The Case for Realism

There’s been a fair amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth within the liberal blogosphere over the New York Times’ decision to hire William Kristol as a weekly columnist. The liberals’ dismay was, in turn, gleefully noted by conservative bloggers, generating still more grist for countless mills.

For my part, I thought this Tom Tomorrow cartoon captured quite nicely the crux of Mr. Kristol’s unsuitability for the job.

But just when I thought that the subject had pretty much been beaten to death, Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt offered up an incisive critique of the Times’ decision. In particular, Walt’s suggestion that the Times (or any major American newspaper for that matter) should provide space for foreign policy realists deserves serious consideration.

As Walt notes, realism has a long and proud tradition in American foreign policy, is the dominant point of view within the academy today, especially among international relations scholars, and yet it is seriously under-represented in the pages of major newspapers.

The best case to be made, however, is that, as Walt writes “realism’s track record as a guide to foreign policy is quite impressive, especially when compared to the neocons’ catalog of blunders.” He continues:

[Hans J.] Morgenthau, [Kenneth] Waltz and [George] Kennan were among the first to recognize that the Vietnam War was a foolish diversion of American power, and Waltz was one of the few foreign policy experts who understood the Soviet Union was a Potemkin colossus with feet of clay. When assorted hawks were sounding frantic alarms about Soviet dominance in the late 1970s, Waltz was writing that the real issue was whether the Soviets could hope to keep up with the far wealthier and more powerful United States. The 1980s proved they couldn’t, and that Waltz and his fellow realists had been essentially correct.

[…]

Most important, realists were among the most visible opponents to America’s more recent misadventure in Iraq. In September 2002, for example, 33 international security scholars paid for an ad in the New York Timesdeclaring “War With Iraq Is Not in the U.S. National Interest.” About half of the signatories were prominent realists, and several others wrote articles before the war explaining why it was unnecessary and unwise. By contrast, it was the neocons who conceived and promoted the Iraq war, while many prominent liberals endorsed it. Surely Americans deserve to hear from a perspective that has been an accurate guide to recent events, instead of relying on pundits who have been consistently wrong.

Walt makes a very compelling case. Of course, as a realist myself, I didn’t need much convincing. The bigger question remains: Which of the leading newspapers will be the first to take up his suggestion?