Can Realism Solve America’s (and the World’s) Foreign Policy Problems?

Former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic is on trial for war crimes, including genocide, for his role in the 1992-95 Bosnian War. Stephen Walt argues that Bosnia is one of the few things realists might have gotten wrong over the past two decades.

Noted realist and Harvard professor Stephen Walt recently made a blog post entitled “What if realists were in charge of U.S. foreign policy?”  It offers a top ten list of ways the world would be better off with realists in charge, rather than the coalition of “neoconservatives and liberal internationalists” that Walt suggests have made a mess of U.S. foreign policy.  Recall that the realist approach to international relations is pessimistic about the prospects for lasting peace and cooperation and emphasizes national interests, stability, and a balance of power, while idealists (sometimes called liberals) believe morality should play a role in foreign policy and are optimistic that trade, international organizations, and democracy can help to promote peace and cooperation among states.  This previous blog post provides an overview of realism and idealism in the context of democracy promotion in the Middle East.

Some of the items on Walt’s top ten list include:

#1: No War in Iraq

#3: Staying out of the nation-building business

#6: No Balkan adventures

#7: A normal relationship with Israel

#8: A more sensible approach to nuclear weapons

#10: A growing focus on China

Walt is certainly a master at articulating the realist critiques of recent American foreign policy and suggesting how realists would have “done better” if at the helm.  For a similar (and more entertaining) argument for the superiority of realism that uses characters from the Godfather as representatives of realism (Michael Corleone), liberal institutionalism (Tom Hagen), and neoconservatism (Sonny Corleone), see the short book entitled The Godfather Doctrine.

But is Walt’s depiction unduly rosy and aided by the benefit of hindsight?  To hear Walt tell it, most of America’s (and many of the world’s) problems could be solved by enlightened realist policies.  His top ten list doesn’t grapple with the uncertainty or the complexity of the tradeoffs that confront policymakers on a host of issues, and he only briefly acknowledges that staying out of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya  may have had some humanitarian downsides (e.g., genocide in the case of Bosnia).

What do you think?  Does Walt’s list make a compelling case for the superiority of the realist approach to world politics? (He explains each point on his top ten list).  Or does his commitment to the realist perspective create “blinders” to the weaknesses or ambiguities of implementing a realist foreign policy?

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