National Security & Defense

How to Save the World: Old-School Foreign-Policy Realism

Syrian government tanks near Aleppo, February 3, 2016. (George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty)

Today’s world is a toxic blend of nationalist emotions and divergent interests. The spillover from the Syrian civil war is making conflict between NATO member Turkey and Russia increasingly likely. ISIS poses an existential threat — in Paris, Jakarta, and Beirut — to civil society. Advancing a strategy of confrontation, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has spent the past few days testing ballistic missiles, executing his army chief, and cutting links with South Korea. As former Defense secretary Robert Gates recently remarked, “My worry about Kim Jong Un is not just that he’s dangerous, but that he might not be very smart.” The risk of conflict is significant. Remember, in 2010, at the height of President Obama’s deterrent credibility, Kim sank a South Korean navy vessel and shelled a South Korean island. Since then, Syria has been choked, Europe has been invaded, and Iran has dominated the Middle East.

In short, America’s deliberate impotence has depleted our credibility and facilitated looming disasters. To stop the rot, we need to return to old-school realism: resolute action pursuing practical objectives. Take Syria. The civil-war-afflicted nation offers a prime example of the costs of absent realism and the potentials of active realism. At present, Putin’s ambition and his confident application of power have secured him the political initiative. While Russia and its allies obliterate Aleppo, reconsolidate Assad’s power, and thus strengthen the sectarian currents fueling ISIS and Iran, President Obama is begging U.S.-backed rebels to bow to Assad. To make matters worse, the Sunni monarchies are drifting out of the sphere of U.S. influence and retreating into sectarianism.

There’s a realist alternative: First, the U.S. could pressure Turkey into backing away from its aggression towards Kurdish rebels in return for tougher U.S. action against Kurdish PKK terrorists — and greater U.S. support for anti-Assad rebels. Turkey and the vast majority of Kurdish political groups want positive relations with the United States, and despise Assad. That affords us influence. Second, the U.S. could pressure Russia — via increased sanctions and lethal support to Syrian rebel forces associated with the Free Syrian Army – to accept Assad’s removal. In return, we could assure Russia that it will retain influence in Syria and military access to the Mediterranean Sea. This path would balance unpleasant concessions (Putin’s Mediterranean access) with strategic imperatives (Assad’s departure, followed by a transition process that makes a Sunni buy-in to a durable cease-fire — or even a new governing coalition — possible).

Because he’s unwilling to challenge Russian aggression, Obama has been unable to persuade U.S. allies to invest in the West’s mutual security.

For another example, consider what a realist U.S. president could accomplish in Asia. Were the U.S. to seriously challenge China’s cyber-aggression and its imperialism — with retaliatory cyber-attacks (instead of President Obama’s ludicrous agreements with China to disavow cyber-attacks) and a bolstered military presence proximate to China’s artificial islands — China would have an incentive to pressure North Korea back into its box. Yes, this a simplistic interpretation of a complex issue. Nevertheless, it illustrates how realism would allow the U.S. to exert calculated pressure in one area (cyber vs. China) in order to extract concessions elsewhere (North Korea). At present, China ignores U.S. concerns because it believes President Obama has no policy to address those concerns.

It’s true, 21st-century realism will require more than cutting deals. It will also require tangible support from allies. Donald Trump offers an interesting example here. After all, while Trump’s foreign-policy doctrine has as much credibility as his hair has style, his willingness to make demands is one that we should copy. Take the current U.S. relationship with our European allies. Writing at Politico about the Munich security conference that began today, former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt argued for expensive new U.S. commitments to European security. Notably, however, Bildt omitted calling for European Union sanctions on Russian finance and front companies, or for a sizeable increase in EU defense spending. This reflects a truth I’ve repeatedly emphasized — namely, that because President Obama has proven himself unwilling to seriously challenge Russian aggression, he has been unable to persuade U.S. allies to make hard choices to invest in the West’s mutual security.

Of course, realism isn’t easy. It requires articulated priorities, bold policy, and, yes, occasional concessions. But in the long term, realism offers a global balancing of power that defers to America’s unique moral and physical power. The currently employed alternative – President Obama’s rudderless delusion — is facilitating overlapping global disasters.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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