Authors Urge 'Ethical Realism' in Foreign Policy

Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman

hide captionAnatol Lieven (left), a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, and John Hulsman is a former senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Scroll down to read an excerpt from their book, Ethical Realism.

Claudio Vazquez

Explosive violence in Iraq and Afghanistan has generated intense discussion about U.S. foreign policy. In a new book, two scholars say America's strategy in emerging democracies and elsewhere is flawed because it's based on idealism and moral imperatives.

"That doesn't mean that we don't see the United States as a force for good in the world," says John Hulsman, co-author with Anatol Lieven of Ethical Realism. "That doesn't mean we don't see the United States as anything less than the first among equals for the foreseeable future. It does mean it's imperative you work with allies. And it's important to have humility at the basis of what you do because that leads to prudence and that leads to a foreign policy that's sustainable in the long run."

Hulsman and Lieven are an unlikely pair. Hulsman is a conservative, Lieven a liberal. But they find common ground in a world view that's was most effective in the 1950s, when Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower successfully contained Soviet expansion into Western Europe.

Lieven says that the combination of tough resistance, like that used to contain Soviet expansionism, and "categorical rejection of preventive war" is needed today — "a tough strategy against al-Qaida, but with great restraint in the direct use of American force."

Lieven says the containment strategy worked against the Soviet Union because it was based on the idea that it would take time.

"It's that kind of patience that we need to show today, which we should have shown towards Saddam's Iraq and which we should show today towards Iran, for example, because the alternative are just too dangerous," he says.

Lieven says the U.S. exit strategy for Iraq should be based on Iraq's partition among different ethnic and religious groups. Iraq's neighbors — Iran, Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — must be called in to help patrol the frontiers between the partitioned areas, he adds.

That could lead to a regional consensus which would limit future conflicts in Iraq and create the possibility for ending other regional conflicts, including the key Israeli-Palestinian problem, Lieven says.

Book Excerpt: 'Ethical Realism'

'Ethical Realism' book cover

The Failure of Rollback and Preventive War

There is nothing more foolish than to think that war can be stopped by war. You don't prevent anything but peace. — Harry S. Truman

Preventive War from the 1940s to Today

So completely has history vindicated containment that its opponents, the rollback-and-preventive-war school, have been not so much discredited as demolished. Just as no one seriously now claims that Stalinism was a basically benign and nonaggressive system, so no one seriously claims that it would have been right to launch a preventive nuclear war to destroy a Soviet Union that was always much weaker than it seemed and eventually crumbled of its own accord, just as Kennan and Truman had predicted. By the time Ronald Reagan came to office, a generation after containment was put in place, the strategy had done its work as its founders had intended. In the intervening years, the Communist economic, political, and ethical model had failed for all to see — above all relative to the West. The prestige of the Communist Party and its ideology had collapsed all over the Soviet bloc. The Soviet empire was infinitely weaker than it had been under Stalin. Reagan understood how rotten the Soviet bloc had become, and acted accordingly. In doing so, he was also able to rally support from a majority of Americans of both parties. While the most important factor in the Soviet empire's collapse was its own internal decay, Reagan's policies certainly gave it an extra push.

But we should also remember that Reagan was the heir not only of containment's results, but also of its philosophy. While in his first term Reagan talked and acted very tough, this gave him the political cover in his second term to pursue an approach to the Soviet leadership that was actually rather close to Kennan's philosophy. He worked closely with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to cooperate on international issues, implement radical arms control, maintain stability, and conduct a peaceful wind-down of the Cold War. For this, he was indeed attacked at the time by some of the neoconservatives. By contrast, as historian Daniel Kelly said gently of one of the key intellectual works of the preventive war school, published by James Burnham in 1947, "the most obvious weakness of The Struggle for the World lay in the contrast between what it predicted and what actually happened" — as, for example, with Burnham's categorical statement of 1952 that "if the communists succeed in consolidating what they have already conquered, then their complete world victory is certain. . . .We are lost if our opponent so much as holds his own."

Quite apart from the likelihood that the United States — and of course the Soviet vassals in Europe whom America wanted to liberate — would have been destroyed in the process, there is the question so wisely raised by Eisenhower: Even if the United States had destroyed Russia, or China, at low cost to itself, what would it have done with the results? If the United States had done this to the Russian and Chinese populations after what they had suffered at the hands of the Nazis and Japanese, then instead of the troublesome but rational Russian and Chinese states of today, we would be facing hundreds of millions of ordinary Russians and Chinese permanently possessed of a searing hatred of the United States and an implacable desire for vengeance.

We should remember this today when thinking about how to deal with Iran. If we wait Iran out, then given the Iranian youth bulge and its apparent dislike for its elders, there seems a good chance that in a generation's time we will have a country that is once again a responsible and basically pro-Western member of the international community (though we should never expect that this will make Iranians obedient followers of American strategy). If we attack Iran, and if as is all too likely this leads to a major war and widespread destruction and civilian losses, then we will have Iran — not just the regime, but the mass of the Iranian nation — as an implacable enemy for decades to come.

And yet the preventive war school remains alive and well in America, among neoconservatives, hard-line classical realists of the Donald Rumsfeld variety, and even leading Democrats. After 9/11, it enjoyed a rebirth, and under the false name of "preemption" it has been a central element of the Bush administration's National Security Strategies of both 2002 and 2006 — with no acknowledgment that this approach had been proposed and carefully analyzed once before in American history and found hopelessly wanting. The need for "preemptive" war against a future Iraqi threat was the central justification for the attack on Iraq in 2003. Today, the same rationale is being used for calls for an attack on Iran. But let us be quite clear: This is not preemption at all. The right of states to strike preemptively in the face of imminent attack by enemy states or coalitions — as Israel struck in 1967 — has always been asserted as a right by all states, America included. A claim to the right of preventive war against a state that might possibly attack you in the future is something very different and very new. It represents a revolution in international affairs, and a terrifying precedent for the behavior of other countries.

Excerpted from Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World by Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman © 2006. Reprinted with permission by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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