Thursday, January 24, 2008

Realism, the Commentariat, and Variety in Political Thought

Eugene Gholz at Across the Aisle has posted a worthwhile critique of an excellent article at by Stephen Walt, in which Walt bemoans the lack of realists in the popular foreign policy commentariat. Starting with the recent hiring of William Kristol at the Times, Walt laments that, in the popular press, there is little analytical variation regarding the United States' appropriate global role. He sees columnists and others basically split between liberal internationalists and neoconservatives, both of whom support the notion of the United States as a transformative global leader, ready to project (and at times enforce) its will and values upon the Globe. Walt (and Gholz) argue that the differences between these groups are peripheral: they advocate different policies because they disagree on priorities and means, not because their worldviews are fundamentally at odds. Walt argues that realists need to have a greater voice in public discourse, and that if the Times really wants to hire someone with a fresh voice, it should look to proponents of the realist school.

I'm not a realist (frankly I'm not really sure that I'd call myself an anything at this point), but I'm basically in agreement with Walt. I take issue with Gholz's assertion that there aren't any good candidates because most realists exist in academia. Where else should good public intellectuals come from? Paul Krugman's an academic. Teaches at Princeton. He doesn't seem to have a problem banging out a couple of columns every week. More to the point, though, I agree that public discourse - again, in the popular press, not just in Greek-letter academia - would benefit from the realist perspective. While, during my time as an undergraduate, realism was often presented as the most violent, bellicose way of looking at international relations due to its emphasis on balance-of-power politics, I have come to appreciate the humility with which realists approach the international system. The kind of transformational, almost messianic fervor with which neoconservatives often approach foreign policy questions could stand to be tempered a bit.

I don't agree with everything Walt and his ideological colleagues say. In particular, I tend to think that spreading Democracy (intelligently) is a major strategic interest of the United States, not a dangerous pie-in-the-sky diversion. I also think Walt overemphasizes the similarities between the neoconservative and liberal internationalist worldviews. Still, a perspective like his would be interesting and beneficial to get on a more regular basis. Maybe he can submit his resume to the Salzburgers when Kristol's tenure is up next year.

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