The American electorate has historically possessed a poor record of embracing, or rather accepting, the merits and reality that the school of Realism plays in the United States’s foreign policy formulation. It is commonly agreed that the core tenants of Realism are as follows: that is makes sense for states to selfishly pursue power; and that war is a natural extension of politics and that little is provided for in the way of drawing distinctions between “good” and “bad” states, as all great powers act according to the same logic regardless of their culture, political system, etc. This fails to resonates with an American population who consider themselves to occupy a inherent sense of optimism and moralism. Countless military adventures have been sold to the public as either an ideological contest or a moral crusade, very seldom has an intervention been portrayed as a purely realist adventure.

Twentieth-century presidents have given us ample evidence to demonstrate the tendency to depict an impending conflict as anything but a realist campaign. Following the conclusion of World War II, FDR declared that “In the future world the misuse of power as implied in the term ‘power politics’ must not be the controlling factor in international relations”. President Clinton, more recently, offered a remarkably similar view, proclaiming that “in a world where freedom, not tyranny, is on the march, the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill-suited to a new era.” President Clinton emphasised his belief that “enlightened self-interest, as well as shared values, will compel countries to define their greatness in more constructive way … and will compel us to cooperate.”

As Realism fails to provide the necessary tenants the American population require as pre-requestie to their nation’s foreign policy discourse, another International Relations theory is obliged to occupy the chasm that Realism’s invalidity produces. The dialogue heard in the United States regarding matters abroad often resonates as having originated from an introductory Liberalism lecture. Americans can be crudely labelled as optimists; they regard progress in politics as booth desirable and possible. “Man is endowed with an indefinite faculty of improvement” noted famed French author Alexis de Tocqueville. It is Realism that offers the alternate persuasion. Realism offers a pessimistic perspective on international politics, it depicts global security competition to be ubiquitous and provides no aspiration toward the escape of the “evil of power.” Americans consider morality to posses an important role in politics. Seymour Martin Lipset is a prominent sociologist and describes Americans as “utopian moralists who press hard to institutionalise virtue, to destroy evil people and eliminate wicked institutions and practices.” This perspective clashes with the core tenant of Realism – that war is an intrinsic element of the international system. Americans have previously accepted grand liberal goals for initiating wars, such as: fighting tyranny or spreading democracy – but it is thought that justifications including balance of power considerations, would be unacceptable.

John Mearsheimer claims that despite the rhetoric, the United States behaves in uniform to all other Great Powers past; it considers its foreign entanglements exclusively through careful balance of power considerations. It behaves in this manner while domestically portraying it’s distant engagements as promoting freedom, democracy, etc.. US involvement in both World Wars and the Cold War are elucidated quite soberly as America balancing potential regional hegemonies in both Europe and Asia, any ideological clash played but a consolatory role. While it is clear that the American people have no tolerance for dialogue comprising the pragmatic of nature of realism, the theory’s explanatory power regarding America’s former conflicts is indisputable. Mearsheimer asserts that those who make national security policy “speak mostly the language of power, not that of principle, and the United states acts in the international system according to the dictates of realist logic.” American distain for realpolitik has led to the departure of consistency between public pronouncements and policy. Realism is, as Mearsheimer professes, the decipher of America’s international behaviour.

“United states acts in the international system according to the dictates of realist logic”

There are two reasons presented by Mearsheimer as to why the United States has been able to maintain this apparent divergence in rhetoric and practice. Firstly, there are instances in which realist policies coincide with liberal dictates, the pursuit of power follows the pursuit of principle. For example, the United States challenged both fascism in World War II and communism in the Cold War for largely realist, balance of power reasons. Both these campaigns happened to align with liberal policies, allowing for these conflicts to be portrayed as an ideological contest. Secondly, propaganda and immense public relations campaigns are used to dispel any apparent conflict with America’s liberal principles and a developing confrontation. For example, during the late 1930’s, the prominent surmise regarding the Soviet Union was that both Josef Stalin and the USSR were “evil”. Stalin’s murderous internal policies and his infamous alliance with Nazi Germany in August 1939 were amongst the more noteworthy reasons why the United States considered the Soviet Union to be an iniquitous power. Notwithstanding, the US allied with the Soviet Union in late 1941 to defeat the Third Reich. A tremendous propaganda effort to portray the Soviet Union as a proto-democracy and the branding of Stalin as “Uncle Joe” were in the company of various other endeavours to change the American image of the Soviets.

Realism however, fails to produce logical impetus for involvement in certain prior clashes. George Kennan, a well-known American political scientist and historian, commented in 1951 that “I see the most serious fault of our past policy formulation to lie in something that I might call the legalistic-moralistic approach to international problems. This approach runs like a red skein through our foreign policy of the last fifty years.” These occurrences will be discussed in detail in part two.

This post was written and inspired by John Mearsheimer in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001)