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Dean of the Realists

When the first issue of The National Interest was published in 1985, its editor, Owen Harries, proclaimed an affinity between realpolitik and conservatism. By this he meant that realism—a foreign policy that respected the primacy of self-interest as a motive and of power as a means in an anarchic international system—reflected a conservative temperament. After all, both realism and conservatism put “their stress on what is, rather than what should or might be.” Both “emphasize the importance of circumstance and are suspicious of abstract theory and general principles as bases for action.” And both are “aware of the intractability of things and the difficulties and dangers involved in attempting sweeping changes.”

For Harries, realism was not incompatible with the pull to incorporate moral principles into foreign policy; democratic values simply had to be treated as one among many interests. Looking back to George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1797, Harries pointed to the first president’s clear-eyed assertion that U.S. interests must not be compromised by “permanent alliances,” which in turn might undermine America’s diplomatic flexibility. Harries also reminded his readers that John Quincy Adams warned that freedoms at home would only be tarnished by wars abroad. In Adams’s words, America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Were she to “become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” Not for Harries any ideological crusades or grandiose plans for global social engineering.

Yet when the foreign-policy journal he edited was officially launched at the Sheraton Carlton (now St. Regis) in Washington on October 9, 1985, guests were a Who’s Who of leading neoconservatives, including Irving Kristol, editor of The Public Interest; former UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick; former chairman of Council of Economic Advisers Martin Feldstein; Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams; Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz; writers Gertrude Himmelfarb and Midge Decter; and the rising 35-year-old star columnist Charles Krauthammer. Writing in the Washington Post to mark the event, future Hillary Clinton confidante Sidney Blumenthal adjudged: “In an effort to influence the foreign-policy agenda, a group of neo-conservatives is rolling out what its members consider their ultimate weapon.”

Which raises a few questions. How could a realist magazine carry a torch for neoconservatism? Why would realists be in cahoots with the very writers whose ideological disposition came to define a war in Iraq that realists strongly opposed two decades later?

The answers lie in understanding that conservatives and neoconservatives alike supported an activist, assertive global policy in response to the geopolitical threat represented by the Soviet Union. By and large, the American right knew what it was and what it was about during the Cold War. But once the designated enemy collapsed, and the moral and strategic life-and-death struggle came to an end, things changed. Victory over Communism involved disorientation for conservatives. Harries called it “enemy deprivation syndrome.” In the absence of the Cold War’s zero-sum struggle between democratic freedom and totalitarian evil, there was no coherent worldview for the right, nor was there a larger sense of purpose. Without an overriding strategic and ideological foe, the conservative foreign-policy position was essentially up for grabs.

And so realists and neoconservatives clashed. For National Interest realists, the end of the Cold War signaled a reordering of priorities in favor of restraint, discrimination, and prudence. Foreign policy required cold-eyed calculation and a keen sense of the limits of power in a messy world that did not conform to American expectations. For neoconservatives, the collapse of the Soviet Empire represented the triumph of America’s mission. If foreign policy was not infused with some higher moral purpose, then the popular support necessary to export democracy and fulfill America’s destiny would not be forthcoming.

The first generation of neoconservatives—who in certain cases had migrated from Trotskyism to Cold War conservatism as the repressive nature of the Soviet Union became clear—gave way to a subsequent generation with different emphases. For the former, the lessons that followed from the unanticipated negative consequences of grand social engineering at home—think President Johnson’s Great Society—tempered their advocacy of imbuing U.S. foreign policy with moral content. Not so for their successors, however, among whom Irving Kristol’s son, Bill, was prominent. As Francis Fukuyama has explained, they instead took Cold War victory to mean that America should press on and impose a Pax Americana upon the world. This triumph of the unhesitant crusaders within neoconservatism widened the gulf between realism and neoconservatism: if America’s “unipolar moment” after the Cold War was a problem for realists, it was an opportunity for the neoconservatives.

In other words, the divergence between realist and neoconservative views that was on vivid display in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003 first became evident after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it was Harries, a Welsh-Australian intellectual, who became the leading realist critic of neoconservative foreign-policy thought in the decade leading up to the September 11 terrorist attacks. His views often attracted high praise from distinguished strategists. George Kennan was one. Another was Henry Kissinger: after Harries had written a National Review cover article in 1997 on the perils of containing China, for instance, the former secretary of state wrote, “I can’t remember when I have read an article in which I have agreed with every word. I am only sorry I didn’t write it myself, but I will plagiarise it liberally.”

Harries—whom I’ve known well for two decades—edited The National Interest from 1985 to 2001, and his tenure illustrates the relationship between Cold War realism (which liberals denounced as too harsh, selfish, and hawkish) and the smartest version of realism in the post-9/11 era (which neo-cons have deemed too accommodating, compromising, and dovish). As the magazine celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, it’s worth recalling that Harries’s brand of realism has not only been remarkably consistent but has also proved a useful corrective to the fog with which neoconservatism has shrouded American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.

Born in a South Wales mining valley in 1930, Harries was educated at the University of Wales and then Oxford, where he came under the influence of political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. In 1955, Harries and his wife Dorothy moved down under, where he accepted a position teaching political science at the University of Sydney. During the next few years this social democrat rapidly became a confirmed anti-communist as the intellectual life of Sydney divided into bitter argument over the Cold War. He also became a Burkean conservative, conscious that radical change can lead to loss as well as gain and is fraught with the danger of unintended consequences.

Unlike realists such as Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Walter Lippmann, Harries was an unapologetic cold warrior. This had more to do with his newly acquired Australianness than with any Kennedy-esque desire to “pay any price” for freedom. In the 1960s, Southeast Asia was the most unstable and violent region in the world. Indonesia—the largest state in the region and Australia’s nearest neighbor—had the third largest Communist Party on earth, and in 1965 the country only narrowly avoided succumbing to a Communist coup. Fear of the downward thrust of Communism was based on something more substantial than paranoia. From Australia’s standpoint, Harries believed, there was a compelling interest in keeping Washington committed to the region, which meant actively supporting U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

That may also explain why Harries and Irving Kristol got on famously in New York at the height of the conflict in 1968, when they met for the first time. They had both just had articles published in Foreign Affairs and, as Harries later wrote in a 1995 book of essays dedicated to Kristol, “Irving helped put me at ease by adopting the flattering fiction that the two articles were equally vital contributions to the intellectual life of Manhattan.” An enduring and greatly valued friendship had begun.

In 1975, after two decades in academia, Harries left the ivory tower—left, as he later put it, “with no regrets whatsoever, for the foolishness and cowardice of the American university scene had been faithfully copied in Australia.” He then went into the rough-and-tumble world of partisan politics in Canberra, where he was the senior foreign advisor in the center-right Liberal government of prime minister Malcolm Fraser (1975-83). In 1982-83, Harries came to the attention of the American right as Australia’s ambassador to UNESCO, an organization which he denounced, supporting the U.S. withdrawal. Thereafter, Kristol invited Harries to launch and run a new foreign-policy quarterly, backed by Michael Joyce and the conservative Olin Foundation. So The National Interest was conceived.

In 1985, that journal could be fairly characterized as a Cold War magazine, and notable contributors included Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Eliot Cohen and Michael Ledeen. Yet although the Cold War had united the right, Harries and co-editor Robert Tucker distinguished themselves from neoconservatives: “We’re both sort of Realpolitik chaps,” Harries told the Washington Times. By this, he meant that by and large The National Interest would see politics as a struggle for power and would shy away from moralistic attempts to sway other nations or the use of ideological criteria to judge them.

With the demise of Soviet Communism, Harries intended the journal to serve as a venue for debate on the future of conservative foreign policy. He allowed space not just for realists and neoconservatives but also for paleoconservatives such as Pat Buchanan to pick up George McGovern’s plea of “Come home, America.” Harries also examined the nature of the post-Cold War era more quickly, and in more lively fashion, than The National Interest’s two main rivals, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. In the summer of 1989, months before the Berlin Wall came down, Harries published a feature that hardly reflected his own realist principles: Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?”, an essay that heralded the universalization of liberal democracy. As Harries proudly recalled, it was an overnight sensation, giving rise to innumerable op-ed articles, translations into more than 20 languages, requests for copies from No. 10 Downing Street, and disparaging references in Mikhail Gorbachev’s speeches.

While the magazine had always welcomed a variety of conservative views—small-“l” liberals, Harries once quipped, had hardly any decent ideas about foreign policy in decades—its prevailing editorial position had been one of restrained and measured realism, which took account of the intractability of things, the limits of what most Americans were prepared to support, and what in the longer term other states would tolerate.

During the 1990s, Harries kept highlighting the changing circumstances of the post-Cold War world and America’s place in it. He was fond of quoting both John Maynard Keynes (“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”) and Edmund Burke (“He who does not take circumstances into consideration is not erroneous but stark mad”). With the collapse of Soviet Communism, the “facts” of the international scene had changed dramatically and the “circumstances” were conducive to a new way of looking at the world.

For Harries, the new era demanded a profound reassessment of foreign policy—a scaling down of commitments and a reordering of priorities in Washington. “If we spend 40 or 50 years saying the Cold War was a tremendously important event, a critical life-and-death struggle, then for Christ’s sake, the end of the Cold War must also be important,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1997. “You can’t say ‘Well, it’s finished but that doesn’t mean much; the world goes on pretty well as it is.’ When life-and-death struggles end, it is supposed to make a very large difference, and I think it has.”   

The message from Harries and like-minded contributors to the magazine, such as Andrew Bacevich, Michael Lind, Jonathan Clarke, and former Nixon-Ford-Carter cabinet secretary James Schlesinger, was clear: it was time for America to recognize that even a global hegemon, however “benign” and “indispensable,” is not immune to the historic tendencies of power politics, that other rising (and declining) great powers had legitimate interests to protect, and that democracy was “not an export commodity,” but a “do-it-yourself enterprise” that required special circumstances and conditions. That meant, among other things, opposing NATO expansion into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, ending the isolation of Castro’s Cuba, and keeping out of the civil war in Yugoslavia.

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Most neoconservatives disagreed. According to the likes of Robert Kagan—writing chiefly in Commentary in the early 1990s, then The Weekly Standard from 1995 onwards—anyone who argued for any scaling down of America’s commitments could not possibly be making a rational response to radically altered circumstances but was rather suffering from a collapse of confidence. So-called realists, charged another neoconservative, Joshua Muravchik, are really “neo-isolationists.” The only plausible foreign policy was to embrace American global leadership, which of course was another way of saying the U.S. is a “benign hegemon” or “indispensable nation.” Realists, on the other hand, had no qualms about using military force to protect vital interests, but their goal was—and remains—carefully attending to the balance of power and seeking to share initiative with other states.

All of this explains why Harries gave a qualified defense of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy. His point in a cover article for The New Republic in 1994 was that Clinton, bereft of serious purpose, had inadvertently provided a counter to the dangers associated with the kind of muscular Wilsonianism that characterized the writings of neoconservatives.

The argument was sound: although America’s armed forces were maintained at a high level, new commitments over and above the maintenance of existing alliances were scrutinized mercilessly and any undertakings were kept limited in time and scope. In the 1990s, the Pentagon often seemed more concerned with effective exit strategies than with implementing ambitious, open-ended foreign-policy projects, whether in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, or places entirely avoided, such as Rwanda.

By the time Harries retired as National Interest editor in the early 2000s, congressional Republicans were largely opposed to intervention in the Balkans. “We’ll have a foreign policy that is humble,” declared Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush in 2000. “By that, I mean … the country cannot try to impose our prescriptions on nations.” It looked like Harries’s brand of realism was making converts in Washington.

All that changed on 9/11. Outrage over the terrorist attacks, combined with the ideology of American exceptionalism and the mental habits of global hegemony, suddenly gave the American people and their political leaders a clear, overriding sense of mission, one that reflected the thinking of Krauthammer, Kagan, and Bill Kristol. In an instant, realists were on the back foot. The result was the Bush doctrine of aggressive unilateralism, pre-emption, and regime change in a world divided between good guys and bad guys, which culminated in the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Whereas a broad cross-section of Americans, especially rank-and-file Republicans, supported the “liberation” of Iraq, Harries voiced skepticism from the outset. “What would worry me about Iraq is what America would do after the downfall of Saddam Hussein,” he told the Sydney-based magazine Policy in March 2002, one year before the invasion. “To be responsible for a country of that size, and to put something together that would work with the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, would involve America in nation building, and I doubt it could be brought off successfully.” He was right. Iraq would show the limitations of America’s vast military power: its capacity to destroy was enormous; its ability to control what it had defeated much less so. And so America found itself wrong-footed by medieval warlords and sectarian thugs.

Clearly a rejection of realism remains ingrained in the consciousness of those who make U.S. foreign policy, even when the drift of events—as in the Clinton era, for example—leads them temporarily in the direction of restraint. Yet “the ultimate weapon of neo-conservatism,” as The National Interest was dubbed three decades ago, became something quite different thanks to Owen Harries and those who have followed in his spirit. If the American right or the foreign-policy community had likewise embraced Harries’s brand of realism at the turn of the century—a modest, measured, prudent, and discriminating response to national-security threats—the U.S. would have avoided the kind of foolish foreign adventures that have tarnished its prestige and credibility, and thus its ability to lead and persuade.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre and host of “Between the Lines” on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National.

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "Dean of the Realists"

#1 Comment By mohammad On November 23, 2015 @ 4:02 am

Thanks for this really insightful article.

#2 Comment By TB On November 23, 2015 @ 8:30 am

“… realism—a foreign policy that respected the primacy of self-interest as a motive and of power as a means in an anarchic international system—reflected a conservative temperament.”
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All foreign policies “respect the primacy of self-interest as a motive”. “Power as a means in an anarchic international system” is available to states in direct proportion to that state’s resources. Reality, despite the attempt to declare it so, is no more likely to be a poultice to “the conservative temperament” than it is to the ‘liberal’ one. If Owen Harries really conflated the two then he wouldn’t be a realist, he’d be a conservative. He’d be a man of faith who uses his own confirmation bias as his intuitive catechism to justify unsupported assertions. Those who are attracted to those assertions are just conservatives who have found a holy man.

Machiavelli, whom history has thoroughly rogered, had the courage, wisdom and detachment to advise his prince on what self-interest means to the state. His Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy remains a great gift to the reality-based community. Just ask Spinoza.

#3 Comment By Neil Whitmont On November 23, 2015 @ 11:41 pm

Pace “TB”, it simply isn’t true that “All foreign policies ‘respect the primacy of self-interest as a motive’.” Woodrow Wilson’s in 1918-1919, for example, did not. Which accounts for a good deal of how disastrous it was for the world.