Friday, August 28, 2009

Debating Paul Wolfowitz: Realism, Neoconservatism, and Foreign Policy

Paul Wolfowitz, who was Deputy Secretary of Defense in the G.W. Bush administration, has published a great essay in the new Foreign Policy, "Think Again: Realism."

I'm not critical of Wolfowitz, naturally. He avoids, at the article, a discussion of the Iraq war, which is totally understandable. Critics of the war, both realists and political leftists, will always say the war was a mistake and that the Bush administration lied to get into it. All subsequent milestones, and the ultimate successes, will be explained away by some twisted logic that utlimately aids and encourages our enemies. As things are now, the current counterinsurgency doctrines of the Obama administration may well make things worse than they were in Iraq than in late 2008, in the final months of the Bush presidency. So, yeah, I can understand why Wolfowitz would rather focus on a more abstract discussion with people who essentially hate him and would like to see him hang at that Hague.

The article has generated a response at Foreign Policy, from Stephen Walt, David Rothkopf, Daniel Drezner, and Steve Clemons. The first three are bloggers at, and Clemons is the gay hard-left publisher of the Washington Note. Check their contributions at "Is Paul Wolfowitz for Real?"

Walt's is the most partisan, and I'll leave that for readers to examine. Rothkopf seems to go off in every direction. He doesn't like political science, it appears, and I wonder why the editors asked him to contribute to this debate. Clemons writes a decent - even fair - piece. It's worth a look. But
Drezner offers what I think is the clearest dissection of Wolfowitz's essay:

As I was reading Paul Wolfowitz's essay on Obama and realism, I kept thinking, "there's realism and then there's Realism."

Small "r" realism consists of a recognition that there are some unpleasant truths in world politics that must be acknowledged if one is going to pursue a prudent foreign policy. If a government amasses significant capabilities or acts aggressively, it will tend to trigger balancing coalitions. International institutions are often feckless and hypocritical. Forcible regime change is really, really hard. Implacable hostility to powerful actors with different ideologies won't work terribly well. Power is a relative measure and a resource that should be husbanded for important matters of state. You get the idea.

Big "R" Realism is a theoretical paradigm that makes certain assumptions about what drives powerful actors in world politics, and derives interesting predictions (and occasional prescriptions) from those assumptions. Many of these predictions match up with small "r" realism (balancing behavior, useless international institutions, etc.). Many go beyond them, however. According to Realism, regime type is unimportant in explaining world politics. The democratic peace is a mirage. Strong states are better at foreign policy. Not all Realists agree on everything, but they agree on some big and not obvious things, and they all seem to publish in International Security an awful lot (don't aske me to parse out the difference between defensive realists, neoclassical realists, structural realists, and offensive realists; if you do, well, I'm going to have this kind of reaction).

The difference between the two "realisms" is one of purpose. Small "r" realism is a set of guidelines for real, live policymakers, and is intended to foster prudence. Big "R" Realism is intended to be more provocative to the point of caricature -- i.e., to the point where Realists might have little difficulty incorporating zombies into their paradigm. It is certainly possible to be both. Behind closed doors, I have heard big "R" Realists proffer small "r" realist prescriptions that might contradict the academic paradigm. In public, it's funny how Realists who believe that anarchy and the distribution of power are the only things that matter nevertheless rail against the pernicious influence of ethnic lobbies.
That last line is a jab at Walt and his co-author John Mearsheimer, and their book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (see the original aticle from the London Review of Books, "The Israel Lobby").

I'll have more on this later.


courtneyme109 said...

Dr Wolfowitz scored a direct hit! Changing the nature of states is way more preferable than -- say -- Dr Walt's innate fear of 'bowback' and Clauswitzian 'friction'. Walt's isolationist wing of the realisms cult of irrevelance honestly seems to want America to be bound up in any endeavors to maintain oparity with Russia and China