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Foreign Policy ‘Realists’ Hit Nerve With Establishment Elite

In the September issue of Commentary, a magazine of distinguished lineage, there appears an essay bearing the title “Saving Realism from the So-Called Realists.” [1] Once upon a time, essays published by Commentary, penned by such eminences as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Hans Morgenthau, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Robert C. Tucker, shaped the debate over U.S. foreign policy. Those days have long since passed. If “Saving Realism” serves any purpose, it is to expose the intellectual exhaustion of the foreign-policy establishment. Those who fancy themselves the source of policy-relevant ideas have given up on actually thinking.

“Saving Realism” is the handiwork of Hal Brands and Peter Feaver, well-connected scholars employed by elite institutions. Brands teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and, according to his bio, has “consulted with a range of government offices and agencies in the intelligence and national security communities.” Feaver teaches at Duke University. During the George W. Bush administration, he served on the staff of the National Security Council. They are classic policy intellectuals, one foot planted in academe, the other in the corridors of power.

The chief purpose their essay is to mount a frontal assault on a group of individuals they deride as “academic realists.” Of course, when not occupying positions on the fringes of power, Brands and Feaver are themselves academics. Here, however, their use of the term drips with ridicule and condescension. “Academic” becomes a synonym for naïve or wooly-headed or simply irresponsible.  

To their credit, Brands and Feaver do not balk at naming names, fingering Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, and Christopher Layne, prominent political scientists, as dangerous proponents of academic realism.

Take the claims made by Brands and Feaver at face value and this Gang of Four poses a direct threat not only to U.S. national security but to the very possibility to creating a decent global order. “Today’s academic realists essentially argue,” they write, “that the United States should dismantle the global architecture that has undergirded the international order” ever since World War II. Academic realists seek “the deliberate destruction of arrangements that have fostered international stability and prosperity for decades.” They are intent on tearing down “the pillars of a peaceful and prosperous world.” They are, in short, a wrecking crew.

Brands and Feaver do not explain what motivates Walt et al., to undertake this nefarious plot, merely hinting that personal pique is probably a factor. “Having lost policy arguments that they thought they should have won,” on issues such as NATO expansion and invading Iraq, “academic realists decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” They are, in effect, soreheads.

For this reason alone, their critique of U.S. policy, suggesting that since the end of the Cold War the United States has squandered a uniquely advantageous position, is without merit. So too with their complaint that in recent decades the United States has misused its military power. What academic realists are actually proposing, Brands and Feaver charge, is to “stake everything on a leap into the unknown.” Their calls for greater restraint amount to little more than a pose. In reality, they advocate unvarnished recklessness.

Worse still, Brands and Feaver see worrisome signs that the Gang of Four is making headway. In Donald Trump’s White House academic realism “seems to be finding a sympathetic hearing.” Indeed, they write, “One of the least academic presidents in American history may, ironically, be buying into some of the most misguided doctrines of the ivory tower.”


This is pretty wild stuff. Let me acknowledge that I know each member of this Gang of Four and hold them in high regard. That said, whether individually or collectively, they wield about as much clout in present-day Washington as Karl Marx.

Indeed, the reader will search “Saving Realism” in vain for evidence actually linking the Gang of Four to President Trump. To my knowledge none of the four are Trump supporters. I am unaware of any of them having endorsed the policies of the Trump administration. As for Trump himself, my bet is that he could care less about anything Walt, Mearsheimer, Posen, and Layne have to say. If our president has absorbed the Gang of Four’s policy perspective, he must be doing it by osmosis.

In short, the case presented by Brands and Feaver comes precariously close to being a McCarthyite smear—guilt by association without even establishing that any association actually exists.

To which the average American citizen, tested by the trials of everyday life, might well respond: Who cares? An intramural tiff among privileged members of the professoriate might merit a panel at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. But should it qualify as a matter of general interest?

In one specific sense, perhaps it ought to. While it may not be their intended purpose, by mounting their overheated attack on “academic realism,” Brands and Feaver succeed in demonstrating why genuine realism rarely receives a serious hearing inside the Beltway. The answer is simply this: Especially since the end of the Cold War, reality itself is impinging on the prerogatives to which members of the American foreign-policy establishment have grown accustomed and to the arrangements that sustain those prerogatives. It therefore becomes incumbent upon scholars who serve that establishment to deflect such threats. They do so by contriving a “reality” conducive to affirming existing prerogatives and arrangements.

Brands and Feaver do their very best to conjure up such a “reality.” Having established to their own satisfaction that Trump and the Gang of Four are somehow colluding with each other, they offer their own prescription for a “reformed realism” to be built on “seven bedrock insights.”

The seven insights share this common quality: They are unflaggingly banal. Yet the last of the seven manages to be both banal and immensely instructive: Realism, Brands and Feaver write, “requires not throwing away what has worked in the past.”

Here we come to the heart of the matter. What exactly is the “the past” that remains relevant to the present and that provides the basis for their version of authentic (as opposed to academic) realism?

On this point, Brands and Feaver, are admirably candid. The only past that matters is the Cold War, carefully curated as a narrative of American triumphalism. Anything that happened before the Cold War qualifies as irrelevant. Cold War episodes that turned out to be less than triumphal—Vietnam, for example—receive the barest acknowledgment. As for misfortunes that may have befallen the United States since the Cold War ended almost three decades ago, Brands and Feaver shrug them off as insignificant. Sure, “the invasion and occupation of Iraq did prove far costlier than expected.” But so what? Stuff happens!

Rather than get hung up on Iraq or Afghanistan or the ongoing debacle of U.S. interventionism in the Islamic world, Brands and Feaver keep their focus on the early Cold War, which they depict as a veritable Golden Age of realism and by extension of American statecraft. Peppering their account are favorable references to “Cold War-era realism” and “Cold War realists.” After World War II, “realist thinkers understood that America was uniquely capable of stabilizing the international order and containing Soviet power.” Back then, serious realists—in contrast to today’s academic types—were the very inverse of wooly-headed. “Cold War realists were willing to see the world as it was,” according to Brands and Feaver.  “During the Cold War, then, realism was a supple, nuanced doctrine.”

Stripped to its essentials, their argument reduces to a brazen tautology: Approaches to policy that worked during the Cold War will work today because they worked during the Cold War. Of course, the argument presumes that the world in which we live today is more or less comparable to the world that existed back in the Forties and Fifties. As to how the supple, nuanced doctrine advanced by realists during that Golden Age yielded such dubious propositions as bipolarity, the domino theory, and the bogus enterprise known as nuclear strategy, Brands and Feaver are conveniently silent.

“Contemporary academic realists,” Brands and Feaver charge, “sit atop a pyramid of faulty assumptions.” They themselves require no such pyramid. Their version of realism rests on just a single assumption: That history is a menu from which Americans can pick and choose. To escape from currently bothersome predicaments, in no small part the product of our folly, Brands and Feaver would have the United States choose from that menu only those bits that we find congenial.  The rest we can simply ignore.

Come to think of it, that’s an approach that might find favor with Donald Trump himself.

Andrew J. Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large.

29 Comments (Open | Close)

29 Comments To "Foreign Policy ‘Realists’ Hit Nerve With Establishment Elite"

#1 Comment By WorkingClass On September 20, 2017 @ 12:19 am

Never heard of Hal Brands and Peter Feaver. Probably will never hear of them again.

It’s just as well.

Turd polishers in service to war mongers.

#2 Comment By Jones On September 20, 2017 @ 1:39 am

Aah, such a sharp pen. I hope to be like this someday.

#3 Comment By KD On September 20, 2017 @ 7:00 am

In a land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

Ergo, it is necessary to kill the men with two eyes.

#4 Comment By Christian Chuba On September 20, 2017 @ 7:08 am

Time to take a deep breath and not ramble. If we examine the period since the Cold War, all 35yrs of it. How would one conclude that Pax Americana produced a Golden Age?
Okay … let’s toss out Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya as outliers even though they were major foreign policy initiatives, what’s left, Bosnia / Kosovo? I’d hardly call that a rousing success, Kosovo is a haven for criminals and Muslim extremists and we violated international law but we did enforce Pax Americana.

Pax Americana is about power, power is a drug and it’s addictive, the Crack Monkeys can’t put it down. We aren’t Exceptional, we are just like any other addict.

#5 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 20, 2017 @ 9:39 am

“Bedrock principles”? The delusional, hitting bottom. The disasters that await, are reminiscent of what happened when militarists purged Japan’s policymakers of those who warned about imperial overreach in 1930s Japan.

The enduring lessons learned from the Cold War arc aren’t the ones most of us were taught and believed in, but that permanent threat inflation was very, very good for the growing ascendancy of the military-industrial-financial complex that now rules us and overrules the realists – the redoubtable Andrew Bacevich included.

Applying Maynard Keynes’ economic maxim in regards to inflation, this is a policy in which in the long run we are all dead.

#6 Comment By Scott On September 20, 2017 @ 10:17 am

Use of the McCarthy modifier is misleading. “Guilt by association without even establishing that any association actually exists,” might comprise a smear — but without the accompanying public ridicule, the terror of being drug before Congressional kangaroo court interrogators under the bright lights of embarrassing exposure, and then punished with long-term permanent and career-ending retribution — there is no McCarthyism.

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 20, 2017 @ 11:38 am

Brands and Feaver are water-carriers for the interventionist foreign policy establishment. They attack President Trump because Trump ran on a less-interventionist, more-realist foreign policy platform and because – even with Trump’s frequent foreign policy mistakes – Trump is still working to bring more national-interest-driven realism in US foreign policy.

You claim, Professor Bacevich, that “the chief purpose of [the Brands-Feaver] essay is to mount a frontal assault on a group of individuals they deride as ‘academic realists’.” That’s a ridiculous claim. In their entire, rambling, 4,900-word essay Brand and Feaver can come up with the names of only five academic foreign policy realists who they deem worthy of criticism – and only one of the five, Randall Schweller, is accused of being an actual “Trump supporter.”

Lord knows that Donald Trump – as a candidate and as President — has desperately needed the input and guidance of US foreign policy realists. But nearly the entire academic realist flock has flown up in the trees – has gone AWOL — and has refused to offer their services to the President, or to help him in any way at all. Not just gone AWOL, but gone full-bore anti-Trump! From your safe-and-secure positions in academia you, Professor Bacevich, and other foreign policy realists have looked after your career ambitions by sniping relentlessly at President Trump. You have not only offered criticism of his foreign missteps — valid criticisms that he needed to hear – but you have de facto joined the project of those neocons and liberal interventionists who want to reverse the results of the November election and to bring this president down.

To all of you timid, careerist, US foreign policy realists in academia I offer this excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena,” speech delivered on April 23, 1910 at the Sorbonne in Paris:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

#8 Comment By Russell Haas On September 20, 2017 @ 12:58 pm

Would whomsoever who created the caption for this article cease and desist from smearing a ‘long dead white male’ (a.k.a. Sen. Joseph McCarthy), and be banned from future editorializing until he has completely read “Blacklisted by History” by M. Stanton Evans, the definitive work on the late Senator?

#9 Comment By Mark Thomason On September 20, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer committed the ultimate inside the Beltway sin of exposing the Israel Lobby in their book of that name. For that reason, they will forever be hated targets of those who serve the Israel Lobby. It does not matter what else they say or are.

#10 Comment By Centralist On September 20, 2017 @ 1:33 pm

To Kurt
Unlike our current President, Prof Bacevich served in Vietnam as a combat officer. He retired as a Colonel and had a son that served in Iraq. I think it is a strong man pointing out something others should be aware. Though Trump never got a STD which was his Vietnam. His words

#11 Comment By Michael Kenny On September 20, 2017 @ 1:36 pm

Essentially, both the article and Mr Bacevich’s commentary on are about Ukraine, indicating the centrality of Ukraine to current US foreign policy. Neither side seems to dispute that Ukraine’s present problems with Putin flow from earlier US wrongdoing. The debate seems to be between those who argue that, having got Ukraine into its present mess, the US should now leave it to sink or swim by its own devices and those who think the US has an obligation, whether based on morality or on practical politics, to right the wrong done to Ukraine by getting Putin out of Ukraine’s sovereign territory, one way or another. Underlying all of that is the US campaign to destroy what we now call the EU, which goes back at least as far as Kissinger’s arrival at the State Department in 1973. My reading of the facts is that, at the time of the Ukrainian coup, Putin was a neocon, and maybe also CIA, “asset “intended to serve as a battering ram to break up the EU and a bogey man to frighten the resulting plethora of more or less defenceless “statelets” to cower under US protection. Putin made a mess by invading Ukraine and the question now is what to do about him. The real debate is thus between advocates of US global hegemony as to how best to promote that cause. One side sees Putin’s being allowed to win in Ukraine (and he cannot win unless the US capitulates) as destroying US hegemony and gives destroying Putin priority over destroying the EU. The other side seems to think that, having committed itself to Putin, abandoning him now will do more damage to US global hegemony that letting him win, so they try to prop him up come hell or high water. Thus, the whole debate is shadow boxing, which is probably why it’s so irrational on both sides and so many of the arguments sound like mere pretexts designed to conceal a hidden agenda. The argument isn’t about “America First” or “non-intervention”, it’s about how best to promote US global hegemony and, in particular, how best to destroy a dangerous rival: the EU.

#12 Comment By MEOW On September 20, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

A good article about two unknowns. At least for me. It avoids the obvious. Why not say who these historic drivers are and what they actually represent. One can guess? Time to start naming names.

#13 Comment By Austin On September 20, 2017 @ 2:34 pm

“As for Trump himself, my bet is that he could care less about anything Walt, Mearsheimer, Posen, and Layne have to say.”

“could care less”… how did this mangled, means-the-opposite, usage slip into a reputable publication?

#14 Comment By c matt On September 20, 2017 @ 2:40 pm

I was going to say, in many (if not most) cases, wasn’t McCarthy actually correct?

(is it just me, or does this webpage get wonky?)

#15 Comment By Theodore Whitfield On September 20, 2017 @ 4:28 pm

“Stripped to its essentials, their argument reduces to a brazen tautology: Approaches to policy that worked during the Cold War will work today because they worked during the Cold War.”

That’s not a “tautology”. A tautology is something that is true simple by virtue of the meaning of the words: for instance, saying “All bachelors are unmarried.” This is true because by definition bachelors are unmarried. You can argue that Brands and Feaver are wrong, or simplistic, but you can’t claim that this is a “tautology”.

#16 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 20, 2017 @ 5:05 pm

To Centralist (at 1:33 pm): Andrew Bacevich’s long and distinguished military service – and, indeed, his many other services to his country — put him in rare company. I would add that the loss that the Bacevich family suffered as a result of the Iraq War is a loss that I, as father and grandfather, cannot imagine having to try to come to terms with. None of these matters are at issue here.

#17 Comment By Ed On September 20, 2017 @ 7:10 pm

I guess this is a practice run for a later article that might have more scope. Nobody cares about Feaver and Brands, but Internet journalism usually has to do with ephemera. Later on, perhaps, we come to see the little quarrels as part of a larger picture.

Now for the grammar: [2]. These things are fluid. Maybe in fifty years the meaning of the word “tautology” will have broadened as well.

#18 Comment By Clyde Schechter On September 20, 2017 @ 7:53 pm

The dictionary definition of a delusion is: an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that neoconservatism is a mental illness.

#19 Comment By Panayiotis Ifestos On September 21, 2017 @ 4:25 am

It is regretful, a quarter of a century after the cold war, a period during which ideological / idealists views were blown up killing millions, to read papers which attack validated value free descriptive theory which may help states move through the minefield of a multi-polar international system. Thucydidean axioms and value free description provides a valid orientation for rational decision-making. This as long as we live, that is, rather forever, because the world is composed of many societies, many states of unequal size, strength and development and because in such a world the only rational orientation is balance of power and interests. Anything else brings irrationality, instability and war and as a policy-making advise is highly dangerous.

#20 Comment By Sid Finster On September 21, 2017 @ 11:22 am

@Christian Chuba

Not only that, but power is to sociopaths what cocaine is to addicts.

#21 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 21, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

@ Panayiotis Ifestos (4:25 a.m.):

(1) I don’t understand your comment.

(2) Are you the same Panayiotis Ifestos who wrote “European Political Cooperation: towards a framework of supranational diplomacy?” (1987) and “Nuclear Strategy And European Security Dilemmas: Towards An Autonomous European Defence System? “ (1988)?

#22 Comment By b. On September 21, 2017 @ 3:21 pm

One observation: cold, hard realism would lead to the admission that the US has in fact become the dominant force behind sweeping attempts to “dismantle the global architecture that has undergirded the international order” and indeed seeks “the deliberate destruction of arrangements that have fostered international stability and prosperity for decades.”

US foreign policy, from Clinton’s opportunist interventions in the Balkans over explicit Russian warnings onwards, culminating in illegal, aggressive invasion of Iraq, has done more than any Chinese “island building” to undermine not just a dozen-plus nations and their sovereign power, but the very concept of the nation state as evolved from the peace of Westphalia. US actions since the end of the Cold War – and during, see Korea, Vietnam – have undermined international (and constitutional) law and order, with increasing impunity and correspondingly escalating idiocy. North Korea is but one example of the deep-time blowback of US interventionism and meddling, Iran is but another.

This leads to a much more succinct diagnosis of the politics of the Brands/Feaver screed. Their calls for greater, conservative restraint, for continuing the foreign policy business as usual, amount to little more than a pose. In reality, they project their own past and present advocacy of unvarnished recklessness on the “emerging peer competitors” in academia. It is the ivory tower urinal version of the same sleazy and self-destructive political smears that Karl Rove employed as tactical “inoculation” against his targets in primary and election campaigns: accuse your opponent of your own motivations, attempting turn the strong points of their position into weaknesses at the same time. It would take a neocon to claim that, now that radical departure from the past has created a “new reality”, it would of course be the very opposite of “conservatism” to revert or otherwise depart from such change formerly known as “radical”.

Why, Obama made an eight year career out of that carefully “moderated” posture of “considered” moderation, strenuously looking “forward not backward”. It is the neolib pawl to the neocon gear of the US foreign policy ratchet.

#23 Comment By Moi On September 21, 2017 @ 3:21 pm

Forget Mearsheimer and Walt–Read gutsy Alison Weir!

#24 Comment By herme On September 21, 2017 @ 3:45 pm

It is curious indeed that they would label their new doctrine “realism” when it is nothing of the sort. I would humbly offer the title “postrealism” as a better fit to their intellectually incoherent position.

#25 Comment By Trey CupaJoe On September 21, 2017 @ 4:02 pm

As one thoughtful academic realist once opined,

“The enemy of realism is hubris,…which finds expression in an outsized confidence in the efficacy of American power as an instrument to reshape the global order.”

#26 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 21, 2017 @ 7:01 pm

“That’s not a “tautology”. A tautology is something that is true simple by virtue of the meaning of the words: for instance, saying “All bachelors are unmarried.” This is true because by definition bachelors are unmarried.”

The author and I don’t agree on several issues. For example, I think there is merit in the complaint that many ‘realists” spent more time maligning Candidate and Pres Trump than seeking to advise him or influence his policies.

However, if in fact one claims a thing is true because it is true as these gentlemen in question seem to do — that is a tautology, circular reasoning.

Furthermore it’s fallacy of composition and false comparison. It draws conclusions from eras which are in no manner similar or at least dissimilar enough that one needs to reference specific links. The failure to do so is a failure of composition, ignoring the distinctions of difference.

First year philosophy, argumentation, and rhetorical studies courses teach these basics.

The cold war minus the soviet state as superpower in a global contest is not the cold war. So making a claim that what worked in that climate would work now because it worked then ignores some basic factors distinguishing the two.

There’s a lot of discussion concerning fallacies or whether there are any fallacies in reasoning at all. But in the case of a fallacy it need not be true or accurate to be a fallacy. tautologies rest on the arguments logical structure, not the content.
Now if one examined the case alone (the cold war), I think it might be a fair assessment that not much worked during the cold war. The Soviets ran out of money. And we had no idea.

Tearing down the wall came as a complete shock, even to the experts.

Side note; I recently purchased — ‘Washington Rules’

It is one of three books I dread reading because I know what’s coming. Knowledge bring’eth much grief says the Ecclesiastes.

#27 Comment By Kathleen Christison On September 22, 2017 @ 12:33 pm

Commentary may once have been a magazine of distinguished lineage, but the descendants long ago changed their coat. Nowadays, since Commentary became a mouthpiece for the neocons and while they are still very much abroad, criticism from Commentary should be regarded as a high compliment. And consider Commentary’s sources: one teaches at SAIS, a neocon hotbed and breeding ground, and the other was on W’s NSC. Neither is the mark of a truly realistic, unbiased intellectual or policy official.

#28 Comment By Delia Ruhe On September 23, 2017 @ 4:24 am

It’s exactly the kind of Cold War nostalgia expressed by Brands and Feaver that drives Trump’s MAGA rhetoric.

So who is it that’s colluding with Trump?

#29 Comment By Robert Trujillo On September 23, 2017 @ 12:43 pm

“…reality itself is impinging on the prerogatives to which members of the American foreign-policy establishment have grown accustomed and to the arrangements that sustain those prerogatives.” Those prerogatives come with a horrendous cost in lives, treasure, and lost of moral standing. The reality borders on War Crimes.