The Realpolitik of the American People
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The Realpolitik of the American People


It is often stated that, in contrast to people from other countries, Americans’ political values preclude them from accepting a foreign policy based on realism.

Realists themselves are especially strong proponents of this argument. Henry Kissinger, for instance, has argued that, “no serious American maker of foreign policy can be oblivious to the traditions of exceptionalism by which American democracy has defined itself” when crafting policy.

John Mearsheimer makes the case more forcefully, when he asserts that Americans inherently reject realism in favor of liberalism:

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“Americans tend to be hostile to realism because it clashes with their basic values….  In particular, realism is at odds with the deep-seated sense of optimism and moralism that pervades much of American society. Liberalism, on the other hand, fits neatly with those values. Not surprisingly, foreign policy discourse in the United States often sounds as if it has been lifted right out of a Liberalism 101 lecture.”

In contrast to Kissinger, however, Mearsheimer argues that liberal discourse notwithstanding, U.S. foreign policy is actually guided by realist logic.

“It should be obvious to intelligent observers,” Mearsheimer writes, “that the United States speaks one way and acts another.” He goes on to contend that while the duplicity of American foreign policy is obvious to foreigners, the American public believes that the U.S. acts based on its moral principles.

The reason for this, according to Mearsheimer, is two-fold. First, in certain cases, such as the Cold War, U.S. values and realism coincide so that while the U.S. is motivated by its national interest, it can reasonably claim to be supporting liberal principles. However, sometimes America’s values and interests do conflict. In these cases, American elites become spin doctors who weave together a liberal, value-based narrative to explain the country’s foreign policy to the public. The American people, in turn, readily accept this narrative “because liberalism is so deeply rooted in their culture.”

There’s likely a great deal of truth to these claims. Nonetheless, I take issue with at least two points.

First, while American leaders often make value-based arguments to gain support for their foreign policies at home, this hardly makes them unique. Although non-Western leaders obviously don’t use liberal maxims that would not resonate with their constituents, they often frame their policies in other moralistic or just terms.  Perhaps the most common of these arguments are anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism.

Such is the case in China, where the Communist Party depicts itself reversing historic wrongs from the nation’s “era of humiliation.” Elsewhere the CCP claims to be combating hegemonism and U.S. domination of the world. Iranian politicians use similar terms, albeit with a heavy dose of Islamic values added to their foreign policy discourse. Such narratives may seem aggressive and offputting to Americans and perhaps other Westerners, but they are morally appealing to domestic audiences. 

There’s no need here to recap all the different possible moral or ideological justifications leaders around the world may invoke to gain support for their policies. The larger point is that American leaders are not the only ones who realize its difficult to rally the public behind a war that’s portrayed as the exploitation of innocent foreigners in pursuit of a balance of power. While American and Western leaders may be unique in invoking liberalism to sell their foreign policies, they are hardly alone in using moralist arguments over realist ones.

The second part of the argument I’d take issue with is the claim that the American people writ large could never support any foreign policy not based on promoting liberalism abroad. At the very least this overstates the case. In fact, contrary to Mearsheimer’s claims, it has often seemed in recent decades that American elites are more wedded to a liberal foreign policy than the people they represent.

This has certainly been the case in the recent push for military strikes in Syria. As polls have demonstrated, Americans don’t dispute that Assad is an evil tyrant who massacres his own people sometimes with chemical weapons. While they are horrified by such actions, they fundamentally disagree with the notion that America, as the global champion of liberty, has an obligation to get involved. This cannot be said for many American elites who, despite acknowledging the enormous risks involved, nonetheless are convinced that the U.S. does have a moral obligation to intervene to uphold a liberal international order, if not an actual responsibility to protect the Syrian people from their own leaders.

Some may argue that the Syria case is an anomaly that merely speaks to how war-weary an otherwise enthusiastic American public currently is. Again, there’s probably some truth to that but overall I’m not convinced.  In fact, at least with regards to military interventions, Americans usually seem to reject liberal arguments, and instead are guided primarily by whether America’s security is threatened.

Thus, they supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 because the George W. Bush administration had largely relied on security threats to the U.S. in making its case for war. When these security threats failed to materialize, and Bush began to emphasize the freedom agenda in promoting the war instead, American support for the war plummeted. More recently, Americans overwhelming support the use of drones to eliminate terrorists that U.S. leaders claim are plotting against the U.S., despite strong opposition throughout the rest of the world to drone strikes, as well as countless reports of civilians (including in some cases children) being killed in these strikes.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who followed U.S. military interventions in the 1990s. When U.S. Marines were killed on a humanitarian intervention in Somalia in 1993 for instance, Bill Clinton was immediately forced to withdraw from the mission under withering public pressure. Similarly, only 28 percent of the American public supported Clinton’s decision to send troops to Haiti to restore democracy the following year, compared to the 54 percent who opposed the operation. And only 30 percent of Americans felt in 1995 that the U.S. had a responsibility to “do something” when Serbs and Bosnians were fighting each other, compared to 64 percent who said it didn’t.

True, a plurality of 47 percent of Americans said the U.S. did have a responsibility to do something about Kosovo, but only 27 percent said the same thing about Libya. Support for Libya was even lower when one discussed actual options; for example, 77 percent of Americans opposed bombing Libyan air defenses (the first step in a no fly-zone) and almost 70 percent opposed even supplying the rebel forces with weapons.

And while President Clinton and Susan Rice might be haunted by the United States’ failure to intervene in Rwanda in 1994, far more American have been most profoundly affected by the decisions to intervene in Vietnam and Iraq. As Samantha Powers, the current UN Ambassador and a leading moral interventionist once wrote: “Few Americans are haunted by the memory of what they did in response to genocide in Rwanda.” 

It therefore seems that while U.S. elites may support a liberal foreign policy, the American public is mostly concerned with Realist objectives such as security and the national interest. The duty of American elites then is not to wrap realist policies in liberal narratives, but to convince the American people that supporting a liberal foreign policy is in their national interest. 

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