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A case for foreign policy realism

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted February 14, 2011

The sometimes undulating progress of the Egyptian protests came to a head when the now-former President Hosni Mubarack resigned. While the tumult continued, the Obama Administration put on quite a display of flip-flopping. At first cheering the protestors on, the Administration dithered when the indirect consequences became apparent. Mubarack's Egypt was an ally of Israel, but there's no guarantee that the alliance will survive his Presidency. Some of the protestors hail from the Muslim Brotherhood, which is not the type of group that would smile on a continued alliance with the Jewish state. Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahamdinejad, knows it: that's why he was cozying up from a distance with the new government. He extended his hand by comparing the revolution to Iran's in 1979, which is more than well-wishing. It expresses hope that the new government will cozy up to Iran. What that buddying implies for Israel is an easy guess to make. The latest word from the Obama Administration is criticism of Ahmadinejad's hypocrisy in welcoming post-revolution Egypt while squelching protests in his own country. I should add that Ahmadinejad did so successfully. 

The dithering from the Administration, which basically ended with "let the Egyptians decide their own fate," was a sign that Obama et. al. are foreign-policy idealists at heart. They discovered a different approach the hard way - namely, foreign-policy realism. As their initial forgetfulness over Israel demonstrated, they may need a dose of it.

Foreign Policy Realism In A Nutshell

Foreign policy realism rests on the doctrines of place and alliance. Ideals are seen as grounded in certain countries, great ideas that move some people's minds but not others'. Those that are deaf to certain ideals, or who mangle them like the Communists mangled "democracy" to mean dictatorship, will not repair to those ideals. Instead, they'll plaster their own meaning on said ideals and use them to justify policies that don't match up with the real thing. For example, "liberty" to a Qutbite means liberty to impose Sharia law on a country. It's a sure bet that a much-trumpeted "Islamic liberty" means essentially the same thing. As long as an Islamist truly believes that "true liberty" comes from Sharia law, there'll be no swaying him.

To a foreign-policy realist, there's no contradiction or frustration in this adulteration. Believing that ideals are similar to customs or traditions, a realist knows that British liberty is different from Canadian liberty and that the French variety differs from the American. Rather than accuse one or the other of being at odds with the real thing, a realist will take an interpretive approach. Since Islamists aspire to live under Sharia law, since they regard it as true freedom, it's no surprise that they should have a profoundly un-American take on the ideal.

Putting it another way, each nation and each people has its own perspective on matters – even when it comes to genuine universals. Thus, it's more realistic to think of national governments as expressing national interests from their respective national perspectives. And, to pay close attention to the consequences.  

A corollary says cultural gaps of that sort can't be bridged. If the majority of residents confound Sharia law with democracy, then they'll act on that belief by backing a Sharia-dominated government. They won't be swayed from it by words, no matter how finely spun. As long as an Islamist believes that true "Islamic democracy" comes from imposing Sharia law, he'll act accordingly. 

Instead of fidelity to ideals, the realist prizes loyalty to allies. It's true that being loyal to useful allies involves some dirty work, or guilt by association, but the flipside of that loyalty is choosing allies carefully. If you're going to sleep in the same bed with someone carrying bedbugs, the bed had better be worth the bedbugs. The basic gauges of how much support to extend are twofold: strategic importance and loyalty reciprocation. A country like Japan, whose government allows an American base on its soil even over public protests, is one that deserves a fair bit of support from the American government. As for Israel, it stands with the West too. The Israeli government has had no qualms about cracking down on Islamist protestors, unlike another government (until recently) whose services have make it an ally in other respects.

Central to realism is reading history with an open mind. Rather than imposing one's own worldview on someone else's history, a realist reads history in order to discover what values another people in fact hold. The aim is not to size up their receptiveness to an ideal, but to better predict how they'll act. Normally, this understanding is used to smooth diplomacy and aim at stability. Granted that stability isn't an ideal, but it means a lot when the alternative is war. Should war come, the realist approach becomes "know the enemy" for the same reasons. An enemy whose actions can be anticipated makes victory more reachable.

Why Realism?

As noted above, realism tends to avert war. If war is necessary, then realists without blinders can aid the war effort by a level-headed and informed grasp of the enemy's own worldview. They often do so.

Also, realism gives up on the idea that the whole world can be made over in our own image. Granted that there are authoritarian states, and even a few totalitarian ones, but a realist reconciles him- or herself with that sorry fact by remembering that even universal ideals don't reach across the planet without unavoidable distortion. In this sense, a realist resembles a hostage negotiator.

For all other governments and peoples, realism engrains something that idealists find hard to cultivate: respect for other nations and cultures as they are. It's true that realism sometimes descends into Tory cynicism, but it's also true that idealist diplomacy sometimes descends into gunboat diplomacy. How else did the British Empire end suttee in India except through guns and gunboats?

I'm aware that the 1999 Kosovo War was quick, and it was fought on idealist grounds, but the unintended consequences of that war aren't pretty. That, from a war that can be rated as well-conducted. In an idealist age, both consequentialism and understanding tend to go by the boards.

A realist approach to the Egyptian revolution would have involved staying quiet until the tumult settled itself out. Instead of saying "Egypt's destiny is up to the Egyptians" near the end, it would have been said at the outset. The time bought would have been used by checking with allies in the region, particularly Israel, for their perspective on the matter. It also would have been used to find out what "democracy" would entail there. In this way, a firm ally-centric policy statement would have been promulgated.

As for the real course of events, America now has a volubly bitter ex-ally. Although politically neutralized, Mubarak's still alive. If he complains about how the U.S. government betrayed him, he'll have some ready ears into which he can pour his words. Note that he did not seek exile in the United States.

Given that the Egyptian military is pro-American and comfortable with Egypt's alliance with Israel, it would be wise to leave things in their hands. Leave Egypt's destiny to the Egyptians in this way. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching the gold market. He can be reached at danielmryan@primus.ca.

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