The United States recently wound down a protracted war in Iraq and is currently fighting another one in Afghanistan. At the same time, there is a robust debate about what policy Washington should adopt with respect to a turbulent Middle East and a rising China. There is no consensus about the best approach, but there is widespread agreement that the American people are tired of large-scale military action. This raises an obvious question: What policy can the United States pursue that will keep it safe while minimizing the chances of war?
The United States’ default position is to pursue a foreign policy that involves spreading or defending democracy abroad and working through international institutions such as the United Nations. This approach, called liberal internationalism, which has been followed by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, is underpinned by a simple logic: democracies are “good” states and can be trusted to act responsibly toward one another; and institutions embody rules of behavior that advance the cause of peace by telling states what they can and cannot do.
However, another tradition exists. Known as realism, it provides a starkly different blueprint for U.S. foreign policy. Realists — the descendants of George Kennan and Henry Kissinger — argue that power, by which they mean military and economic strength, is the currency of international politics and that the focus of foreign policy should be to maintain a balance of power.
What policies are implied by this worldview? For the United States, it means building up its power and making it clear that it will oppose other states’ attempts at expansion. This practice —commonly known as balancing — should deter aggression by powerful rivals.
At the same time, great powers such as the United States should take a relaxed approach toward weak competitors. Because they do not have much power, these adversaries can do little damage either on their own or in alliance with others. At most, then, a great power should be prepared to balance against a hostile weak state, which is to say that it should make its interests clear and threaten to retaliate with overwhelming force if those interests are violated.
Today, realism has few supporters inside or outside the Beltway. Americans find it hard to accept an approach that depicts international politics as an unrelenting struggle for power. Nor are they satisfied with the claim that states can only secure themselves by threatening to harm others. On the other hand, liberal internationalism, with its emphasis on the rule of law and democracy, fits much better with basic American values.
A recipe for security
The fact of the matter is, however, that realism is a recipe for security without war. Indeed, had the great powers of the past acted in a more realist fashion there is a good chance that some of the most devastating wars of the past century might have been avoided.
Consider World War I and World War II. Germany was the most powerful state in Europe in the lead up to both wars. Given this situation, the realist policy would have been for the other great powers — Britain, France and the Soviet Union — to build up their power, draw a line in the sand, and warn Berlin not to cross it. But they did not do so. Britain did not make its opposition to German expansion clear prior to World War I, and all three of them went out of their way to avoid balancing before World War II. The result in both cases: deterrence failed and Germany plunged the continent into war.
Conversely, because Vietnam was a very weak state, its loss to the communist bloc would have had little effect on the global balance of power. Indeed, realists counseled against the U.S. becoming military involved in Indochina on exactly these grounds. But they were ignored, and the United States became embroiled in a bloody and protracted stalemate in Southeast Asia.
A similar story applies to Iraq. Despite its location in a strategically important region, Iraq was and is an exceedingly weak state. Given that, the realist prescription — one widely publicized following 9/11 — was that the Bush administration should be content to use its overwhelming power to deter Saddam Hussein even if he acquired nuclear weapons. Rather than try to remake Iraq in its own image, all the United States had to do was make its interests clear and draw a line in the sand. The Bush administration thought otherwise, and the United States has been at war in the Middle East ever since.
There is good evidence, then, that had the great powers of the past pursued realist foreign policies they would have been able to secure their interests without having to go to war. This being the case, realism is an appropriate guide for U.S. foreign policy makers as they navigate the current situation.
It is worth noting that liberal internationalism was implicated in all four of the wars. In the world war cases, their commitment to pursuing liberal internationalist foreign policies prevented Britain and France from balancing aggressively enough to deter Germany. And liberal internationalism — in the form of anticommunism and then democracy promotion — was a key driver of the U.S. decision to go to war in Vietnam and Iraq.
What should the nation do?
So what should the United States do? For starters, it should balance against China, its only potential great power rival, if it shows any sign of wanting to dominate Asia. To do so, it may have to deploy military assets to the region to frustrate any aggressive Chinese designs, and cement alliances with China’s strongest neighbors, including Japan and Russia. War need not result if the United States makes it clear that it will not tolerate adventurism while accommodating a growing diplomatic role for Beijing.
As for Iran — the most troublesome weak state on the horizon — the United States should adopt a policy of restraint. The Islamic Republic is to be sure a leading player in a strategically significant region, but it cannot dominate the Persian Gulf militarily. Nonetheless, the U.S. should make it clear that it will not tolerate aggression of any kind. Even if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon — something it has not yet done — the United States’ massive superiority means that deterrence should be a simple matter. Moreover, it would be preferable to a war that would at best delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons while inviting almost certain retaliation.
If the United States overcomes its aversion to realism and follows its prescriptions, it will likely remain secure for the foreseeable future and will be able to do so without becoming involved in any major wars. If it continues to succumb to its liberal internationalist inclinations as it has done in the past, however, we are likely to see more conflict and enjoy less security.
Sebastian Rosato is a professor in the Department of Political Science and co-director of the Notre Dame International Security Program (NDISP). This piece draws on his co-authored article (with John Schuessler ’99), “A Realist Foreign Policy for America,” which is forthcoming in the journal Perspectives on Politics.