All people in foreign policy circles consider themselves realists, since all people consider themselves realistic about every issue they ever talk about. At the same time, very few consider themselves realists, since realism signifies, in too many minds, cynicism and failure to intervene abroad when human rights are being violated on a mass scale. Though everyone and no one is a realist, it is also true that realism never goes away — at least not since Thucydides wrote The Peloponnesian War in the fifth century B.C., in which he defined human nature as driven by fear (phobos), self-interest (kerdos) and honor (doxa). And realism, as defined by perhaps the pre-eminent thinker in the field in the last century, the late Hans Morgenthau of the University of Chicago, is about working with the basest forces of human nature, not against them.
Why is realism timeless and yet reviled at the same time? Because realism tells the bitterest truths that not everyone wants to hear. For in foreign policy circles, as in other fields of human endeavor, people often prefer to deceive themselves. Let me define what realism means to me.
First of all, realism is a sensibility, a set of values, not a specific guide as to what to do in each and every crisis. Realism is a way of thinking, not a set of instructions as to what to think. It doesn't prevent you from making mistakes. This makes realism more an art than a science. That's why some of the best practitioners of realism in recent memory — former U.S. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III — never distinguished themselves as writers or philosophers. They were just practical men who had a knack for what made sense in foreign policy and what did not. And even they made mistakes. You can be an intellectual who has read all the books on realism and be an utter disaster in government, just as you could be a lawyer who has never read one book on realism and be a good secretary of state. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was unique because he was both: an intellectual realist and a successful statesman. But successful statesmen, intellectual or not, must inculcate a set of beliefs that can be defined by what may be called the Realist Creed:
Order Comes Before Freedom. That's right. Americans may think freedom is the most important political value, but realists know that without order there can be no freedom for anyone. For if anarchy reigns and no one is in charge, freedom is worthless since life is cheap. Americans sometimes forget this basic rule of nature since they have taken order for granted — because they always had it, a gift of the English political and philosophical tradition. But many places do not have it. That is why when dictators are overthrown, realists get nervous: They know that because stable democracy is not assured as a replacement, they rightly ask, Who will rule? Even tyranny is better than anarchy. To wit, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was more humane than Iraq under no one — that is, in a state of sectarian war.
Work With the Material at Hand. In other words, you can't just go around the world toppling regimes you don't like because they do not adhere to the same human rights standards as you do, or because their leaders are corrupt or unenlightened, or because they are not democrats. You must work with what there is in every country. Yes, there might be foreign leaders so averse to your country's interests that it will necessitate war or sanctions on your part; but such instances will be relatively rare. When it comes to foreign rulers, realists revel in bad choices; idealists often mistakenly assume that there should be good ones.
Realism is a way of thinking, not a set of instructions as to what to think.
Think Tragically in Order to Avoid Tragedy. Pessimism has more value than misplaced optimism. Because so many regimes around the world are difficult or are in difficult straits, realists know that they must always be thinking about what could go wrong. Foreign policy is like life: The things you worry about happening often turn out all right, precisely because you worried about them and took protective measures accordingly; it is the things you don't worry about and that happen unexpectedly that cause disaster. Realists are good worriers.
Not Every Problem Has a Solution. It is a particular conceit that every problem is solvable. It isn't. Mayhem and human rights violations abound, even as the United States cannot intervene everywhere or take foreign policy positions that will necessarily help. That's why realists are comfortable doing little or nothing in certain instances, even as they feel just as bad as idealists about heartrending situations.
Interests Come Before Values. A nation such as the United States has interests in secure sea lines of communication, access to energy, a soft dominance in the Western Hemisphere and a favorable balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. These are amoral concerns that, while not necessarily in conflict with liberal values, operate in a different category from them. If Arab dictatorships will better secure safe sea lanes in and out of energy-producing areas than would chaotic democracies, realists will opt for dictatorship, knowing that it is a tragic yet necessary decision.
American Power Is Limited. The United States cannot intervene everywhere or even in most places. Precisely because America is a global power, it must try to avoid getting bogged down in any one particular place. The United States can defend treaty and de facto allies with its naval, air and cyber power. It can infiltrate communications networks the world over. It can, in short, do a lot of things. But it cannot set to right complex Islamic societies in deep turmoil. So another thing realists are good at — and comfortable with — is disappointing people. In fact, one might say that foreign policy at its best is often about disappointing people, not always creating opportunities so much as keeping even worse things from happening.
Passion and Good Policy Often Don't Go Together. Foreign policy requires practitioners among whom the blood runs cold. While loud voices abound about doing something, the person in charge must quietly ask himself or herself, If I do this, what will happen two steps down the road, three steps down the road, and so forth? For passion can easily flip: Those screaming the loudest for intervention today can be the same ones calling your intervention flawed or insufficient after you have embarked on the fateful enterprise.
Reading this list, you might think that realism is immoral. That would be wrong. Rather, realism is imbued with a hard morality of best possible outcomes under the circumstances rather than a soft morality of good intentions. For there is a big difference between being moral and moralistic: The former celebrates difficult choices and the consequences that follow, while the latter abjures them. Realism is a hard road. The policymaker who lives by its dictums will often be rebuked while in office and fondly recalled as a statesman in the years and decades following. Look at George H.W. Bush. But foreign policy realists who have served in high office, I suspect, are more comfortable with the kind of loneliness that comes with rebuke than some of their idealist counterparts. Loneliness is normal for the best policymakers; it is the craving for the adoring crowd that is dangerous.