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  Written by
  John J. Mearsheimer

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  Allen Carroll


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Liberal talk, realist thinking
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IMAGE:  Liberal talk, realist thinking

WHATEVER MERITS REALISM may have as an explanation for real-world politics and as a guide for formulating foreign policy, it is not a popular school of thought in the West. Realism's central message-that it makes good sense for states to selfishly pursue power-does not have broad appeal. It is difficult to imagine a modern political leader openly asking the public to fight and die to improve the balance of power. No European or American leader did so during either world war or the Cold War. Most people prefer to think of fights between their own state and rival states as clashes between good and evil, where they are on the side of the angels and their opponents are aligned with the devil. Thus, leaders tend to portray war as a moral crusade or an ideological contest, rather than as a struggle for power. Realism is a hard sell.

Americans appear to have an especially intense antipathy toward balance-of-power thinking. The rhetoric of 20th-century presidents, for example, is filled with examples of realism bashing. Woodrow Wilson is probably the most well-known example of this tendency, because of his eloquent campaign against balance-of-power politics during and immediately after World War I. Yet Wilson is hardly unique, and his successors have frequently echoed his views. In the final year of World War II, for example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, "In the future world the misuse of power as implied in the term 'power politics' must not be the controlling factor in international relations." More recently, Bill Clinton offered a strikingly similar view, proclaiming that "in a world where freedom, not tyranny, is on the march, the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill-suited to a new era." He sounded the same theme when defending NATO expansion in 1997, arguing that the charge that this policy might isolate Russia was based on the mistaken belief "that the great power territorial politics of the 20th century will dominate the 21st century." Instead, Clinton emphasized his belief that "enlightened self-interest, as well as shared values, will compel countries to define their greatness in more constructive ways … and will compel us to cooperate."

Americans tend to be hostile to realism because it clashes with their basic values. Realism stands opposed to Americans' views of both themselves and the wider world. 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.

Americans are basically optimists. They regard progress in politics, whether at the national or the international level, as both desirable and possible. As the French author Alexis de Tocqueville observed long ago, Americans believe that "man is endowed with an indefinite faculty of improvement." Realism, by contrast, offers a pessimistic perspective on international politics. It depicts a world rife with security competition and war, and, to quote Morgenthau, holds out little promise of "escape from the evil of power, regardless of what one does." Such pessimism is at odds with the powerful American belief that with time and effort, reasonable individuals can cooperate to solve important social problems. Liberalism offers a more hopeful perspective on world politics, and Americans naturally find it more attractive than the gloomy specter drawn by realism.


Americans are also prone to believe that morality should play an important role in politics. As the prominent sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset writes, "Americans are utopian moralists who press hard to institutionalize virtue, to destroy evil people, and eliminate wicked institutions and practices." This perspective clashes with the realist belief that war is an intrinsic element of life in the international system. Most Americans tend to think of war as a hideous enterprise that should ultimately be abolished from the face of the Earth. It might justifiably be used for lofty liberal goals like fighting tyranny or spreading democracy, but it is morally incorrect to fight wars merely to change or preserve the balance of power. This makes the Clausewitzian conception of warfare anathema to most Americans.

The American proclivity for moralizing also conflicts with the fact that realists tend not to distinguish between good and bad states, but instead discriminate between states largely on the basis of their relative power capabilities. A purely realist interpretation of the Cold War, for example, allows for no meaningful difference in the motives behind American and Soviet behavior during that conflict. According to realist theory, both sides were driven by their concerns about the balance of power, and each did what it could to maximize its relative power. Most Americans would recoil at this interpretation of the Cold War, however, because they believe the United States was motivated by good intentions while the Soviet Union was not.

Liberal theorists do distinguish between good and bad states, of course, and they usually identify liberal democracies with market economies as the most worthy. Not surprisingly, Americans tend to like this perspective, because it identifies the United States as a benevolent force in world politics and portrays its real and potential rivals as misguided or malevolent troublemakers. Predictably, this line of thinking fueled the euphoria that attended the downfall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. When the "evil empire" collapsed, many Americans (and Europeans) concluded that democracy would spread across the globe and that world peace would soon break out. This optimism was based largely on the belief that democratic America is a virtuous state. If other states emulated the United States, therefore, the world would be populated by good states, and this development could only mean the end of international conflict.

Because Americans dislike realpolitik, public discourse about foreign policy in the United States is usually couched in the language of liberalism. Hence the pronouncements of the policy elites are heavily flavored with optimism and moralism. American academics are especially good at promoting liberal thinking in the marketplace of ideas. Behind closed doors, however, the elites who make national security policy speak mostly the language of power, not that of principle, and the United States acts in the international system according to the dictates of realist logic. In essence, a discernible gap separates public rhetoric from the actual conduct of American foreign policy.
Prominent realists have often criticized U.S. diplomacy on the grounds that it is too idealistic and have complained that American leaders pay insufficient attention to the balance of power. For example, George Kennan wrote in 1951, "I see the most serious fault of our past policy formulation to lie in something that I might call the legalistic-moralistic approach to international problems. This approach runs like a red skein through our foreign policy of the last 50 years." According to this line of argument, there is no real gap between America's liberal rhetoric and its foreign policy behavior, because the United States practices what it preaches. But this claim is wrong. American foreign policy has usually been guided by realist logic, although the public pronouncements of its leaders might lead one to think otherwise.

It should be obvious to intelligent observers that the United States speaks one way and acts another. In fact, policymakers in other states have always remarked about this tendency in American foreign policy. As long ago as 1939, for example, Carr pointed out that states on the European continent regard the English-speaking peoples as "masters in the art of concealing their selfish national interests in the guise of the general good," adding that "this kind of hypocrisy is a special and characteristic peculiarity of the Anglo-Saxon mind."

Still, the gap between rhetoric and reality usually goes unnoticed in the United States itself. Two factors account for this phenomenon. First, realist policies sometimes coincide with the dictates of liberalism, in which case there is no conflict between the pursuit of power and the pursuit of principle. Under these circumstances, realist policies can be justified with liberal rhetoric without having to discuss the underlying power realities. This coincidence makes for an easy sell. For example, the United States fought against fascism in World War II and communism in the Cold War for largely realist reasons. But both of those fights were also consistent with liberal principles, and thus policymakers had little trouble selling them to the public as ideological conflicts.

Second, when power considerations force the United States to act in ways that conflict with liberal principles, "spin doctors" appear and tell a story that accords with liberal ideals. For example, in the late 19th century, American elites generally considered Germany to be a progressive constitutional state worthy of emulation. But the American view of Germany changed in the decade before World War I, as relations between the two states deteriorated. By the time the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, Americans had come to see Germany as more autocratic and militaristic than its European rivals.

Similarly, during the late 1930s, many Americans saw the Soviet Union as an evil state, partly in response to Josef Stalin's murderous internal policies and his infamous alliance with Nazi Germany in August 1939. Nevertheless, when the United States joined forces with the Soviet Union in late 1941 to fight against the Third Reich, the U.S. government began a massive public relations campaign to clean up the image of America's new ally and make it compatible with liberal ideals. The Soviet Union was now portrayed as a proto-democracy, and Stalin became "Uncle Joe."

How is it possible to get away with this contradiction between rhetoric and policy? Most Americans readily accept these rationalizations because liberalism is so deeply rooted in their culture. As a result, they find it easy to believe that they are acting according to cherished principles, rather than cold and calculated power considerations.

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John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison distinguished service professor in political science and co-director of the University's Program on International Security Policy. This article is adapted from The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John Mearsheimer. © 2001 by John Mearsheimer. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.



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