America needs realists, not William Kristol

If the New York Times wants true diversity on its Op-Ed pages, it should hire foreign policy realists, not ideologues.

Topics: Iraq war, Soviet Union, Russia, The New York Times, Liberalism

In its response to letters protesting the recent hiring of hard-line neoconservative William Kristol as a weekly Op-Ed columnist, the New York Times described the decision as the result of a “long and thoughtful process” by a paper committed to “vibrant political discourse.” Editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal said critics of the move were being “intolerant” and complained about a “weird fear of opposing views.”

Hiring Kristol did not bring an “opposing view” to the Times’ Op-Ed page, of course, because columnist David Brooks already represents the same worldview that Kristol does. Nor does the Times’ roster of liberal pundits provide a full complement of “opposing views.” Most liberal commentators share the neocons’ belief that it is America’s right and responsibility to exercise “global leadership,” even when that role involves the aggressive use of American military power and constant interference in other countries’ affairs. The Times’ Thomas Friedman was an energetic supporter of the Iraq war until it went south, and Nicholas Kristof is a passionate advocate of U.S. intervention in Darfur. Columnists like Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich have been sharply critical of the neoconservatives’ worst follies, but both proceed from the familiar liberal internationalism that has characterized the American foreign policy establishment for many years.

Even now, neoconservatives do not lack other mainstream outlets for their ideas. Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan, Fred Hiatt and Jonah Goldberg appear regularly on the editorial pages of the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times, and prominent neocons routinely publish in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times and the New York Sun. Not to be outdone, the supposedly liberal Boston Globe publishes neocon Jeff Jacoby twice a week. The neoconservative outlook is ubiquitous in journals of opinion like the New Republic, Commentary or Kristol’s own Weekly Standard and is regularly heard on major radio and TV talk shows. Even National Public Radio and Comedy Central give neoconservatives a platform with surprising frequency.



What’s missing in America’s mainstream media is the voice of realism. As the label implies, realists think foreign policy should be based on the world as it really is, rather than what we might like it to be. Realists see international politics as an inherently competitive realm where states constantly compete for advantage and where security is often precarious. But realists understand that being overly alarmist and aggressive can get states into just as much trouble as being excessively trusting or complacent. So realists keep a keen eye on the balance of power, but they oppose squandering blood or treasure on needless military buildups, ideological crusades, or foolish foreign wars. Realists cherish America’s commitment to democracy and individual liberty, but they know that ideals alone are no basis for conducting foreign policy. They also understand that endless overseas adventures will inevitably provoke a hostile backlash abroad and eventually force us to compromise our freedoms here at home.

Such views are hardly heretical, but there is not a single major columnist, TV commentator or radio pundit who consistently presents a realist perspective on world politics and American foreign policy. In America today, the mainstream media is a realism-free zone.

The exclusion of realism is surprising for three reasons. First, realists enjoyed distinguished positions in the American foreign policy community in the past and remain a respected group today. Prominent statesmen whose views generally reflected a realist approach include the late George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Colin Powell, Richard Haass and Brent Scowcroft, as well as politicians like outgoing Sen. Chuck Hagel and current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. To give a realist regular space on a major Op-Ed page is hardly like hiring a Maoist, a Scientologist or a die-hard World Federalist.

Second, realists are an important constituency in the academic world. Realism is still the dominant paradigm in the academic study of international politics, and the writings of realist scholars like E.H. Carr, Hans J. Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz have cast a long and lasting shadow over the academic landscape. One would think editors and publishers would be eager to hire someone whose views reflected that distinguished intellectual tradition.

Third, realism’s track record as a guide to foreign policy is quite impressive, especially when compared to the neocons’ catalog of blunders. Morgenthau, Waltz and Kennan were among the first to recognize that the Vietnam War was a foolish diversion of American power, and Waltz was one of the few foreign policy experts who understood the Soviet Union was a Potemkin colossus with feet of clay. When assorted hawks were sounding frantic alarms about Soviet dominance in the late 1970s, Waltz was writing that the real issue was whether the Soviets could hope to keep up with the far wealthier and more powerful United States. The 1980s proved they couldn’t, and that Waltz and his fellow realists had been essentially correct.

Realism has done rather well since. Liberals and neoconservatives greeted the end of the Cold War by proclaiming the “end of history” and imagining a long era of peaceful American hegemony, but realists foresaw that the end of the Cold War would unleash new forms of security competition and produce new tensions within existing alliances. And when both hawks and doves foresaw a difficult and bloody battle in the 1990-91 Gulf War, realist scholars like Barry Posen of MIT and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago wrote articles that correctly predicted America’s easy victory.

Most important, realists were among the most visible opponents to America’s more recent misadventure in Iraq. In September 2002, for example, 33 international security scholars paid for an ad in the New York Times declaring “War With Iraq Is Not in the U.S. National Interest.” About half of the signatories were prominent realists, and several others wrote articles before the war explaining why it was unnecessary and unwise. By contrast, it was the neocons who conceived and promoted the Iraq war, while many prominent liberals endorsed it. Surely Americans deserve to hear from a perspective that has been an accurate guide to recent events, instead of relying on pundits who have been consistently wrong.

A realist would provide readers with insights that have been largely absent from mainstream discussion for a decade or more. Realism emphasizes that states defend their interests vigorously and that successful diplomacy requires give-and-take; that advancing our own interests often requires us to do business with regimes whose values we find objectionable; that nationalism is a powerful force and most societies resist when outsiders try to tell them how to run their own affairs; that global institutions can be useful tools of statecraft but require great power support to work effectively; and that even well-intentioned democracies sometimes do foolish and cruel things. Most important of all, a realist would emphasize that military force is a blunt and costly instrument whose ultimate effects are unpredictable, and that it should be employed only when vital interests are at stake.

In short, a realist would be a valuable antidote to the self-righteous hubris that pervades contemporary U.S. commentary on foreign affairs, an attitude that has encouraged many of the policies that have undermined America’s image around the globe. A realist would also cast a skeptical eye on virtually all of the current presidential candidates, whose views on foreign policy do not stray far from the current neoconservative/liberal consensus. Realists aren’t infallible and some readers will undoubtedly object to their views, but that’s hardly the issue. The point is that Americans would be better informed if they regularly heard what realists had to say, and media institutions that are genuinely interested in presenting a diverse array of views should be signing up a few of them.

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