Chait vs. Realism

Jon Chait makes a common mistake in an op-ed for Saturday’s Washington Post.* Joining various neoconservatives to attack Charles Freeman, just-appointed chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Chait writes that Freeman is a realist and therefore doesn’t care about morality in U.S. foreign policy. I don’t know enough about Freeman to know if the article is fair to his views (he seems like a great pick), but it shows a misunderstanding of realism.

Modifying a noun with “moral” does not make it so. Realists argue that idealism – ignoring realities that encourage tradeoffs among competing goods – is foolish, and there is nothing moral about doing foolish things in the name of morality. Realists believe that our foreign policy should be governed by an ethic of responsibility, where you do things that actually lead to good consequences, starting at home. They see the promiscuous use of power as destructive of it and therefore of all the goods it serves, including the ideological sort.

Those with even passing familiarity with leading realists like E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr know that their goal was to create a moral foreign policy in an anarchic world. They saw idealists who thought they could escape realist concepts like the balance of power as a source of catastrophic wars. Given the nature of international relations, they saw idealism – seen in undo faith in international institutions and later military adventurism meant to spread liberalism – as wasteful, dangerous, and therefore immoral.

Realists are partially to blame for this misconception. They have been too reluctant in recent decades to state their moral case. They too often allow people to get the impression that phony beltway realists like Henry Kissinger are the real deal – as if thrashing around Southeast Asia and South America in service of confused ideas about the balance of power was consistent with realist thought.

A realist U.S. defense policy would be moral for at least three reasons. It would stop squandering wealth on futile missions and allow it be used for worthier ends. It would not offend our values by embracing militarism and empire (in fact if not in intent) and restore the United States to its position as a model of liberalism, not its vindicator. It would keep us out of unnecessary wars, which are bad for liberty at home and only rarely conducive to moral ends abroad.

*It is typical of the Post to publish a column like this. Their op-ed page is home to about 10 advocates of militarized liberalism in foreign policy. The distinction between the neoconservatives and the liberal internationalists is largely academic.