Authors Urge 'Ethical Realism' in Foreign Policy John Hulsman and Anatol Lieven, scholars from opposite political camps, say America's foreign policy is flawed because it's based on idealism and moral imperatives. They advocate an alternative approach called "ethical realism."
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Authors Urge 'Ethical Realism' in Foreign Policy

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Authors Urge 'Ethical Realism' in Foreign Policy

Authors Urge 'Ethical Realism' in Foreign Policy

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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, not just in those countries but overall, has failed because it's based on idealism and moral imperative.

Mr. JOHN HULSMAN (Co-Author, “Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World”): That doesn't mean we don't see the United States as a force for good in the world. That doesn't mean we 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.


That's John Hulsman. He and co-author Anatol Lieven say the key to a successful foreign policy is ethical realism. In fact, that's the title of their book. These two men are an unlikely pair: Hulsman is a conservative, Lieven a liberal. But they find common ground in a worldview that goes back to the 1940s and ‘50s. Then, as Anatol Lieven explains, Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower tried to contain Soviet expansion.

Mr. ANATOL LIEVEN (Co-Author, “Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World”): There is a kind of key pairing in Eisenhower and Truman's strategy. On the one hand, tough resistance to Soviet expansionism; on the other, categorical rejection of preventive war. That's the kind of combination we need today, a tough strategy against al-Qaida but with great restraint in the direct use of American force.

YDSTIE: But aren't there some drawbacks to this approach? Let's talk a little bit about Cold War containment. I think you'd get an argument from many citizens of the Soviet Union who were oppressed and terrorized by a state that killed millions of people during its existence, who might say containment was inadequate.

Mr. LIEVEN: Would they have preferred a war between America and the Soviet Union, which would almost certainly have led to a nuclear exchange? The whole strategy of containment was explicitly 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 with today towards Iran, for example, because the alternatives are just too dangerous.

YDSTIE: John Hulsman?

Mr. HULSMAN: I think another key point is that there were alternatives. There always are when Truman and Eisenhower were around. And containment was a very tough-minded strategy. On the one hand, Henry Wallace on the left of the Democratic Party said appease Stalin, and Truman saw them off politically. On the other hand, on the right, you have General Macarthur and Senator Taft saying drop 30 to 50 nuclear weapons in Manchuria in a preventive war kind of strategy, which would have been equally catastrophic if not seen off by both Truman and then Eisenhower with Taft.

In both cases, utopians - be they neoconservatives or, as we call them, liberal hawks in the Democratic Party - show an impatience with history. And what we're counseling is that diplomacy takes time and patience in a long-term strategy, and that when the United States does that, really remarkably good things tend to happen.

YDSTIE: How would you apply ethical realism to the current situation in Iraq and what path the U.S. should take now?

Mr. LIEVEN: We believe that the only way for the U.S. to get out of Iraq, which it has to do, while leaving any hope of stability behind, is first to recognize that Iraq will de facto be partitioned between its different ethno-religious groups. However, it has to stick together de jure as a country. And there has to be a kind of agreement in patrolling of the frontiers between these different areas in Iraq. The only way to do that is to bring Iraq's neighbors in, including Iran and Syria, but also Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia.

On the at basis, we hope that we can put together a regional consensus, which will not only limit future conflict in Iraq but also create possibility for other conflicts in the region to be solved, notably that between Israel and Palestine.

YDSTIE: Let me ask you about the Iraq Study Group, the Baker commission. Do you have hopes that they're going to come up with an approach that you might be happy with, John Hulsman?

Mr. HULSMAN: I think so. I think the key thing to look at - and Anatol mentioned this - is the Syrian/Iranian connection. You've got to talk to these two countries if you want any kind of settlement on Lebanon, if you want any kind of settlement on Iraq, if you want to deal with Iran's nuclear problem. The notion that you don't talk to people that you don't agree with, which has been the hallmark of Bush policy thinking, is infantile. I speak as a committed Republican. And I think that the Baker people - with their tough-minded approach, their knowing how diplomacy works - I think that we may indeed see them advocate proposals to that effect.

YDSTIE: Let me just ask you, though, about former Secretary of State Baker. During the first Bush administration, during the genocide and ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, he suggested that the Bush administration not really do anything because we don't have a dog in that fight. Now, that might be realism, but it's not ethical realism, is it? Or is it?

Mr. LIEVEN: Well, speaking as a European, I am deeply ashamed that Europe was not, in fact, able to take the lead more strongly on that. But I also have the deepest sympathy with Americans like Baker, who said, look, Europe is as rich at least as America. This is on Europe's doorstep. It's on the continent of Europe. It is Europe's responsibility to do something about this. America can help, but I have to be able to explain to mothers in Iowa why their children are being sent out when a regional organization ought to be able to do it.

Mr. HULSMAN: And just to add, I think that's exactly right. Sometimes the answer is actually no, and that if we try to do the quick fix thing to feel good all the time, we're going to have overstretch and have the decline of the United States, which is in nobody's interest and certainly doesn't fulfill the moral imperative of the people who've sworn to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.

YDSTIE: Let me ask you about one other foreign policy issue, and that is the situation in Darfur. And now, despite its idealistic foreign policy, the Bush administration's response has been quite timid. How would an ethical realist approach that genocide, given the fact U.S. interests there are probably relatively small? John Hulsman?

Mr. HULSMAN: Well, I think one of the things that we must get out of habit of doing is thinking that military intervention means involvement and caring, and non-military intervention means non-involvement and non-caring. The reality is that Darfur for us falls under the category of areas that we do not directly get involved in. But that does not mean that we do not provide them with logistics and involvement, talking about what can be done politically, what can be done diplomatically to help things out.

Mr. LIEVEN: Just to add, to be realistic, we can't intervene militarily in Darfur or anywhere else. We don't have any troops. Our entire usable military force is now pinned down in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we're going to try and solve problems elsewhere, we have to help other people to do it.

YDSTIE: Thank you both very much.

Mr. LIEVEN: Thank you so much.

Mr. HULSMAN: My pleasure.

YDSTIE: John Hulsman and Anatol Lieven, authors of “Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World.” At, you can read an excerpt about why the United States should wait out Iran instead of attacking it.

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