A More Nuanced Foreign Policy: Realism and the Necessity of Playing Rough
Bruce Thorton, a Fellow of various institutions and a professor at California State University, recently wrote an article criticizing the Obama administration’s foreign policy towards Russia and the conflict in Syria. In short, the US has focused too heavily on international liberal desires for democratization and failed to understand Russia’s realist foreign policy. In fairness to President Obama, Thorton argues that similar quixotic delusions of “shared commitment[s] to peace, prosperity, democracy, and human rights” preceded him from the George W. Bush administration. The National Security Strategies of 2006 and 2015 similarly demonstrate that expanding democracy remains central to US foreign policy. This article is not without a theoretical foundation of its own, clearly analyzing the world from a firm foothold in the realist perspective. The underlying argument is nevertheless compelling. The US has fundamentally misread the orientation of Russian Foreign Policy. From the expansion of Russian influence into Crimea and Ukraine to its bombing of anti-Assad rebels, Russia perceives the world through a primarily realist lens. Material power and influence are the nation’s core foreign policy focus, one that is unencumbered by concerns of democratization. The US, meanwhile, has focused too heavily on the panacea of costly democratization and the spread of international liberalism. It has thus found itself flatfooted in responding to Russian maneuvers.
While the United States has dissipated its energies tilting at the windmills of creating spontaneous, stable western democracies in the infertile grounds of Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia is playing realpolitik. With the stalled drive against ISIS and the gradual erosion of Assad’s position, Russia seized the opportunity to assist its ally while appearing to join the effort to eradicate ISIS. A glance at a map of Russian airstrikes, however, quickly shows Russia’s true targets. The result has been significant advances by Assad forces and securing Russia’s sole Mediterranean naval base. Russia’s conquest of Crimea presents a similar case of exploiting weakness in the region to expand control, as well as acquire Crimea’s Black Sea naval base. Once again, these moves surprised a western world that should have anticipated these realist behaviors. This is not to claim that the US should relinquish its values. Indeed, our support for democracy, though occasionally overzealous, is an important part of our national character. However, the US must recognize that many international actors operate from a realist perspective and it should adjust its foreign policy towards them accordingly. Until it does so, the US will continually struggle anticipate the otherwise expectable behavior of realpolitik nation’s like Russia playing for their own interests.