Where antiexceptionalists are not partisans of the ideology of global citizenship and postnationalism, they stand ready to plant their flag inside the school of thought in international relations known as “realism.” Realism does not mean looking at the phenomena as they actually present themselves—for otherwise belief in a mission, which realists acknowledge to exist and so often decry, would be a part of their analysis of what moves states. Realism instead relies on a reconstituted “model” according to which the players in international affairs are posited to act on the basis of a calculation of their interest. Exactly what is included in a state’s interest is not as clear as many realists would have us believe, although they place the emphasis on the factor of maintaining and increasing power. But one point is beyond dispute: realism means conducting foreign affairs without any idea of a mission. Realism and mission are notions of antithetical inspiration.
Many realists add a coda in the form of an argument of “declinism,” which asserts that America’s capacity to project power in the world is now slipping. In the latest version, decline is said to result from the nation’s more limited economic resources, which derive from our indebtedness and budgetary constraints. The trend of decline cannot, or will not, be reversed. Accordingly, whatever some might wish for in terms of exercising global leadership, America can no longer afford to promote a mission in a robust sense. Americans must learn to think of themselves as more ordinary—that is, not exceptional—because they are more ordinary. A few in the realist camp lament this result, regarding it as a loss for America and for the world, but many applaud it, although usually concealing their glee beneath a veil of detached analysis. Realism is a cover for “triumphalist declinism”: blessed is the nation that is declining, it shall disinherit the earth.
Ceaser has thrown together two familiar caricatures of realists that aren’t compatible. Ceaser’s account of realism is incoherent. On the one hand, realists are interested in maintaining and increasing power rather than in pursuing a mission, but many of them are also supposedly interested in “triumphalist declinism” that happily presides over decreasing American power in the world. It is hegemonists that tend to throw around the label of declinist, and they pin it on anyone not dedicated to the most aggressive form of hegemonism, which is why they implausibly describe Obama this way. Ceaser’s description of realists seems to rely heavily on what hostile witnesses have to say about them. In fact, I cannot think of a single self-described realist whose views Ceaser has accurately described.
The claim about America’s capacity to project power is an empirical one, and it is informed by the experience of the last decade. Many, if not all, realists acknowledge that the U.S. is in relative decline, but they do not necessarily claim that the U.S. is doomed to suffer absolute decline. The first may be unavoidable, but the second does not have to be. Many of the recommendations that realist advocates of a foreign policy of restraint and prudence make are designed to husband American resources and power rather than frittering them away in a fruitless maintenance of hegemony.
Realists do not dismiss the role of ideology and beliefs in motivating political actors, but they do often object to allowing them to direct the making of foreign policy because of their potential to blind policymakers to inconvenient realities and potential risks. Realists also tend not to put much stock in ideological justifications for policies, because these justifications are most likely providing rhetorical and political cover for other reasons. They are also usually wary of justifying policies in ideological terms, because this makes it much more difficult to cut one’s losses in a war, reach necessary negotiated settlements with unsavory groups and regimes, or cooperate with regimes that do not share our political assumptions and values. A national missionary impulse can also lead the government to engage in conduct abroad that contradicts core American values on the grounds that the ends justify the means. If realists generally eschew the rhetoric and assumptions of a missionary foreign policy, they do so more because they regard the policies needed to carry it out to be too costly, too open-ended, and too disconnected from the security and well-being of the United States.
Realists may or may not subscribe to a view that America is exceptional in terms of its political institutions and values. I assume that most, if not all, realists do think that America is exceptional in this way. Indeed, if this all that the new enthusiasts of American exceptionalism meant by the phrase, no one would be arguing with them. What realists do tend to find obnoxious is the presumption and arrogance embedded in the hegemonist version of American exceptionalism. This version requires its adherents to identify American exceptionalism in terms of economic and military superiority and to make a point of disparaging other nations by comparison. What hegemonists mean by American exceptionalism is simply a form of hard-line nationalism and enthusiasm for global hegemony.