Realism in US Foreign Policy

Breaking down the most influential theory of international relations in the American academy.

Hey, Derek here. I’m so happy to bring you Daniel’s second Foreign Exchanges column, which digs into International Relations theory and the intellectual foundation of much of US foreign policy as it’s developed since World War II. If you like this column please sign up for FX’s free email list to receive these and much more news and analysis of international affairs, or consider subscribing to support Daniel and the newsletter in general:


In my last column, I discussed the mid-20th century period, which was formative in shaping how Americans understand foreign policy, international relations, and, ultimately, their role in the world. In this column, I’d like to address one crucial approach to viewing geopolitics that emerged from the experiences of that era: realism. Realism is, by far, the most influential theory of international relations in the American academy.

Because US academics are constantly forced to distinguish themselves from their predecessors in order to advance in the university (a form of branding, some might say), in 2020 there are many different types of realisms: classical realism, neorealism, neoclassical realism, offensive realism, defensive realism, etc. Though each of these realisms has different emphases, in my opinion they’re united by a set of assumptions about how international relations works.

First, realists emphasize the importance of “international anarchy” to shaping international politics. By international anarchy, realists simply mean that, unlike in a domestic setting, there is no legitimate “supranational” (i.e., above the nation) institution able to enforce law. While in the United States, the federal government is able to use coercion that is generally recognized as legitimate to force people, say, to sign up for the draft or pay their taxes, there is no analogous institution above the level of the nation. The United Nations, for instance, cannot stop states from going to war. For realists, this means that geopolitics is ultimately a sphere defined by “self-help,” in which nations can’t really rely on others to save them.

Second, realists insist that, in a self-help system, the most important thing that states must focus on is their physical security. Put another way, what matters most in a self-help system is that states do whatever is necessary to survive, because there is no supranational organization that they can be sure will come to their aid. For this reason, realists claim, it is foolish for states to spend too much energy trying to do things like export democracy or protect human rights; in the final analysis, these efforts distract from what should be a state’s primary emphasis: to survive.

Third, realists don’t think the character of a state matters that much, at least in terms of the types of policies a nation should pursue. While realists would admit that there are meaningful ethical and political differences between democracies and autocracies, they also insist that, when one is speaking about international relations, these differences don’t (or at least, shouldn’t) matter that much. In a sense, realists “black box” the domestic political character of states, avowing that these should not be the focus of geopolitical analysis.

Finally, as this all suggests, realists embrace an incredibly pessimistic theory of human nature. Sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, realists maintain that human beings have an innate desire to expand, to increase their power, and to dominate other people and states. In philosophical terms, they adopt a Hobbesian theory of human nature (named after the Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes) in which international politics is a war-of-all-against-all.

But what does all of this have to do with the mid-century era and the development of US foreign policy?

Realism was first formulated and articulated by a group of exiles forced to flee Germany soon after Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933. And, similar to the Americans whom I discussed in my last column, these exiles concluded that the successes of Hitler (and Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin) demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that reason could never end international conflict. In fact, from the vantage point of the middle of the twentieth century, realists like Hans Morgenthau, John Herz, and others argued that the first half of the century consisted of nothing but a series of naïve, failed experiments that didn’t appreciate humankind’s innate drive for war.

Hans Speier, a German exile and realist (about whom I wrote my first book), who in 1948 became the first head of the RAND Corporation’s Social Science Division, expressed realists’ disillusionment well when he wrote in 1950:

Since the end of the first World War … the faith in the power of public opinion [i.e., reason] to render world politics reasonable has been shaken. There are many events which contributed to this demoralization: the failure of the League of Nations; disillusionment concerning the lofty war aims of the Allies and the general distrust of propaganda which spread between the two world wars; the rise of fascism and national socialism in countries of old civilization and with no lack of liberal traditions; the absence of inspiring peace aims during the second World War; the sterility of the resistance movements in the realm of political ideas; the use of weapons of mass destruction in the attainment of victory; and the quick transformation of the wartime coalition into intense hostility between its main partners even before peace was formally established. Despite war crimes’ trials, attempts to re-educate the conquered peoples and the insistence on world-wide freedom of information, the moral energy of the liberal faith in the moralization of foreign … affairs by means of enlightenment appears to have been spent.

Realists believed that international politics—indeed, politics in general—was brutal and untamable, and that these were realities all serious people needed to accept.

Over the course of the middle of the twentieth century, as many scholars have shown, German exiles transformed US academia. One of the fields in which they had the most influence, as the historian Nicolas Guilhot has demonstrated, was international relations. But why does this matter? After all, who cares what a few eggheads might have thought about IR?

To understand German exiles’ influence, we must appreciate that, after 1945, receiving an advanced degree became a crucial means by which an individual entered and advanced within the national security state. Getting a Ph.D., in short, was a key to the halls of power, and many of the most influential foreign policymakers of the twentieth century’s second half—Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Andy Marshall, and Condoleezza Rice, to name only a few—had doctorates. To put a fine point on it, hundreds, if not thousands, of the individuals who populated the US foreign policy establishment were trained in realist principles. Of course, not all of the aforementioned individuals were card-carrying realists, but it’s fair to say that the ideas of realism provided the base from which many of them began to think about IR.

National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1977 (US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons)

As such, the people who made US foreign policy during the era of the nation’s hegemony had an incredibly pessimistic understanding of human nature and international politics. Perhaps this is why, for all their talk about “democracy promotion” and “human rights,” US policymakers sometimes have been quite “realist,” partnering with a diverse number of autocratic, or at the very least nondemocratic, states, from Saudi Arabia to Israel to Egypt (and many more).

Realism presents an intellectual problem for leftists. Most importantly, realists make a number of good points about US foreign policy and international relations that cannot simply be ignored. It is true, in fact, that it is quite difficult to spread democracy or defend human rights abroad. In my opinion, for instance, a socialist president shouldn’t go around the world sending weapons to promote left-wing movements, as there is just too much uncertainty to make this a wise long-term policy—ironically, such a policy would probably prolong the era of American imperial domination by guaranteeing the continuation of the military-industrial and military-intellectual complexes. Indeed, in many ways I consider myself a “socialist realist”—someone who wants to create a socialist world, but who believes that the power of the US state to force foreign political transformation is inherently limited and that, when such transformation is attempted, it usually leads to unforeseen consequences.

Nevertheless, I’m also of the opinion that realists are far too pessimistic about the ability of reason to attenuate wars. The overwhelming majority of states are not Nazi Germany, and the overwhelming majority of leaders are not Hitler—vicious racists bent on total domination of their region. Despite what liberal and conservative hawks will tell you, autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping do not approach Hitler in the scale of their ambitions. Put another way, it’s very rarely the 1930s or 1940s, and we in 2020 America must stop pretending like it is. In fact, the major problems the human species faces—climate change, inequality, pandemics—will require international cooperation. If people continue to accept the realist claim that IR is a sphere defined by a permanent war-of-all-against-all, the human race will inevitably descend even further into despair.

In the coming years, leftists will have to promote their own particular approach to international affairs that incorporates the insights of realism with the universal goals of socialism. This is not an easy task and will require serious thought, debate, and discussion—the exact thing we’re promoting here at Foreign Exchanges.

Further reading:

The first text of modern realism is Hans Morgenthau’s 1948 Politics Among Nations, which has appeared in various editions. Other major realist texts include Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics and John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. For recent realist criticisms of U.S. foreign policy, see Mearsheimer’s The Great Delusion and Stephen Walt’s The Hell of Good Intentions.

The best historical account of realism’s development is Nicolas Guilhot’s After the Enlightenment. Also see Udi Greenberg’s The Weimar Century and my own Democracy in Exile.

Henry Kissinger, of course, is the most famous “realist,” though there is some debate as to whether or not he was, in actuality, realist. There are many books on Kissinger, but good introductions are Jeremi Suri’s Henry Kissinger and the American Century and Mario del Pero’s The Eccentric Realist.