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It is widely and almost instinctively assumed that a progressive approach to foreign policy, animated by moral convictions, and a realist approach, animated by national interest, are fundamentally opposed. Yet recent experience reminds us that these traditions have much to learn from each other.
For progressives, the disastrous American intervention in Somalia in 1993 should have been a lesson that the purest intentions in service of the highest principles must be accompanied by realism concerning the forces at work inside a country and the limits and potentially devastating effects of military power.
At the same time, realists need to embrace two ideas traditionally associated with progressive thought. First, pay attention to the internal condition of states, not simply their relative power. Realism has traditionally put domestic politics in a black box, but the events of 9/11 reaffirmed the old truth that the internal decay of even a very weak country can create appalling problems for much more powerful states. Through much of modern history, from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution to Nazism, radical internal developments have led to catastrophic international wars. Even classical realists have increasingly admitted this failure of their tradition.
Second, traditional concepts of security cannot be the only concern of states. Global warming, much more than terrorism, will menace modern civilization over the coming generations. The great ancestor of modern Anglo-American realism, Edmund Burke, believed in society as a contract between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born—a statement close to the environmentalist maxim that we have only borrowed the world from our grandchildren. Given the scientific evidence of the threat of global warming to human civilization, a principled Burkean realist is virtually compelled to action on behalf of our descendants.
Reflection on both realist and progressive traditions suggest that such a reconciliation between the realist and progressive traditions is a real possibility. Reinhold Niebuhr and E.H. Carr—arguably the two greatest realist thinkers in the American and British traditions, respectively—both considered themselves to be of the left. Carr was identified with sympathy for the Soviet Union. Though Niebuhr was a strong opponent of Soviet communism, and a powerful influence on Truman’s containment doctrine, for most of his career he considered himself a democratic socialist. For both socialist and Christian reasons, he maintained throughout his life a sharply critical attitude to aspects of Western capitalism.
Two other great American realists, Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan, though not of the left, joined Niebuhr in opposing the Vietnam War and an American imperialism justified in the name of “democracy” and “freedom.”
Of course, there are also real elements of tension—practical, intellectual, and perhaps most of all emotional—between realist and progressive thought. The progressive tradition is animated by an ideal of social progress and inclined to optimism concerning human nature. The realist tradition is inclined to a pessimistic view of human nature (Morgenthau traced war to the human desire to dominate) and often derives from religious beliefs about original sin. As George Kennan wrote (in response to a Quaker document attacking the strategy of “containing” Soviet Communism),
It is idle to suppose that just because we human beings have our redeeming qualities and our moments of transcendent greatness, we are “nice people”. We are not. There are many times and situations when we require restraint . . . It would be a luxury, admittedly, to be able to dispense with violence. But this is a luxury which man, in his present state, cannot permit himself. He is not that good. His responsibility is not that small.
Every form of realism opposes revolutionary change, accepts certain national and international evils as inevitable, and is skeptical about human and social perfectibility. This has set the realist tradition against radicals of both left and right, including contemporary neoconservatives.
The progressive tradition is even more multiform, but all its forms involve a greater or lesser degree of commitment to social reform and the improvement of the human condition. Progressive thought is thus irreconcilably opposed to the “classical” realism of Metternich or Kissinger: a philosophy of pure realpolitik in defense of the status quo, with no commitment to or interest in the promotion of positive change even in the long term.
On the extreme left, in contrast, utopian hopes for the future perfectibility of mankind have been combined with a ferocious kind of realism concerning human nature in the present, and the means necessary to control and shape it. This strange combination helped fuel the monstrous crimes of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutionaries. Extreme conservative realism believes that the sinfulness of human nature in general makes all true progress impossible. Communist realism believes that the sinfulness of human nature as manifested in particular dominant classes and their deluded hangers-on means that true progress is only possible if those human elements are eliminated.
A moderate realism rejects both positions. It is certainly deeply hostile to a teleological vision of human progress leading to the achievement of a final, permanent and unchanging utopia, whether of Marx’s or Fukuyama’s imagining. However, it also allows plenty of room for promoting human progress, even as it underscores the limits of that progress and the effort and time typically needed to achieve it. As Carr wrote,
Any sound political thought must be based on elements of both utopia and reality. Where utopianism has become a hollow and intolerable sham, which serves merely as a guise for the interests of the privileged, the realist performs an indispensable service in unmasking it. But pure realism can offer nothing but a naked struggle for power which makes any kind of international society impossible. Having demolished the current utopia with the weapons of realism, we still need to build a new utopia of our own, which will one day fall to the same weapons.
Along with this generic belief in the possibility of human progress, both Carr and Niebuhr embraced the possibility of an international order that would foster international cooperation and decrease chances of war, though never banishing the possibility of conflict altogether: in the phrase of Cardinal Richelieu, a “permanent conversation” perhaps eventuating in a “community of reason.”
As a protestant theologian, Niebuhr necessarily took a pessimistic view of man as a fallen being, and passed this pessimism on to Carr. However, he also wrote that
it is possible for both individuals and groups [including nations] to relate concern for the other with interest and concern for the self. There are endless varieties of creativity in community; for neither the individual nor the community can realize itself except in relation to, and in encounter with, other individuals and groups . . . A valid moral outlook for both individuals and for groups, therefore, sets no limits to the creative possibility of concern for others, but makes no claims that such creativity ever annuls the power of self-concern or removes the peril of pretension if the force of residual egotism is not acknowledged.
A creative combination of progressive and realist thought therefore has old and solid intellectual foundations. Such a progressive realism is essential if the contemporary West is to address a whole set of pressing global issues. These include the environment; dealing with the roots of Islamist extremism and terrorism; opposition to attempts at “unipolar” world domination; respect for non-Western states and the nationalisms that underpin them; and a more realistic and effective approach to fostering the long-term spread of real democracy.
To take the last point first: clearly, the internal nature, decay, or development of states has a critical effect on their external behavior and how threatening they are to the outside world. And in the long run at least, the spread of stable, equitable, and prosperous democracy would represent great progress for humanity and for international peace. But how far can the West successfully spread democracy to the rest of the world if its own model looks seriously tarnished at home? In other words, domestic reform and international progress have to go hand in hand. As Kennan observed in 1984, “The power of example is far greater than the power of precept, and . . . the example offered to the world at this moment by the United States of America is far from being what it could be and ought to be.”
Kennan’s point has lost none of its force and can surely be embraced by progressives. The link between foreign policy and equitable social and economic policies at home is especially important because in much of the world, from Russia to Latin America, U.S. power and influence have become disastrously associated with the free-market extremism of the “Washington Consensus”—policies that have often had a dreadful effect on the lives of ordinary people, and have done much to stimulate anti-American populist nationalism.
Concerning the environment, commitment to take action against global warming does not of course form part of the older realist or progressive political traditions. As the danger becomes increasingly evident, however, this issue is bound to dominate more and more of the left’s thinking. Indeed, ample evidence now exists that in the future this issue will pose by far the greatest threat to modern civilization generated by the modern age; and this threat will obviously be to many things that realists hold dear: vital national interests, international peace and stability, and economic development.
Whatever its miserable environmental record in the past, the left today is the natural home of serious environmental concern and action: because of its inherent opposition to a capitalist materialism that focuses entirely on the well-being of those alive (and well off) today; because it is willing to contemplate radical changes to the present capitalist economic order, albeit ones different from those imagined by socialists in the past; and because it is willing to create strong state controls over the economy in the pursuit of long-term goals. As the report of the British commission headed by Sir Nicholas Stern (former chief economist at the World Bank and hardly a natural leftist) has it, global warming “is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.”
The third area where realists and progressives share certain common attitudes, and can work together, is opposition to the idea of Western liberal capitalist unipolarity. This opposition, as expressed by all the leading ethical and progressive realists, applies both to overweening U.S. imperial power itself and to the ideological positions that underpin it, summed up in repeated statements by both George W. Bush and Tony Blair that “freedom” is understood the same way everywhere.
Carr observes that “theories of social morality are always the product of a dominant group which identifies itself with the community as a whole, and which possesses facilities denied to subordinate groups or individuals for imposing its view of life on the community. Theories of international morality are, for the same reason and in virtue of the same process, the product of dominant nations or groups of nations.” The American ethical realists were clear-sighted in their recognition both of the moral emptiness and the political danger of this identification, and in their insistence on the need to respect the views and interests of other nations. As Hans Morgenthau wrote,
Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe . . . The light-hearted equation between a particular nationalism and the counsels of Providence is morally indefensible, for it is that very sin of pride against which the Greek tragedians and the Biblical prophets have warned rulers and ruled. The equation is also politically pernicious, for it is liable to engender the distortion in judgment which, in the blindness of crusading frenzy, destroys nations and civilizations.
In a similar vein, Niebuhr wrote of the “Biblical paradox” that Christians have access to the truth, but also have to recognize that as mortal beings in a fallen world they can never possess it fully:
Our toleration of truths opposed to those which we confess is an expression of the spirit of forgiveness in the realm of culture. Like all forgiveness, it is possible only if we are not too sure of our own virtue. Loyalty to the truth requires confidence in the possibility of its attainment; toleration of others requires broken confidence in the finality of our own truth.”
The left, with its long tradition of opposition to Western imperialism and neocolonialism, should have an instinctive sympathy for such views. And clearly, respect for the opinions and the interests of other nations has to involve a readiness to respect their right to generate political, economic, cultural, and moral orders different from those of the West, as long as these have not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt to be disastrous to their own peoples or threatening to international peace. The left’s opposition to Western unipolarity stems in large part from a skepticism about the true worth of the existing Western democratic capitalist order, especially in the radical form adopted by the United States and its more slavish imitators, and expressed in the Washington Consensus.
Resistance to American imperialism by both realists and progressives can stem from a shared appreciation of the critical importance of states, and the nationalisms that underpin states, both for the international system and for internal development. The reasons for this shared appreciation are different, but they are capable of being brought together in a creative synthesis.
For realists, states are the essential element of the international system; doomed to constant competition, but also the only possible building blocks of any international order. For the left, in the developing world many states are the product of previous struggle against Western imperialism, and are essential to defending peoples against a return of that imperialism. Progressives can, and certainly should therefore have some sympathy for the ambivalent attitude of many ordinary people in the non-Western world toward their own states—on the one hand, knowing and fearing them as oppressive, greedy, and brutal, but seeing them nonetheless as an essential defense against the brutality and exploitation of greater powers.
Moreover, states have to be sufficiently strong to smash the grip of predatory elites, ensure an adequate distribution of economic benefits and social goods to the mass of the population, and in the future perhaps limit consumption of fossil fuels. As the 19th-century German-American thinker Franz Lieber put it, reflecting Hegel, “a weak government is a negation of liberty.”
Yet today the liberal imperialists and a large part of the progressive or pseudo-progressive camp share a common hostility to states across much of the world. The imperialists dislike specific states—Iran, Syria, China, and Russia—because they oppose their plans for American world domination. In a more general sense, it is in their interest to denigrate states because that means that the opinions of their governments need not be taken into account (even when they are shared by their populations), their interests can be disregarded, and in general, they can be portrayed as barbarian entities, unworthy partners in international dialogue, and even fit subjects for military intervention. As Martin Jacques has written of one of the arch liberal imperialists, Michael Ignatieff,
It has become fashionable to argue that sovereignty should no longer be regarded as sacred, that human rights, even democracy, could, under certain circumstances, justify its subordination and breach. For the majority of nation-states, self-rule and sovereignty are a historical novelty, a product of the last half-century or so. The United States now poses a serious threat to this sovereignty, in the form of shock and awe interventions, brief occupations and hasty exits. Ignatieff’s sweeping dismissal of the achievement of post-colonial states serves both to reinforce a Western hubris easily dismissive of other cultures, and to justify imperialist adventurism on a scale far wider even than that used to threaten the “axis of evil”.
The anti-imperialist tradition of the left should bring an understanding of the critical role of nationalism in state formation, and in many forms of democratic mobilization. In the past, this was true in Europe from the French Revolution on. It was true of the revolts against colonial rule. The idea that one can impose democratic states in the teeth of local mass nationalism—which is the professed liberal imperialist program in Iran and much of the Muslim world—is a historical absurdity. This approach assumes a positively surreal form when it is argued that in Iran, for example, democratization can go hand in hand with submission to the will of the United States in foreign policy—when from their very origins in the 1890s, Iranian democratic politics have been associated with protest against Western domination.
Skepticism among progressives concerning the rapid spread of Western-style democracy should be strengthened by the old left-wing awareness that in countries with ruthless, greedy elites and weak legal orders, the outward forms of democracy can become a mere facade for oligarchical rule, under which the mass of the population is ruthlessly oppressed and savagely exploited. Venezuela from the 1950s to the 1980s was one such “democracy”; the Philippines continues to be such; and Russia under Boris Yeltsin was clearly heading in that direction. Quite often, this oligarchy is also a comprador elite, whose rule also involves looting their own country for the benefit of international capitalism.
Liberalism has traditionally recognized that the gradual establishment of constitutional democracy depends crucially on particular social, economic, and cultural developments (this was a key part of the “Whig theory of history”). Of much more recent vintage is the strange revolutionary conceit—it might be called “Bolshevik liberalism”—that any country can suddenly take a great leap forward, from autocracy to genuine democracy, with no regard to economic and social conditions. This is not a program for building democracy, unless you think that an occasional election suffices for democracy.
The left, with its ingrained awareness of how ostensibly neutral state forces, such as the judiciary and the police, are often tools of specific class interests, has no excuse for embracing Bolshevik liberalism. What is the point, for example, of talking about “free and fair elections” in the contemporary Pakistani countryside, where anyone who tries to create an agricultural trade union is subject to savage attack by the local landowning elites and their hirelings in the police? Creating democracy in these conditions can occur only as part of a wider, long-term socioeconomic transformation—not by electing a parliament dominated by those same landowning families.
As examples like this make clear, democratic state-building is a long and complicated business. Realists and progressives should develop a shared understanding of the need to foster the socioeconomic bases of real democracy over time—aided by Western development assistance that is generous, equitable, and strategically targeted. This is what I have called developmental realism—an approach with roots in the Marshall Plan, and in the U.S. promotion of radical land reform in East Asia in the early years of the Cold War.
Developmental realism naturally requires a certain metamorphosis of both realist and progressive thought. As noted, realists have to be much more aware of the importance of the internal nature of states than they have been in the past. They also need to abandon the shallow, fanatical, and selfish nostrums of the Washington Consensus and return to the model of the Truman administration at its best, giving massive aid to poor countries and opening American markets to their trade.
Progressives, however, have to understand that the willingness of their fellow citizens to make major financial sacrifices for the sake of international causes will always be governed to a large extent by considerations of national interest rather than of relative need; so aid for parts of the Muslim world, from whence stem serious threats to the United States, will have to take precedence over help to sub-Saharan Africa, even though the needs of that region are greater. Aid must also be conditioned on the possession by the recipient states of at least minimal capacity to use the aid honestly and effectively. South Korea was corrupt, but U.S. development aid to that country was not simply poured down the drain, as was U.S. aid to Zaire. The same would be true today of the difference between Pakistan and Nigeria.
There is nothing immoral or treacherous about recognizing that morality must be combined with realism. In Morgenthau’s words,
The equation of political moralizing with morality and of political realism with immorality is itself untenable. The choice is not between moral principles and the national interest, devoid of moral dignity, but between one set of moral principles divorced from political reality, and another set of principles derived from political reality.”
Far worse, and a far greater contemporary threat to progressives, is the conscious or unconscious fall of many of them into a pattern described by both Carr and Niebuhr: of cloaking one’s particular national ambitions in the garb of universal morality, and serving one’s own career by submitting ostentatiously to the prevailing ideological and nationalist hegemony.
Like enlightened conservatives, progressives need to develop an intellectual capacity to step outside the present age and contemplate the broader sweeps of human history; to situate themselves somewhere between Conrad’s fictional Captain Marlow, remembering that the Thames, like the Congo, was once “one of the dark places of the earth,” and Macaulay’s imaginary future visitor from New Zealand to the archaeological ruins of London. This is, of course, a terribly difficult task. It is not however, an inappropriate one for the intellectual elites of a country that has defined its role in the sweep of human history as equivalent to that of Rome, the “Eternal City.”
The American and Western approach to democratization in other societies should therefore be governed by rigor of the intellect and generosity of the spirit. Progressives need more rigor in studying the history, political culture, and social, economic, and ethnic orders of other societies before determining what kind of political system they can in fact support in the short-to-medium term. Both realists and progressives need more generosity: more sympathy for the historical fates and contemporary sufferings of other countries and a willingness to give them more real economic help—rather than preaching about our own supreme national virtue and success while expecting them to sacrifice their own interests and values at our feet.
Anatol Lieven is Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism and, with John Hulsman, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World.
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