Realism: Conventional and Higher
Realism holds that the cardinal purpose of U. S. foreign policy is to serve the country's irreducible national interests — as stipulated in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: "to establish justice, to insure domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defense, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." In this first imperative, both Conventional and Higher Realism are in accord. They are also in accord in favoring a statecraft of bargaining rather than hegemonic diktat, yet backed up by military power sufficient to deter military actions against the United States and efforts to physically deny access to foreign sources of essential energy supplies.
Moreover, both Conventional and Higher Realism counsel that the United States, although still the most powerful country, should use its power prudentially. It should not engage in hubristic attempts to run the world. Nor should it intervene militarily in other countries unless required to secure the irreducible U.S. national interests or, under broad international mandate, to prevent genocide or comparable gross violations of elemental human security.
The central problem with Conventional Realism is that it is long on what the United States should not attempt to do yet short on what should be done to counteract the chaos in the Polyarchy that inhibits needed cooperation in the provision of international public goods. Conventional Realism views the world as essentially stymied when it comes to preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, effectively countering global warming, and alleviating the starvation of billions of people. Nor does Conventional Realism have a vision of system transformation, let alone global governance, for ameliorating the looming dangers.
Higher Realism at its very core embraces the fact that the irreducible national interests have become inextricably bound up with world interests — with the security and well-being of people all around the globe — and that the citizens of the United States of America will be unable to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" unless the government recasts its foreign policy to be consistent with the evolving global system.
But the evolving system, the Polyarchy (many rulers) of states and powerful nonstate actors with shifting alignments and antagonisms, is incapable of generating international action vital to the physical safety, health, and well-being of the people of the United States and the world without a new explosion of international cooperative activity. The needed cooperation dwarfs even the burst of international cooperation that followed the end of World War II. It will take a variety of institutional forms — regional, functionally specific, many outside of the UN system. But once again, it requires active and central participation by the United States. Absent significant U.S. participation in the cooperative provision of crucial global public goods in the fields of conflict control, the economy, and the environment, the evolving Polyarchy could well degenerate worldwide into a condition of raw anarchy in which in far too many places (including in the United States) life will be nasty, brutish, and short.
Higher Realism does share the premise of various other schools of Realism, and of Realpolitik statecraft, that foreign policy must give priority to the interests of the whole country over special or parochial interests. But it transcends exclusively nationalistic definitions of self-interest, recognizing that the health and well-being of one's own country are crucially connected, albeit often indirectly, with the health and well-being of people around the world. Higher Realism also transcends the immediate here and now — looking toward the long-term effects of current action (or inaction) — programming the impact on future generations into the evaluation of current policy choices.
Higher Realism shares as well Conventional Realism's understanding that, particularly in the absence of strong institutions of global governance, U.S. foreign policy must be centrally concerned with the country's international power — its resources and instruments for realizing its purposes — especially when opposed by others. It agrees with Conventional Realism that U.S. statecraft must be directed first and foremost at ensuring that others do not impose their will on the United States. Accordingly, the military and economic instruments of power, and the will to invoke them coercively at times, must remain essential components of U.S. grand strategy. But Higher Realism also appreciates the crucial importance of subjecting the coercive application of U.S. material power to widely accepted standards of legitimacy and, if possible, broad international authorization.
A rigidly nationalistic, blatantly materialistic, and amoral Realism plants the seeds of its own obstruction — stimulating others from whom the country requires cooperation even for the realization of its narrow self-interests to mobilize against it. Moreover, there are large and well-organized domestic political constituencies that want and expect the United States to serve broader world community interests, especially the resolution of internationally destabilizing conflict and the alleviation of the suffering of those in situations of grinding poverty or subject to brutal repression. These constituencies and their representatives in high office want their country to pursue policies that are "right" — that is, morally meritorious in serving the well-being of others and refraining from the infliction of avoidable harm on them. Such altruism is not incompatible with Realism, certainly not with Higher Realism; it need not undermine the primacy of the country's economic and strategic self-interests. Rather, the quest is for policy options that can simultaneously secure self-interest and the well-being of others. Public opinion surveys show that there is broad support inside and outside of government for the United States to do good while doing well.
Yet, ironically, a visible post-Iraq role for the United States of promoting peace, justice, basic economic security, and human rights around the globe risks being seen as another hubristic self-appointed mission. And it will be quixotic — unless the United States adapts to the fact that the world's contemporary cultural and political diversity is an inherent legacy of millennia of human history and is justifiably resistant to homogenization into any one sociopolitical or economic way of life. Higher Realism, though broadly supportive of democracy and human rights, therefore opposes the view that a universal adoption of the essential features of the U.S. market economy and democratic polity or even more broadly "Western" modernization — however desirable for some societies — is necessary for world order and justice.
Higher Realism does, however, insist on the necessity of the universal enhancement of norms and institutions of international accountability. It takes issue with the tendency of Conventional Realists (neo- or classical) to discount international norms and institutions as mere "epiphenomenal" expressions of underlying power realities. Higher Realism regards strengthened international accountability among countries and other entities that can seriously affect one another — even if at times constraining the United States from acting with complete flexibility — as a world interest increasingly crucial to the long-term security and well-being of the people of the United States.
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