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Foreign Policy ‘Realists’ Hit Nerve With Establishment Elite

Attack on Mearsheimer and others comes perilously close to a McCarthyite smear.

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.”  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.