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Reader riposte: McCain's foreign policy

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COMMENTS

14 May 2008 15:25

Edward Cohen, a former Lowy Institute intern, replies to Raoul Heinrichs:

Raoul Heinrichs’ fascinating post on the battle underway for John McCain’s foreign policy soul raises the dichotomy between ‘realist’ and ‘idealist’ traditions in American foreign policy. Raoul cites Fareed Zakaria’s observation that McCain is vacillating between a ‘shrewd self-interested realism’ promoted by foreign policy conservatives such as Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft and ‘idealistic neo-conservatism’. Neo-conservatism may well have idealistic features and prominent realists may also be conservatives, but to a large degree this dualism is illusory. It is a telling indication of how we have been influenced over the course of the Bush Administration to associate ‘idealism’ with its controversial neo-conservative variant and to consign realism to the distant memory of Cold War-era administrations. Getting beyond this dichotomy is essential if we want to retool analytically for the next presidency.

One way around it is to realise that the question American foreign policy has been trying to answer since the Republic’s founding is what is the best way America can promote its ideals and its interests in a mutually reinforcing manner, not whether its ideals should be promoted at all or whether it should just focus on power. It is true that the US has never been comfortable with the idea of cynically using power to pursue a narrow self-interest that is divorced from the realisation of desirable human ends, an approach that it associated with European ‘balance of power’ diplomacy in the 19th century. Yet it is also true that, as classical Republicans, America’s founders were acutely aware of the vulnerability of the Republican system to foreign threats and to the internal stress that would come from a large military establishment. This was an outlook that paid a great deal of attention to the limits of power.

Fast-forward to the early years of the Cold War and we see this debate being played out again. The prominent ‘realists’ of the day, such as George Kennan, Reinhold Neibuhr and Hans Morgenthau, vehemently objected to what they saw as the ‘naïve moralism’ of much American foreign policy language and argued that power and interest should be the guiding principle of America’s foreign policy. Yet at no stage did they abandon their view that America’s strength was necessary for a more just world order. It was precisely because America was the best hope for civilisation that its power had to be carefully cultivated, applied selectively and not frittered away in self-righteous fervour.

Foreign policy for realists is an attempt to work out a practical morality and optimise the relationship between conscience and power. As such, there is little basis to suggest that it stands opposed to idealism. There is no automatic trade-off between the attempt to spread American political values and paying close attention to the political credibility and sustainability of the undertaking. Neo-conservatism and realism, as we’ve been led to understand them over the past seven years, are irreconcileable, as Raoul argues. Yet a conceptual synthesis between some of their less extreme aspects is surely not beyond our grasp. As Walter Lippman once argued, until you’ve brought objectives and resources into equilibrium, you don’t have a foreign policy.

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