have very little to offer either elected officials or the broader conservative movement.

Previous generations of realists have learned to accommodate themselves to Americans’ instinctive idealism rather than dismissing it as juvenile nonsense. In Does America Need a Foreign Policy? (2001), Henry Kissinger resigned himself to the reality that “no serious American maker of foreign policy can be oblivious to the traditions of exceptionalism by which American democracy has defined itself.” “Excessive ‘realism’ produces stagnation,” he warned, even if “excessive ‘idealism’ leads to crusades and eventual disillusionment.” In Second Chance (2007), Zbigniew Brzezinski goes even further, arguing that there must be a “deeper moral definition of America’s world role. Without this, America’s global leadership would lack legitimacy.”

Realists need to understand that Americans across the political spectrum will continue to be attracted to democratic protest movements like the one in Ukraine, because Americans believe that all people have the same inalienable rights. While relentlessly denouncing neoconservatives for being outside the mainstream, TNI-style realists have marginalized themselves by rejecting the broad bipartisan consensus that the Kiev protest movement was fighting for liberty and that Russian aggression should be resisted, not accommodated. The door is open for realists to return to the fold and exercise greater influence. Doing so will not entail the compromise of any of their basic principles, but simply a restoration of their commitment to being realistic.

— David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


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