First, it is nonsense to claim, as Drezner does, that realists “don’t give a flying fig about promoting ‘American values’ overseas.” This caricature of realism and realists is routinely peddled by their critics but has little basis in fact. Realists understand well that perceptions are important in shaping international power and influence and, as a result, that policies disconnected from our values diminish the United States and weaken its ability to lead. Moreover, they recognize that such policies are not politically sustainable in America and are therefore impractical and—wait for it!—unrealistic. Ivory-tower academics with no responsibility for formulating or executing policy may think otherwise, but I expect that few involved in actual foreign-policy decisions would agree. The real question, which Drezner ignores, is not whether to advance our values, but how to advance our interests and values most effectively.
It would help if Saunders provided an example of what he means by “policies disconnected from our values.” Certainly, the torture regime under the previous administration was contrary to what almost all Americans understand to be “our values” as well as being in violation of international law, and there’s no doubt that the use of torture on detainees marred America’s reputation in the world. Indefinite detention and ordering the killing of U.S. citizens without the possibility of judicial review or due process are also “policies disconnected from our values,” but they unfortunately seem quite politically sustainable in America, and domestic opposition to both of these practices seems to be limited and thus far ineffective. Are the security relationships that the U.S. has with various Central Asian, Arab, and African authoritarian governments “policies disconnected from our values”? Perhaps so. However, these seem to be not only “politically sustainable,” but extremely difficult to change.
Drezner was overstating the case, but it wouldn’t be unfair or a “caricature” to say that realists generally prioritize advancing U.S. interests in policy-making over other considerations, and they are more likely to recognize and accept that advancing U.S. interests will involve failing to advance “values” in dealings with many other states around the world. The two are always in tension, and realists tend to place more value on securing concrete interests. As Scoblete said a few days ago:
But this is because realists recognize that the world is not an ideal place and that the concerns of dissidents, however legitimate, always have to be weighed against U.S. interests and America’s capability to actually effect the change these dissidents want to see. If all that was required to change China’s human rights record was more U.S. hectoring and lecturing, it would have happened already.
Realists do understand that perceptions are important. As a result, they can be more attentive to the way that other nations perceive U.S. policies, which is why they are often less interested in picking fights with other states over their internal affairs, which the U.S. often has very little ability to influence in any case. They may also be more cautious about endorsing provocative policies that will cause other states to take counter-measures detrimental to the interests of the U.S. and allied and client governments. Realists are less likely to dismiss or ignore other states’ interests, and they tend to take other states’ perceptions of their interests into account when recommending what the U.S. should do on specific issues. Some of the time, the administration seems capable of doing that, as it has to some extent on Russia policy, and in its dealings with some other states (e.g., Iran) it seems oblivious.
Update: Trombly has a good response to Saunders’ arguments here.