At no time since the Vietnam War has there has been greater domestic discontent with American foreign policy. Large numbers of voters tell pollsters they will vote primarily to express opposition to the Iraq War. Bookstore tables display scores of foreign-policy works. Political talking-head shows of every kind feature debates about America’s stance in the world.

Yet paradoxically, this debate seems not to have reached the levels of real political power in Washington. Inside the Beltway, dissent over Iraq is usually framed as dissatisfaction with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s pre-war planning: if Hillary Clinton or a similarly tough-minded Democrat were in charge, preventive wars would be managed more carefully. The Democratic Leadership Council, perhaps the most important foreign-policy faction within the party, has rallied behind liberal hawks like Paul Berman and Peter Beinart, who prescribe policies not noticeably different from the neoconservative architects of the Iraq War.

Surveying this scene, one might conclude that there exists no alternative to the current consensus, or at least none beyond a Left whose critique of American power has been so constant and predictable since 1947 that it is easily passed over. (The semi-isolationist Old Right is even less visible.) The political center of both parties not only accepts that preventive war against Muslim states should be central to America’s strategy against terrorism, it embraces the corollary that the United States uniquely embodies a kind of absolute good in the world that other countries can’t begin to match.

This last belief, which has both Christian and secular versions, makes it impossible for Americans to see themselves and their policies as others might see them, a prerequisite for competent diplomacy. It has now seeped into almost every foreign-policy area.

One typical example is cited in Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman’s timely and important new book, Ethical Realism. Earlier this year a bipartisan task force chaired by John Edwards and Jack Kemp explored American relations with Russia. About one essential thing the class-warrior Democrat and über-free-marketeer Republican and the Russia experts they tapped were in complete agreement: American policies toward Russia have been entirely blameless during the 15 years since Gorbachev, and difficulties that have arisen in current relations are entirely the fault of Russia’s leaders.

This sensibility, rather than specific misguided Bushian policies, is the main target of Ethical Realism. The authors resurrect and seek to revive an alternate philosophy—one radically different and yet seemingly close at hand—the kind of centrism embodied in the foreign-affairs leadership of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and represented philosophically by such realists as diplomat George Kennan, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and scholar Hans Morgenthau. It is sad to recognize that this style of thinking about and acting in the world—one that guided the stunningly successful American reconstruction of the West after World War II and led to victory over communism without a nuclear cataclysm—is about as far removed from today’s Washington as the Han Dynasty.

The policies of the realists are familiar to most. Containment, set out in Kennan’s famous “long telegram” of 1946, recast American establishment attitudes towards Stalin’s Russia and became the lodestar for Washington’s political and economic policies to block further communist advances. Containment always had its enemies on the Left and Right—those who didn’t consider communism a threat and those who wanted Washington to press its nuclear advantage before the Russians caught up. Truman had to face down Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who wanted to use nuclear weapons against China during the Korean War. Once elected, Eisenhower had to marginalize the substantial “rollback” faction within the GOP. Pressed to use our nuclear advantage against Moscow, Ike asked, “What would we do with Russia if we should win a global war? … The colossal job of occupying … [it] would be far beyond the resources of the United States…”—the kind of question never considered by the current president.

Eisenhower’s views were shaped by firsthand experience of war but indirectly by the ways the American establishment thought, which Lieven and Hulsman label “ethical realism.” Kennan outlined its diplomacy, but its ethical view came from Reinhold Niebuhr, the Midwesterner who became American Protestantism’s leading theologian. Niebuhr was troubled about the messianic streak in the American consciousness and counseled listeners—who included much of the American political and journalistic establishment—that “pretensions of virtue are as offensive to God as the pretensions of power.” Hans Morgenthau, the German Jewish refugee who became the nation’s foremost academic realist scholar, likewise warned that “equation between a particular nationalism and the counsels of Providence is morally indefensible for it is the very sin of pride against which the Greek tragedians and the Biblical prophets warned rulers and the ruled … liable to engender the distortion in judgment which, in the blindness of crusading frenzy, destroys nations and civilizations.”

These men, along with dozens of others—key architects of containment and, later, often opponents of the Vietnam War—fashioned a statecraft that attempted to combine both moral principle and the national interest, trying to remain mindful man himself is imperfect.

The authors explicate major tenets of ethical realism—prudence, which Edmund Burke called the first ranking of political and moral virtues; national humility; responsibility, the notion that good intentions (“spreading freedom”) do not excuse political leaders from the consequences of their actions; and the study of other countries, which Morgenthau considered a central ethical command. The quip by anti-Vietnam war activist Daniel Ellsberg—that no senior American official in the early ’60s could have passed a freshmen midterm in Vietnamese history—remains true today about Iraq, Iran, and much of the Muslim world. Lieven and Hulsman’s ethical realists speak for themselves, and they are repositories of the collected wisdom of the West, from St. Augustine through Burke and Max Weber.

Much of this book consists of sharp and fresh polemic, pointing out the ways the administration has ignored every positive lesson and successful policy American statesmen adopted during the Cold War. The authors also provide prescriptions, some of which would advance the Washington debate well beyond its current, tired parameters. For example, it may not seem practical for the United States to push a Mideast peace settlement that grants European Union membership to both Israel and Palestine. But it is visionary, and perhaps no more so than the construction of the European Common Market itself was in the years after World War II.

This book is a collaboration between Right and Left, in micro terms a sort of counter-synthesis to the alliance between the Bush administration and the Democratic Leadership Council. Hulsman is a Republican, and before this book made such an association untenable, a leading scholar at the right-wing Heritage Foundation. Lieven, with the New America Foundation, is the highly acclaimed author of America Right or Wrong. Their collaboration is not surprising: there is now a good deal of ideological cross-pollination among scholars and analysts alarmed by the Bush foreign policy, most of it going on at a levels that don’t influence policy. (The Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy is an institutional example.)

The Iraq War may be the greatest blunder of Bush’s new un-realism, but it was a blunder with a long wind-up. Lieven and Hulsman shrewdly quote from British diplomat Jonathan Clarke’s nearly six-year-old review in The National Interest of a foreign-policy book edited by Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan. Clarke accused the two of perusing the world, looking for trouble spots America could throw gasoline on. If all the Kristol/Kagan prescriptions were implemented, he concluded, the U.S. would risk fighting a five-front war with no allies at all.

But however easily ridiculed, the mentality embodied by Kristol and Kagan advanced, while the realism sketched out by Lieven and Hulsman lost ground. It may have only been a matter of time before Kagan and Kristol found an administration ready to take up much of their advice.

There is likely an explanation for this in what might be called the marketing of political ideas: how some become dominant and others fall by the wayside. Lieven and Hulsman don’t address it, and the subject may be too complicated for treatment in a short volume. But how did realism become a submerged, almost dissident philosophy amongst American elites, and how did its opposite triumph so completely? Unless one chalks it up simply to the historical caprice of the Bush presidency combined with 9/11, one must consider the motivations of major donors and the myriad factors that determine the acceptable limits of what people in think tanks think. If powerful Americans think differently about the world than they did in the late 1940s and 1950s, an explanation should be sought.

America will soon gear up for another presidential season, and candidates will seek out expertise in areas where they and their staffs are inexperienced. It would be wonderful for the country if leading presidential contenders were to pursue the kind of knowledge and sensibility Lieven and Hulsman convey in this short book and, even better, internalize its lessons. But the chances of that are, sadly, less than overwhelming.