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Avoiding the ‘Realist’s’ Retreat

The coronavirus challenge—the pandemic itself and the resultant economic shock—puts a stress test on individuals, societies, countries, alliances, and the international system—and precedents are sobering. The infection curve may be starting to bend, but economic shock and political dysfunction may lead to a global Great Depression.

Last time the world had one of those, the United States had withdrawn from responsibility in the world (something President Donald Trump seems to find tempting). Democracies then seemed to be defensive and floundering; the dictators then felt their time had come; and from these failures came world war and cold war. The United States and its free world allies had better get it right this time around.

This is the context in which Steve Krasner, State Policy Planning Director during the second Bush term (someone we have worked with and respect), has written a piece in Foreign Affairs (“Learning to Live with Despots”) that advocates realism as the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy.

He means by this less U.S. emphasis on democracy in the world (which he calls an attempt “to remake other countries in the American image”) and more emphasis on achieving practical results with non-democratic states: more security, stability, economic growth, and fewer transnational threats (e.g., terrorism, proliferation, and drug trafficking).

The tagline of Krasner’s article is that “Washington should [adopt] a foreign policy that keeps the country safe by working with the rulers the world has, not the ones the United States wishes it had.”

Who can argue against dealing with the world as it is? Or against seeking practical results in foreign policy? Being realistic is a necessary condition of successful foreign policy. Making progress on practical areas of common interest, even with non-democratic states, is part of any reasonable diplomatic action plan. This looks obvious at a high level of abstraction. But “Realism” as a doctrine, as Krasner advocates it, doesn’t look so good as the consequences emerge.

Krasner explains that the United States should help other countries boost their security, economic growth, and deliver some services “while nevertheless accommodating a despotic ruler.”

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