Brent Scowcroft and the Need for a Better Realist Theory of International Relations

I swear to goodness that I am not trying to turn all of my public writing spaces into All-Things-Scowcroftian-All-The-Time discussion locales, but the death of Brent Scowcroft caused me to go back to a 2005 article in the New Yorker written by Jeffrey Goldberg, that profiled Scowcroft in light of his dissent from the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, and his resulting split from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. In discussing Scowcroft’s adherence to the foreign policy principles of realism/realpolitik, Goldberg writes the following passage:

The first Bush Administration did engage in one act of humanitarian interventionism, in Somalia, when it sent American troops to help feed starving civilians in Mogadishu. When I mentioned Somalia to Scowcroft as an example of idealism over national self-interest, he demurred, as if it were an accusation: a true realist does not employ the military for selfless humanitarian operations. The action in Somalia, Scowcroft said—at least in his view—was in America’s self-interest. “About four months before we went in, the President and I had a meeting with the U.N. Secretary-General, and he was saying that most of the world believes that the U.N. has become the instrument of Western powers. Here’s a chance to set that record straight. Here’s an underdeveloped state, a Muslim state, a black state, and here’s a chance to show the world that we are not acting in our self-interest.” In other words, the United States acted selflessly out of self-interest.

To which, the proper response (to Scowcroft, not Goldberg) is something along the lines of “oh, come on.”

Before we get into why I would give that response, let’s define some terms–and this is where I might get somewhat (idiosyncratically) pedantic. As I view it, “realism” is a theory of international relations that seeks to explain past and present nation-state behavior, and seeks to predict future nation-state behavior, based on the belief that nation-states are perpetually in conflict and seek power in what most realists believe is an anarchic international system (I won’t get into the different schools of realism in this writing, and what those schools might say about anarchy in the international order, or more specific reasons why nation-states seek power). Strictly speaking, “realism” does not constitute a set of policy proposals or prescriptions; rather, it seeks to explain why nation-states choose certain policy proposals and prescriptions.

Realpolitik,” notwithstanding its original Enlightenment definition concerning a politics that seeks to achieve Enlightenment goals, is more aptly used nowadays to describe a set of policy prescriptions in the realm of international relations that realists would identify as being the predictable outgrowths of perpetually interstate conflict within an anarchic international system, in a constant struggle for power. Most realists advocate principles of realpolitik, and most adherents of realpolitik believe in the robustness of realist theory, but for the record, and for what it is worth, I maintain that it *is* possible for, say, a realist to pine for a world in which Wilsonian internationalism is the order of the day.

Having defined these terms (accurately, I hope), I posit that Goldberg’s question to Scowcroft pretty much involved asking “why is it, that when it came to Somalia, American foreign policy principles–who were dyed-in-the-wool practitioners of realpolitik!–did not behave the way realists would have expected them to behave?” And instead of having given the answer he gave, I wish that Scowcroft would have given the following answer instead:

You’re right in stating that realist theory likely would not have predicted the nature of American policy regarding Somalia. Realism is not a perfect and all-encompassing theory; if it were, debates in the realm of international relations theory regarding which theory is best would have been settled eons ago. I am not an adherent of realist theory because I believe that it bats a thousand. I believe in realist theory because, imperfect though the theory may be, it is the best theory out there in terms of explaining past and present nation-state behavior, and predicting future nation-state behavior. Additionally, to the extent that realist theory can be improved in terms of its robustness and explanatory power, that improvement can come from recognizing that notwithstanding realist theory’s general observations regarding nation-state behavior, the theory ought to take into account the possibility that some nation-states–including the United States of America–are sui generis amongst nation-states, and acquire a significant amount of (at least) soft power as a consequence of living up to the highest ideals of the American experiment, both at home and abroad. When we maintain our ideals, while keeping in mind realist and realpolitik concerns, our soft power and ability to influence world events is significantly augmented. When we stray from the practice of maintaining those ideals while paying attention to realist/realpolitik concerns, we are viewed as just another run-of-the-mill country, and we lose power and influence as a consequence.

And here’s the thing: It’s not as though I am putting *my* words in Scowcroft’s mouth. This is stuff I maintain Scowcroft himself *believed.* Consider this remembrance from the university that *houses* the Bush School of Government and Public Service:

Informed by the philosophy he called “enlightened realism,” Scowcroft recognized the essential – though not limitless – role U.S. power and leadership could play in making the world a safer and more prosperous place. His legacy is set apart not just by his worldview, but also by the way he operated in the world. Despite his military background, Scowcroft held the belief that although military force is an important tool of statecraft, it is not a substitute for policy and diplomacy. His thinking, which placed a premium on strategy, was guided by key principles, including the importance of history in shaping international affairs, the necessity of strong U.S. international leadership to ensure that a world of national disorder does not become chaos, the importance of gaining domestic and international support for U.S. leadership, and the utility of working through allies, coalitions and international institutions.

(Emphasis mine.) Scowcroft himself viewed the United States as sui generis amongst nation-states. Maybe he did so because he was an American and proud of it. More likely, his “enlightened realism” recognized that there was a special place for America in the international order. There is no reason for the rest of realist schools of thought *not* to follow Scowcroft’s lead and instincts, even if, in his specific answer regarding American policy in Somalia, Scowcroft himself was unwilling to do so.

(Photo Credit.)

(Cross-posted here and here.)