non-ideally realistic is the ideal realism and real idealism etc.

Responding to Will Marshall’s depiction of Obama as a “balance-of-power realist,” Daniel Larison concedes that, in respect to a willingness to deal with states other than from a position of missionary democratism, Obama at least fulfills a “minimum” of what we “would expect from a realist foreign policy.” Yet for Larison, that’s not really very much:

If Obama hasn’t plunged the U.S. directly into Syria’s conflict, that proves that he isn’t foolish. It doesn’t make him a “balance-of-power realist.” The Libyan war is the obvious example that Marshall tries to avoid discussing at any length, since it renders a large part of his argument void. Put simply, a “balance-of-power” realist would not have ordered military action in Libya, and he would have been right not to do so, and the fact that Obama did should be a clear signal that he isn’t any such thing.

The argument is, however, of a type that soon dissolves into dialectical absurdities: Larison seems to be arguing, in effect, for an ideal realism, a position that raises the question as to whether ideal realism is really the ideal form of realism.

Would a really realistic realism ignore the reality of idealism? Ideally, in other words really, I don’t think so. Wouldn’t a true realist have to take into account the commitments and central aspirations, which will be necessarily (really) both realistic and idealistic, of  members of his coalition both domestically and internationally, and might not factors beyond the narrowly defined “real” local or regional political and military situation play a significant role in any truly realistic accounting? If your goal (indeed, your ideal) is a major or even radical reduction in U.S. entanglement in the affairs of other nations and an end to missionary foreign policy, especially armed missionary foreign policy, is it actually “realistic” to imagine a total reversal of direction in several generations of American neo-imperialism?

Opinions differ on whether the Libya intervention was actually good for the region or for the Libyans, and Larison has devoted substantial attention to criticism of the policy on those terms, but from a seriously realist perspective such concerns are at best secondary until and unless they can be shown actually to have harmed one’s own interests. For a realist, we have as little or as much reason to care about the state of things in neighboring Mali now as we did before. Put differently, if “things in Mali” are of great interest to us now, then what things where are not also of great interest to us, and what does this universal great interest in everything do to a realist notion which presumes the opposite stance?

If it turns out to be true that the Libyan intervention was on its own putative missionary-democratic or responsibility-to-protect or other humanitarian (i.e., idealist) terms some kind of failure, then it may weaken idealist pretexts, but, for someone who never believed in them in the first place, it is not actually very useful information. From a consistently realistic perspective on presidential decisionmaking, idealist failures are matters of complete indifference until and unless they are demonstrated to have harmed either the president’s or America’s interest in any relevant time frame.

On that note, it’s also worth considering possible purposes beyond the central pretext, even beyond the political benefit gained from the general belief, mistaken or not, that the intervention was in fact successful. Could experiments with an alternative model for dealing with regional crises serve the larger purposes of such a transition, or function under other arguably quite realistic interpretations of U.S. grand strategy? If in some instances the desired ends are served by policies that also happen to appeal to proponents of a more “idealistic” conception, so much the better, as long as no one gets carried away, or makes the mistake of exporting the “brilliant success” in Libya to superficially similar, actually completely different situations like Syria (or Bahrain, or Iran, etc.).

Realistically, a merely more rather than ideally realistic policy may be as much as is really achievable, and for any realist president will remain the ideal.


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8 comments on “non-ideally realistic is the ideal realism and real idealism etc.

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  1. Great post. The real concern was with sustaining the present international system and preserving the trajectory of the United States’ rehabilitation within it. Tending to constituencies, in this case the earnest R2Pers. From a realist U.S. perspective, Lybia was just the unhappy fellow who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time (or maybe the IC actually did some good there – who knows, who cares?). This is cynical as hell. That’s a telltale sign.

    • I’m not convinced that there weren’t good arguments, real, ideal, or both, that survive the Larison counterargument, but I’m much more open than he is to the R2P and democratist cases on their own terms. Certainly at the time a failure to act would have made the preferred pro-Arab Spring stance more difficult to pull off while looking away from Bahrain and maintaining freedom to act, or not act, elsewhere. I’m also not convinced by the “imperial presidency” arguments made by some legal idealists. Maybe I’m too much of a pushover.

      • For realism to be a real thing, it has to have iterations that apply to worlds younger than that of the 1970s, in other words, ones in which the liberal internationalists have significantly reshaped the global order (not remade it entirely, but merely significantly influenced its processes and power relationships and the outcomes those combine to produce) – despite realist practitioners’ objections that such things weren’t possible. They were possible and they happened, but this doesn’t mean that realism was annihilated as an viable analytic and programmatic system. It still appl and can still work – it just happened t make certain predictions about how the world would evolve that turned out to be wrong. The world is different, so realism’s treatment of it will not look like backward-looking venerators expect it to. So Obama’s FP doesn’t look realist to Daniel Larison. And fair enough. Even with this necessary update to the lacuna, Obama’s foreign policy isn’t ideally realist, as you aptly put it. It’s merely recognizably realist in that context. But Daniel Larison won’t be able to see that. He’s a bit too happily wedded to an analytic mood that went obsolete slightly before he was born.

        None of which means Daniel Larison isn’t still a true goddam American hero in my book. He is.

      • As to the mythical merits of such causes and concepts, I’m on the fence on them, and I perceive Barack Obama to be on it with me. The main point is that they aren’t foremost in his mind or decisionmaking when addressing matters where they are invoked or implicated. I’m actually willing to give that much to Mitt Romney as well, though I’m less thoroughly convinced it’s true for him.

  2. …And I’m sorry not to be able to get all these thoughts into a single box here, but it strikes me as ironic as hell that those who criticize leaders on realist-nationalist grounds for throwing a bone now and again to the humanitarian interventionists have taken to supporting these criticisms by pointing out the ways in which the actual interventions fail to achieve their desired humanitarian ends. Guess what: *that’s not a realist critique*, fellaz!

    • Maybe we can rotate positions as president and secretary-treasurer of the Larison Fan Club, but I’m still left to wonder what he’s really about. I may make a post out of this if I ever run across a definitive positive statement of his on his own “ideals.” He describes himself as a “religious conservative,” but never seeks to articulate his views explicitly in relation to his religious beliefs or to some kind of sectarian interest – not that he’s obligated to do so, but it raises questions. At some point every realism, even a Machiavellian realism, supports an ideal, a thing most precious that may have to be concealed or disguised as something else, and that more often is simply presumed, taken to be unquestionable. Von Metternich did not go to negotiation uncertain about the validity of the Austrian cause.

      Does Larison believe that a less interventionist policy would be more Christian? If so, then that would make him as idealistic and missionary in his approach as anyone, and his “realist” argument becomes something like a surreptitiously idealistic appeal to the self-interest of the secular-democratic tyrant, an attempt to make him/them/us see that hurting people and breaking things doesn’t do us any good either from our cravenly self-interested perspective, or from our benightedly humanitarian perspective either. A parallel logic train that eventually reduces to the same thing arises if the most important thing to Larison is not that foreign policy be more Christian in the moral sense, but that the United States of America, his home, remains a good home for his community of fellow believers. A third possibility would be that there is no coherent relationship between his “religious conservative” identity and his “realist” advocacy, that the latter is something he pursues because it appeals to him merely intellectually or by custom or habit – he had a realist teacher or some other such banal and uncritical explanation for why he does what he does and says what he says. If we take the view that, in the absence of a clear statement, there might or must still be clear connections between his preferences or ideals and his practice, then we can begin to see his critique as a kind of self-mortification of the political sensibility, a constant reminder that the world is either unsalvageable or finally dependent on miracle. There was one post of his that seemed almost to acknowledge this last possibility. I’ll see if I can find it, though whether there’s a good explanation or any explanation at all for why he writes as he writes may not be the most important thing about the usefulness of his writing to us.

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