Political realism is the oldest and most venerated theory of international politics. Yet, there is no institutional center dedicated solely to its study. Its thinkers and practitioners range from Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes, to E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, Winston Churchill, George Kennan, to Kenneth Waltz, Robert Gilpin, Robert Jervis, and John Mearsheimer. As this extensive list suggests, there is no single realist theory. Realism is, instead, a theoretical perspective—a family of theories and explanations, differing from each other in the emphasis they place on distinct causal variables. That said, there is no doubt that realism constitutes a coherent tradition of explaining political behavior. Centered on an understanding of politics as an enduring struggle for power and security, realism has consistently sought to explain how entities seek to survive and thrive in an environment in which dangers to security and welfare are ever-present, and even survival itself is not assured.
All realists agree that the balance of power (and changes to it), as well as the systemic pressures generated by an anarchic international order more generally, inform the environment in which all states act. In that context, however, all states, and especially great powers, enjoy considerable discretion with regard to how they pursue their goals and what sacrifices they make in the face of constraints. It is thus impossible to understand and anticipate the behavior of states by looking solely at structural variables and constraints. To explain world politics, it is necessary to appeal to a host of other factors, including domestic politics, history, ideology, and perceptions of legitimacy. Unlike contemporary structural realists, classical and neoclassical realists take domestic politics and other such variables seriously. They understand that state behavior is shaped by the lessons of history, ideas, and ideology and that states are not best understood as hyper-rationalist machines but that they make choices conditioned by those influences and in a context of considerable uncertainty.
Since the advent and dominance of Waltzian structural realism—a systemic theory that explicitly denies the ability to explain foreign policy behaviors, realism as a theoretical perspective has been mischaracterized as a third-image (structural-systemic) theory unsuitable for the tasks of explaining or prescribing the foreign policies of individual states. Consequently, contemporary realist theories of foreign policy have been few and far between; and it is unclear precisely what realism has to say about state behavior other than that states balance (build arms and form alliances) against threatening accumulations of power.
Today, the need for a program devoted to the study of realist foreign policy could not be more urgent. For the first time since World War II, the American people have elected a president who disparages the policies, ideas, and institutions of the global liberal order at the core of postwar U.S. grand strategy. Indeed, much of what we call “the West” seems to be undergoing a similar deep modification in the ideas of its peoples. To the extent that we are witnessing a true and lasting political sea change, the present epoch represents one of those critical historic moments in which the political thought of humankind is undergoing profound transformation. It is a most confusing time, however, because the ideas of the past, though under attack, are still very powerful, while the ideas that are to replace them are still in the process of formation. Hence, the present age is one of transition.
Since 1945, and most especially since the end of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has been captured by liberal internationalism—a doctrine of deep engagement with the rest of the world, which sees multilateral regimes, democratic institutions, economic interdependence, and the export of American values and norms as the most effective and appropriate means to advance U.S. interests and to get others to do and want what Americans want. For different reasons, both Wilsonian liberals and neoconservatives have consistently encouraged the United States to deeply engage with the rest of the world—to exert its power not only to solve global problems but also to promote a world order based on international institutions, representative governments, open markets, and respect for human rights.
While this Liberal (Lockean) world view has maintained an ideological stranglehold over Washington’s policy elites, the American body politic has embraced an essentially realist (Hobbesian) understanding of international relations. For many years, survey data about foreign policy world views and priorities, the use of force, and foreign economic policies have shown a strong realist bent among the mass American public.
Now, after more than seven decades of extroverted U.S. foreign policy, the American electorate is finally demanding an end to liberal internationalism and its replacement with a foreign policy of global restraint, retrenchment, and a return to realist principles rooted in narrow self-interest. In stark contrast with liberal hegemony, realism champions a narrow definition of the national interest, which does not include things like democracy promotion, humanitarian intervention, the responsibility to protect people from atrocities or the advocacy of human rights abroad, or nation building.
The puzzle is not why Americans have finally decided to elect a president who campaigned on an “America First” brand of realism, but rather why it took so long to close the breach between elites and the public. Two key causal drivers explain the rise in demand for a new realist American foreign policy.
The first is rooted in dramatic shifts in power at the global, regional, and actor levels of analysis. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, foreign policy experts have been predicting that the United States’ days as global hegemon are coming to a close. China, they claim, will soon overtake the U.S. to become the world leader. True, the past decade has witnessed an unprecedented transfer of wealth and power roughly from West to East. It remains highly unlikely, however, that this movement signals the emergence of a new Chinese century. Rather than asking themselves which country will assume world leader status, foreign-policy observers ought to be asking themselves whether the concept of global hegemony still applies in our era. The world may no longer behold a single superpower or group of superpowers that brings order to international politics. Instead, it will have a variety of actors—including nations, multinational corporations, ideological movements, global crime and terror groups, and human rights organizations—jockeying with each other and exerting different kinds of power, mostly unsuccessfully, to achieve their goals. Defined by increasing numbers of power centers, of which none wields global authority or exerts constructive influence—where the power to block, disable, damage, and destroy has triumphed over the power to adopt, enable, repair, and build—the world is becoming more ungovernable than ever before.
The second factor is the creation of entirely new conditions of existence and thought as the result of modern scientific and technological advances. The sheer pace and volume of cross-border flows of just about everything, from capital, manufactured goods, people, greenhouse gases, weapons, drugs, information, and viruses has become a veritable fire hose, largely beyond the control of governments or any other authority, for that matter. Advances in technology and globalization continue, as they have in the past, to benefit disproportionately a small number of people in high technology and finance while undermining the middle classes, whose median incomes have been stagnating in real terms since the 1970s. In response, many Americans want an end to the cosmopolitan sympathies of their leaders, who see their main ethical imperative as working for the betterment of humanity in general. Taking a nationalist view, these Americans see such cosmopolitan-borderless loyalties as treasonous and want their leaders to put their own country and citizens first. Globalization and automation are tearing asunder the socioeconomic model that undergirded postwar prosperity and domestic social peace. Hence, we see the rise of political and economic nationalism consistent with Realism—which some confuse and conflate with populism. Whatever the next stage of capitalist development, it will surely challenge the foundations of both the global liberal order and many of its national pillars.
This highly competitive and tightly coupled world has been exerting unrelenting pressure on the United States and its citizens. It is not surprising, therefore, that economic nationalism resonates with middle and working-class Americans, who think that China, among other countries, has taken advantage of U.S. free-trade policies and lack of protection for domestic industries to steal jobs and manufacturing businesses that should be those of Americans. Broadly put, there exists sufficient compulsion in the United States’ external environment for its citizens to insist on narrowly self-interested foreign policies within an explicitly realist grand strategy—one that, in both its economic and security dimensions, unabashedly puts American interests first. Little wonder that they elected a billionaire businessman with highly touted deal-making skills, who, they believe, will fight as an economic nationalist to keep manufacturing jobs in this country rather than letting the vagaries of markets and globalization decide the fates of working class Americans.
More generally, the old rationale for America’s deep engagement with the world, which took hold in the wake of World War II and persisted through the Cold War, has been rejected by many Americans, who wonder why Uncle Sam needs to play such an outsize and, too often for their taste, “other-regarding” role on the world stage. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in April 2016, more Americans say the U.S. does too much (41%) than too little (27%) to solve world problems, with 28% saying it is doing about the right amount; and they are just as wary about U.S. participation in the global economy. “Nearly half of Americans (49%) say U.S. involvement in the global economy is a bad thing because it lowers wages and costs jobs; fewer (44%) see this as a good thing because it provides the U.S. with new markets and opportunities for growth.”
In short, Americans want an entirely new grand strategy – one that conforms with both the political economy and geopolitics of realism. With respect to foreign economic policy, realism puts a priority on promoting state power and national wealth; but this does not mean unqualified support for Big Government. To the contrary, to create jobs and accelerate national economic growth and prosperity, realists would support President Trump’s emphasis on competitive corporate taxes, repatriation of foreign earnings, a less burdensome regulatory environment, expanded domestic energy production, and trade deals that give U.S. companies a fair chance to compete. With respect to security, most self-described realists would similarly agree with Trump that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States should have turned European security over to the Europeans, not expanded NATO and ignored Russian interests, which risks driving Moscow closer to China. Consistent with these realist views, Americans are angry that the U.S. spends 4.6 percent of its GDP on defense, whereas its NATO allies in Europe spend 1.6 percent and Japan spends 1.0 percent. This strikes them as welfare for the rich at a time when the U.S. government considers draconian cuts in social spending to restore the United States’ fiscal health.
Indeed, Trump labels his foreign policy “principled realism”—a term coined by Robert Kaufman that attempts to square realism with idealism as a mechanism to make states behave in more principled ways. But his vision seems to fall more under the rubric of “offshore balancing”—a realist grand strategy first articulated by Christopher Layne that has been adopted over the years by many prominent realists, including John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, Barry Posen, Robert Pape, and Andrew Bacevich. Offshore balancing emphasizes that Washington, instead of policing the world, should encourage other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf, intervening itself only when necessary. Prescribing that the U.S. calibrate its military posture according to the distribution of power in the three key regions and allow regional forces to be its first line of defense should a potential regional hegemon emerge, the strategy of offshore balancing would preserve U.S. primacy far into the future and safeguard liberty at home.
The trick, however, is implementing the strategy—how to wean the world off of American power while avoiding a hard landing (e.g., regional arms races and intense security dilemmas). Even with the most skilled leadership, we can expect a very bumpy ride. With that in mind, the Center for Realist Foreign Policy will explore the following three dimensions of a new realist grand strategy for the United States:
- Goals: What are the goals of various competing grand strategies? How does each propose to advance: (i) the security and physical survival of the state; (ii) the sovereign independence of the state (including the freedom of its inhabitants to choose their own way of life and type of government); and (iii) the economic security of the state and the prosperity of its populace?
- Assessment: How do we score competing foreign policies and, more broadly, grand strategies? Realism itself offers three competing grand strategies: off-shore balancing, selective engagement, and primacy. How do they differ? How can we best assess their costs and benefits?
- Implementation: Good policies are important, but they are not sufficient. They must be put into practice. Yet, even the best policies can encounter implementation challenges. Consider, for instance, the grand strategy of “Off-shore Balancing.” Can the United States retreat from deep engagement without triggering intense regional security dilemmas and arms races in East Asia? In other words, can Washington avoid a hard landing as it weans the world off American military power? Moreover, once U.S. military forces go “over the horizon,” how difficult — if possible at all — would it be to bring them back on-shore should a threatening situation arise that cannot be handled solely by America’s regional allies?
The Program for the Study of Realist Foreign Policy is housed within The Ohio State University’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies—a world-renowned security institution with an outstanding administrative and professional staff that supports our programming.