The limits of American realism

Roger Cohen writes: Is realism really, really what America wants as the cornerstone of its foreign policy?

Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University, has an eloquent ode to realism in Foreign Policy magazine. He argues that, with realism as the bedrock of its approach to the world over the past quarter century, the United States would have fared far better. Realists, he reminds us, “have a generally pessimistic view of international affairs and are wary of efforts to remake the world according to some ideological blueprint.”

Pessimism is a useful source of prudence in both international and personal affairs. Walt’s piece makes several reasonable points. But he omits the major European conflict of the period under consideration — the wars of Yugoslavia’s destruction, in which some 140,000 people were killed and millions displaced.

Realists had a field day with that carnage, beginning with former Secretary of State James Baker’s early assessment that, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” This view was echoed by various self-serving assessments from the Clinton White House that justified inaction through the portrayal of the Balkans as the locus of millennial feuds neither comprehensible nor resolvable.

True, discerning a vital American national interest in places with names like Omarska was not obvious, even if the wars upset the European peace America had committed to maintaining since 1945. The realpolitik case for intervention was flimsy. Sarajevo was not going to break America, less even than Raqqa today.

The moral case was, however, overwhelming, beginning with the Serbian use in 1992 of concentration camps to kill Bosnian Muslim men deemed threatening, and expel Muslim women and children. These methods culminated at Srebrenica in 1995 with the Serbian slaughter of about 8,000 male inhabitants. In the three-year interim, while realists rationalized restraint, Serbian shelling of Sarajevo blew up European women and children on a whim. Only when President Clinton changed his mind and NATO began concerted bombing was a path opened to ending the war.

I covered that conflict and its resolution. For my baby-boomer generation, spared Europe’s repetitive bloodshed by American military and strategic resolve, it was a pivotal experience. After that, no hymn to realism pure and simple could ever be persuasive. Walt calls me “a liberal internationalist;” I’ll take that as an honorable badge. [Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Facebooktwitterrss
Facebooktwittermail