Realism and Policy
Michael F. Duggan holds a Ph.D. from Georgetown University with a major in American History, a minor in Modern Europe, and a collateral concentration in Western Philosophy. He has taught in the Department of Graduate Liberal Studies at Georgetown, and in New York University’s Washington, D.C. Program, and has guest lectured at American University and at Howard University Law School. He was the Supreme Court Fellow for 2011-2012, and cofounded the Liberal Studies Philosophy Roundtable, a discussion group focusing on ethical questions.
About this Site
This blog is a clearinghouse for articles and essays I have written on a variety of topics. Its purpose is to provide a modest outlet to promulgate a perspective of moderate realism. As the domain name more than suggests, the single thread running through all of these pieces is a perspective of realism, whether it be in foreign affairs, the rule of law abroad, the philosophy of adjudication, or legal history, and even epistemology and historiographical methodology.
Many of the articles here deal with foreign affairs, and my foreign policy outlook is straightforward and based on two premises. The first is that moderate realism toward an end of perceived national interests—enlightened self-interest—produces better practical and even “moral” results than policy specifically tailored around moral, ideological, or other theoretical considerations. The rebuilding of Japan, the Marshall Plan, and Containment as a grand strategy during the Cold War were first and foremost realistic policy measures; U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the rise of neoliberalism, neoconservatism, U.S. military hegemony as the bulldog of globalization, and our catastrophic efforts at nation building in the Near East are or were manifestations of ideological considerations and/or theory.
My second premise, a corollary to the first, is that a critical reading of history provides a better basis for policy judgments and decisions than morality, ideology, or theory. We must learn from our mistakes and successes—coming to understand what worked and what did not work and why—and meaningfully apply this knowledge toward practical ends of policy. As a friend of mine once observed, an intimate knowledge of a region, culture, or country is preferable to a remote and formal academic understanding. I believe that the historical record backs up these premises as well as the observation that the most successful American administrations were realistic and non-ideological in their dealings with the world while being generous and liberal-minded at home.
The reason for this collection is equally forthright: we live in a time when policy is largely dominated by unselfcritical ideologies—clichés and bubbles like neoliberalism, neoconservatism, one-size-fits-all trade multilateralism, and other forms of globalist eschatology—that have to date reaped the whirlwind and which promise more of the same. We live in a time of careerists, credentialists, and conventionalists spellbound by such conventional wisdom even in the face of repeated failure and looming economic and environmental collapse. Above all, we live in a time that despises the intuitive maverick, the Cassandra who sees beyond the obvious with aims beyond the immediate future and goals beyond career and personal advancement—the sort of men and women who defied groupthink and helped make this country what it is, or rather, what it once was.
Given the problems that face the United States and the world, it is imperative to reintroduce the kind of farsighted foreign policy realism that served the United States so well in the years immediately following the Second World War. Although I have no illusions about the power of a few articles and papers to affect a major shift in American foreign policy, I hope that they might inspire scholars and budding policy thinkers to consider a route different from the flavors a la mode.
Even though there is a kind of panache in being out-of-step with one’s time, and a genuine moral comfort in being true to what one believes in spite of its being popularly out-of-season, there is at least an equal measure of frustration when one is a realist. The whole purpose of realism in policy is to match practical means to ends, the embracing of achievable particularist results over theoretical, holistic, or utopian ideals, “is” over “ought to be.” For those of us who think that the dominant currents in policy embody a formula or roadmap to catastrophe, the frustration is especially pronounced. It is the frustration of the maverick, the Cassandra.
In the policy circles of our time, there exists a kind of locked-brain, “inside the box” orthodoxy that blinds itself to, or otherwise rationalizes its own excesses, failures, and the subsequent American national decline of recent years. It also blinds itself to more realistic policy avenues. People with polish, drive, focus, and personal skills may therefore advance themselves to the top echelons of the U.S. establishment without penalty by accepting these questionable outlooks. This, unfortunately, is the lay of the land of much of the American policy landscape of our time. As Professior Andrew J. Bacevich notes:
“To understand the persistence of such illusions requires appreciating several assumptions that promote in Washington a deeply pernicious collective naiveté. Seldom explicitly articulated, these assumptions pervade the U.S. national security establishment… The worldview to which individuals rotating through the upper reaches of the national security apparatus derives from a shared historical narrative. Indeed, their fealty to that narrative, which they routinely affirm by reciting various clichés and platitudes, forms a precondition of their employment.” (America’s War for the Greater Middle East, p. 363.)
Bacevich’s reference to a “collective naïveté” may, if anything, be too kind in describing a policy milieu comprised of cynics and amoral careerists on the one hand and ideologically deluded true believers and intelligent people who ought to know better on the other. Some of the smartest and most accomplished people of our time appear to believe very dubious things. These days if you do not go along with the program, you won’t get the job, and if you are hired, you won’t get the promotion.
The purpose of this page then is to provide a history-based alternative to the failed, but still entrenched, orthodoxy of our time, spelled out via articles and essays. Who would have ever thought that the United States would have reached to a point where a perspective embracing a history-based form of realism abroad and the social democracy at home that in many ways marked the our highpoint as a civilization would be regarded as radical, marginal, or thinking “outside of the box”?
On a number of occasions I have been told by neoliberal apologists or globalists of various stripes to save my breath, that I am confronting forces beyond what I can imagine—elemental, perhaps deterministic currents of historical necessity that would make a Marxian or Hegelian blush—and which are in place and cannot be altered, much less reversed. This is a curious perspective and I was never sure how serious the speaker was in uttering such rote assertions; the first task when dealing with globalists is to distinguish the cynics and mere opportunists from the true believers. I would usually try to explain to them that such eschatological boilerplate and historicist hyperbole is fundamentally misconceived, unexamined, and unhistorical. As Tony Judt observed shortly before his death, the globalist presumes that his or her program “is here to stay, a natural process rather than a human choice” (Ill Fares the Land, p. 193). Echoing Karl Popper, Judt adds, that “nothing is inevitable,” presumably meaning that no system put in place by human agency cannot be undone with similar effort. The answer to the question “can we do anything to reverse present trends?” therefore is clearly “yes”. The answer to the follow-up question of “will we?” is less clear in a policy climate that is pyschologically identical to that of The Emperor’s New Clothes.
The solution, in my opinion, of moderate realism as a foreign policy perspective (like so many once vigorous species) is in our time endangered but not quite extinct and there are a number of outstanding policy scholars and historians of a realist orientation including Andrew Bacevich, Stephen F. Cohen, John J. Mearsheimer, and Stephen M. Walt. The most recent cohort of realist policymakers (James Baker, George H. W. Bush, and Brent Scowcroft), are now many years out of government service. Where such realism was once at the robust forefront of policy and included legendary public servants like George Kennan, George Marshall, and others of the first generation of Cold War policymakers sometimes called the Wise Men, it is now scattered thinly throughout the halls of the Academy and far from the halls of power. As such it is little more than a small chorus of highly articulate voices in the wilderness.
My own outlook owes much to the great American policy planner, grand strategist, historian, and writer, George F. Kennan. In his published Diaries, Kennan notes that his primary attribute as a policy planner and strategist was that he saw things a little more clearly and a little earlier than others. He writes:
“Somehow or other, I must bring myself to come to terms with the painful fact that in what I have written and said these past three decades, I have usually been several years ahead of my time, but by the time the opinion of the journalistic- political-establishment has caught up (sometimes too late) to struggle up to the same opinions, everyone has forgotten I ever voiced them. I find it hard to have been both right in substance and a failure in effect. ” (The Kennan Diaries, Costigilola, p. 517)
As far as it goes, this is an accurate characterization of Kennan’s predicament after he left government service (which is to say most of the last 52 years of his long and fruitful life). It is too modest however in terms of just how right he usually was in his analysis and how astute in matching solutions to problems. It also only hints at how wrongheaded the overarching establishment he references generally and increasingly was during this period, especially over the last quarter of a century of his life. Given that he wrote this entry in February 1979—a full 26 years before his death—the worst was yet to come as he was initially celebrated as the man whose grand strategy had brought down the Soviet Union, only to be increasingly ignored as a commentator and prophet. By the time of his death in 2005, the establishment he references never caught up with his outlook and in fact lagged farther and farther behind, increasingly honoring his sensible realism in the breach. By then the foreign policy establishment had embarked on a disastrous set of adventures in the Near East, and the corporate media had been co-opted by powerful economic interests. It is true that he saw things earlier and more clearly than his contemporaries, but he also saw solutions and their likely consequences. In this he is a type of historical observer that is sometimes called a Cassandra (or to the Biblically-minded, a Jeremiah).
Cassandra, of course, is a figure of the Greek tragic-heroic tradition. The daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, she was given prophetic powers by an amorous Apollo. Upon the rebuff of his advances however, he cursed her—spat in her mouth—thus guaranteeing that nobody would ever believe her in spite of her prescient warnings. As with so many classical legends, when stripped of its mythological, soap opera-like details, the story latches on to something fundamental about human nature, and the metaphor is as pertinent today as it was during the time of Helen of Troy. As regards the historical observer, commentator, and policymaker, it finds relevance or analog as a type who sees events clearly for what they are—more accurately—and before others, and divines workable solutions. As with Cassandra, her modern analog goes unheeded and the community suffers for its oversight. After 1952, this was the very real curse George Kennan lived and struggled with.
One subtext of the myth is the recognition of a kind of human irrationality that does not learn from its mistakes, and which continues to ignore a prophet whose foresight and judgment have been right time and time again. A nation, or a person, who does not learn from mistakes, is living on borrowed time. The great philosopher of science, Karl R. Popper famously writes that “all life is problem solving” and that true knowledge progresses by correcting our mistaken beliefs when confronted with ideas with greater explanatory power. This is why the larger community must learn to listen to the Cassandra, even and especially when the news is unpleasant or goes against what we would like to believe. The community must learn how to evaluate ideas and situations rather than to fall back on orthodoxy.
As it was with Cassandra, so it was with Kennan; when we listened to him we reaped the impressive benefits not only of Containment, but the Marshall Plan, and the rebuilding of Japan—the three greatest American foreign policy successes of the twentieth-century and perhaps of all time. Conversely, he prophetically advised against pushing north of the 38th parallel in Korea in 1950, the U.S. intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s, the eastward expansion of NATO into the Russian sphere of influence in the mid-to-late 1990s, and in his last years, the interventions in the Near East that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001. During one last stint in public service as ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1961, he attempted to exploit a rift between Tito and the Kremlin, but was stonewalled by congressional shortsightedness and provincialism. It should be noted that on those few occasions when he was wrong, he was still thoughtful and interesting, and more likely—as with his idea to reunify Germany in the late 1940s—he was simply ahead of his time. Some of the problems faces today—the baffling renewal tensions with Russia, for instance—are the direct result of policies he warned against a generation ago.
Another person from whom my outlook draws liberally is my friend, David Isenbergh. I have known David for 27 years, and during that time, the number of times he has been wrong about foreign affairs or politics generally can be counted on one hand with fingers to spare. As with Kennan, David has the ability to look at each new situation with a fresh originality, depth, and that striking extra dimension of insight and analysis that cannot be taught. He also has the rare ability to see through bad but appealing ideas, to identify their specious elements, and to explain the most difficult concepts in accessible terms. Although I am not an observer with the prescience of a Kennan or Isenbergh—I am not myself a Cassandra—I have attempted to adapt their ideas and my own into a realistic outlook for our troubled times.
I also thank my friend Tom Clark for technical assistance and his expertise in launching this page.