I have a love-hate relationship with the "realist" school of foreign policy, prominently represented today by Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, and Famous earlier realists included Kenneth Walz, George Kennan, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Hans Morgenthau. I've been guilty in the past of confusing Hans Morgenthau with Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who served as Secretary of Treasury 1934-1945. The latter was involved in major foreign policy issues. But Hans Morgenthau is the one renowned for his theoretical contributions to foreign policy studies, notably with his 1948 book Politics Among Nations.
The article on Hans Morgenthau in the ever-trusty Encyclopaedia Britannica summarizes the bare bones of his Realist theory this way:
... Morgenthau maintained that politics is governed by distinct immutable laws of nature and that states could deduce rational and objectively correct actions from an understanding of these laws. Central to Morgenthau’s theory was the concept of power as the dominant goal in international politics and the definition of national interest in terms of power. His state-centred approach, which refused to identify the moral aspirations of a state with the objective moral laws that govern the universe, maintained that all state actions seek to keep, demonstrate, or increase power. He called for recognition of the nature and limits of power and for the use of traditional methods of diplomacy, including compromise.On the one hand, that formulation doesn't work for me as an approach to foreign policy, because it suggests a kind of amorality in life-and-death decisions involving war and peace, and suggests an indifference or irrelevance to considerations of forms of government and ruling ideologies. That's the second part of my love/hate relationship with it. Also because the famous war criminal Henry Kissinger is thought to be a practitioner of it. The fact that I first encountered the theory in a conservative text in my first college political science class, which was also taught by a hardcore Nixon-Agnew conservative professor, probably adds to its bad vibe for me.
The "love" part is my experience that practitioners of the realist approach has to do with the fact that they often come up with a more realistic practical assessment of foreign policy situations than more explicitly ideological approaches. The realist view has its own ideological implications, but let's leave that aside for now. Approaching issues while seriously trying to apply the realist assumptions means one has to think carefully about how the leaders and political actors of other countries are making judgments about their own national interests. And the realist approaches assumes that all countries view their national interests in ways that at least implicitly have general legitimacy. Done right, it provides a counter-balance to the temptation to assume the outcome that would be most congenial to one's own ideology or interests is the most likely one. And recognizes that what may look like an important but secondary stake for one country may be regarded by another as an existential matter.
The adherents of the realist view viewed the "unipolar moment" of the global dominance of the United States after the fall of the Eastern Bloc governments and of the USSR as an inevitably transitory state of affairs. They predicted that other countries would seek ways to counter the overwhelming American dominance and create new alliances and approaches in pursuit of that goal. And, in fact, that process has proceeded as expected. Jeremi Suri described those shifting balances in an article from the transition time between the Presidential election and the beginning of Trump's Administration, Blustering Toward Armageddon The American Prospect 01/03/2017. His focus is on the major ways that the incoming Trump Administration might manage that shifting matrix of power relations in a way that could lead to disaster. Although his well-founded pessimism about Trump's ability to manage foreign affairs successfully also seems to be influenced by a perhaps overconfident faith in the ability of the US to be a benign influence in the Middle East, in particular.
Gordon Adams is skeptical that the two major parties fully appreciate that we are undergoing a "fundamental shift in global realities—the centrifugal redistribution of power and influence in the international system that has brought to an end the 'American century.' The United States has become just another power in a system for which it no longer sets or enforces the rules, if it ever really did."
But Adams thinks the Democrats are generally being unrealistic about what the feasible alternatives to Trumpist foreign policy are: "Both political parties fail to cope with this reality. Democrats and liberals insist that Trump’s foreign-policy decisions threaten the 'rules-based' international order America built and dominated. A simple change in leadership, they believe, can restore order and America’s primacy."
And he sounds considerably more skeptical than Jeremi Suri about the American ability to shape political matters in the Middle East to our liking:
In the Middle East, the power shift is palpable. The United States has treated Iran as a pariah since 1979, trying to stuff the ayatollahs back into some imaginary bottle, hoping that they will go away or be overthrown. This approach has failed, and the withdrawal from the nuclear deal will only make that failure more evident. Iran is a regional power, defending its interests, engaging other powers and movements inside and outside the region, such as Russia. US regime change in Iraq not only destabilized the region but helped usher the Iranians into this active regional role. The other influential countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel, will have to deal with this reality.Leon Hadar adds a provocative wrinkle to this picture (Trump's Strategy for the Middle East Is Working The National Interest 05/17/2018):
In addition to these three countries, Russia is also key to regional stability and instability. There’s no way of pushing the Russians out, short of direct conflict. Nor can Turkey be forced to comply with American policy. It is clearly asserting its own interests and influence in three directions at the same time: Central Asia and Russia, Europe, and the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq may have helped open this Pandora’s box. The US is rapidly becoming a marginal player in the chaotic security environment of the Middle East.
... perhaps Americans should be experiencing a certain sense of pleasure, or Schadenfreude as they watch the Russians being drawn into what could prove to be a long and costly effort to “do something” in response to the growing military tensions between Israel and Iran and its allies in Syria, the Kremlin’s Middle Eastern protectorate. Good luck with that, President Putin!He has a point!
Hadar recites some of the history of the US involvement in the Middle East. Which is not a story of "winning," which our current President pretends to think is the whole point of foreign policy. While we can certainly understand Russia's current expansion of influence in the Middle East as an instance of the Realist theory playing out in the real world, that doesn't mean that it hurts the United States more than it helps. And while the US should certainly try to promote peaceful relations in the Middle East, including a decent settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, if Russia's luck in the region resembles that of the US the last couple of decades, that's a fate one should only wish onto an enemy.
While no one will be forcing the United States out of the Middle East anytime soon, it is true that under both former President Barack Obama and his successor in office, President Donald Trump, the decision not to intervene directly in the civil war in Syria, can be seen as part of an effort to reduce the level of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. That does not amount to “isolationism” but it certainly challenges the axiom that Washington is required to immediately “do something” to resolve this or that conflict in the Middle East.I tend to think he's overoptimistic there about American restraint. Obama did show a practical awareness that getting sucked in to a large intervention in the Syrian civil war would be a bad idea. But his Administration did try to put the American finger on the scales there, including direct support to some very dubious anti-government rebels. And the Obama/Hillary intervention in Libya with France and Britain was a reckless action with negative long-term consequences, and a disaster in the short-run, too. Albeit not as gigantic a disaster as the Iraq War. And I don't see that Trump has any policy goal as consistent as what Hadar calls "Trump’s goal of reducing U.S. military presence in the Middle East since it supposedly would lead to a confrontation between the United States and Iran."
Hadar may also have been letting hope get the better of judgment in his Don't Expect President Trump to Invade Iran The National Interest 02/21/2018. In the three months since then, Trump has brought on John Bolton as National Security Adviser and a buildup for a war with Iran sure looks like it's in process. But he does take a worthwhile shot at the way that the "Munich analogy" has served as musical accompaniment to some really bad foreign policy decisions:
For much of the post-1945 era, Western leaders, applying the lessons of World War II, operated under the assumption that the adoption of a policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany, symbolized by the agreement that the British and French leaders signed with Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938, helped encourage German military aggression that eventually led to the breakout of war in Europe.
The result was that the United States and its Western allies held to the conviction that they needed to avert another Munich, which meant that they had to adopt a tough and uncompromising diplomatic and military stand against any potential aggressor, whom they were quick to compare to another Hitler.
So if Egyptian nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser and Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh were “like Hitler,” failing to use military power in response to any bellicose action on their part would amount to appeasement.