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The Case for a Realist Foreign Policy

By Staff Writer Kevin Wu '20

· Kevin Wu

Speaking recently to an international friend at Hopkins about foreign policy, he said something that struck me-- “The US needs to stop trying to make people like each other". When I thought about that statement, I realized that we as Americans have often been taught to think that our nation can agree and coexist with everyone, and those who do not cooperate simply live on the political fringe, or is an extremist. However, this view ignores the plight of people around the world who have dealt with warfare and severe poverty, and dismisses their views as backwards. Forcing our beliefs on other people does not put food on their tables or keep their families safe. In extension, I argue that such an approach to foreign policy does not solve problems and will ultimately not benefit the US.

I believe the US should turn to a realist foreign policy that focuses on balance and manufactured peace as opposed to liberalism, which advocates for a harmonious world naturally free of conflict. Obviously, the latter sounds more attractive, but in practice this harmonious world will never exist as long people have widely varying interests, and in trying to create such a world, the US has caused countless deaths. Liberalism has dominated US foreign policy from the end of WWII through the Cold War, and even today it remains the primary ideology. The origin of liberalism in US foreign policy lies in fear of Soviet communism, which turned foreign policy into a value-based system that focused on containing communism. In the aftermath of the Cold War, liberalism has turned into a similarly value-based system that seeks to instill American values around the world. In the end though, the long list of evidence points to failure for liberalism.

Perhaps the biggest staple of liberal foreign policy is self-righteous foreign intervention in the name of democracy. There is no doubt that this policy has failed miserably over the years, both during the Cold War era and its aftermath. During the Cold War, US intervention in Guatemala and Vietnam caused and exacerbated a civil war respectively, leading to thousands of additional deaths. Both of these interventions were done in the name of protecting the Guatemalan and Vietnamese people from the evil of communism, but I argue the wars that ensued killed more people than a peaceful communist transition ever would. After the Cold War, interventions in Iraq in 2003 and Syria more recently have descended both countries into anarchy. In Iraq, the goal was to depose an authoritarian Saddam Hussein, who allegedly had WMDs. In Syria, Assad, another authoritarian dictator, was and still is the target for the US. All of these interventions were done in the name of freedom and democracy, but none of them achieved their goal. The reason: democracy does not come from war, which leaves destruction and starvation in its wake. By intervening and leaving, the US has left a power vacuum in most of these countries which is usually filled by other authoritarians or extremists. The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is a prime example of this. Starving and homeless war refugees are not looking for the merits of democracy, which is often very slow-moving politically; they are looking for quick solutions that put food on their tables and roofs over their heads. Self-righteous foreign intervention in the name of democracy does nothing in the end to truly promote democracy.

Another staple of liberal foreign policy is a legalistic-moralistic approach to international relations. This means that when a country does something wrong in the eyes of many other countries, they band together to criticize on moral grounds. The existence of UN condemnations essentially performs this function. Simply put, this strategy is ineffective because morality has no sway on the international stage. There are two prominent examples of this strategy's failure: the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Many countries have condemned Israel for various actions they have taken while also condemning Hamas, the de facto government of the Palestinians, as a terrorist organization. Similarly, many countries have also condemned Russia's actions in Ukraine while rushing to provide aid for Ukraine. Simply telling these countries they are wrong does not work. The Israel-Palestine conflict is still as heated as ever and Russia is on the brink of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

A realist approach to US foreign policy is a vast improvement because it shifts the focus from values to lives. For example, in Syria, realism would dictate that the US fight alongside the existing governmental system, Assad, in order to stop the killing as soon as possible. With regards to Israel-Palestine, the US would focus on dealing with refugees of violence and bringing both sides to the table to discuss interests, and not who is wrong and who is right. Finally, the US would try to understand why Russia is being territorially aggressive and attempt to work with them on the basis of their interests. Realism views international relations in terms of its interests and maintaining the balance of power in order to prevent war and thus save lives from destruction. As the most powerful country in the world, the US is the one in position to oversee this approach. There is a historical precedent for this-- between the Napoleonic Wars and WWI, Britain acted as the broker of peace in Europe, often switching alliances in order to maintain the balance of power and prevent war. The US is in a great position to emulate this behavior. We are more powerful comparatively than Britain was, and intergovernmental systems are already in place to mediate conflict. To finish my friend's sentence, "the US shouldn't try to make people like each other;" instead we should simply make sure they don't kill each other. That is the true essence of realism.

Image from Wikimedia.

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