THE BLOG
11/03/2006 10:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World

In the years after 9/11 both of us became deeply concerned about the state both of U.S. policy, and the U.S. policy debate, which led to us joining forces from opposite ends of the political spectrum to publish, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in America. It seemed to us that in this field at least, the United States was almost coming to resemble some Latin American countries of the past, where rival hereditary political clans of "Conservatives" and "Liberals" clashed bitterly and even launched savage civil wars with each other - but in terms of real policy were virtually indistinguishable and equally wrong.

The recent volume of essays, "With All Our Might" by leading "liberal hawk" intellectuals including McFaul, and published by the Progressive Policy Institute of the Democratic Leadership Council, differs in no significant respect from the positions of more moderate neo-conservatives. It is dominated by the same mixture of what we call "Democratism" with American nationalism - a blind belief in America's right and ability to spread its values in combination with the s expansion of American power. The only difference is that until recently the neo-conservatives believed that this could be achieved by America acting alone (though in his latest remarks Kagan seems to be withdrawing from this position) whereas the liberal hawks believe, even more bizarrely, that the US can persuade other nations to support policies which are contrary to their vital interests.

To this both groups add unconditional support for Israel, deep ignorance of the Muslim world, profound and unnecessary hostility to Russia, and a mixture of exaggerated hostility and naïve hope when it comes to relations with China. It is these liberal hawks, like McFaul, Kenneth Pollack (one of the intellectual architects of the Iraq War), Ron Asmus and others, who seem set at present to dominate the foreign policy team of a Democrat administration after 2008 - at least if Hillary Clinton wins.

To judge by their public statements, their approach would not differ much from that being pursued by many of the foreign policy figures close to John McCain. Indeed, unless the American media and political classes wake up soon, we may have a presidential election campaign in 2008 in which there is no serious difference and no serious debate on foreign policy - and this at a time when the US has lost a war in Iraq which both party establishments supported, is facing a deepening crisis in Afghanistan, has not captured or killed Osama bin Laden and the other chief perpetrators of 9/11, and is facing defeat or impasse on a whole range of critical issues around the world. This is a terrifying comment on the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of too much of the bipartisan establishment, and the limits on real debate in key centers of that establishment like our former employers, the Carnegie Endowment (for the Democratic establishment) and the Heritage Foundation (for the Republican hardliners).

Such a non-debate would be a tragedy. For there is the makings of a genuine discussion in the US - but it is not so much between the two parties as within them. Among the Democrats, the liberal hawks of the Democrat Leadership Council are opposed by other Democrats who resemble old-style conservative realists in calling for America to see the world through the eyes of other nations and learn to take their interests and views seriously. Though called "radicals", these are in fact true to the tradition of the great Democrat statesman Senator William Fulbright, who opposed the Vietnam War in the name of an ethical, moderate and realistic vision of America's power and role in the world.

On the other hand, large parts of the core Republican tradition are radically alienated from the policies of the current occupants of the White House, and are searching for a way back to the moderate, pragmatic and principled Republican tradition of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and beyond him to the ideological and cultural roots of the Republican Party in the thinking of the founders of the American Republic.

We have therefore decided to turn our backs on the orthodoxy of both parties. Instead, we call on sensible and moderate people from both parties to work together to oppose the currently dominant mixture of ignorant utopianism and megalomaniacal ambition; a program which if it is not stopped will inevitably lead America to overreach itself, suffer defeat or humiliation, and eventually decline.

In place of the now openly failed strategy of both the Bush administration and the "liberal hawks" in the Democratic establishment we propose two linked alternatives: the philosophy of ethical realism, and the concept of the Great Capitalist Peace.

Ethical realism was propounded in the past by some of the great figures of the American intellectual tradition, including Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan. They drew on a tradition stretching back through Edmund Burke to St Augustine. The Great Capitalist Peace involves a stable global order agreed to by all the major states of the world, and which guarantees all their vital interests. In the short-to-medium term, we believe that this is essential if these states are to succeed in containing the terrorism that threatens them all. In the longer term, we believe that it is essential if mankind is to have any chance of dealing with a whole set of global menaces including global warming.

Ethical realism points towards an international strategy based on prudence; a concentration on possible results rather than good intentions; a close study of the nature, views and interests of other states, and a willingness to accommodate them when possible; and a mixture of profound American patriotism with an equally profound awareness of the limits both on American power and on American goodness.

In ethical realism, a sense of national modesty and limits is linked to a capacity to see one's own nation as others see it - a capacity which in everyday human morality and interaction is generally seen as positive and attractive, while its opposite is seen as not merely unattractive but also somewhat ridiculous.

As Niebuhr put it, "Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their self-esteem, are insufferable in their human contacts." In international affairs, this is above all true of the frequent U.S. demand that the rest of the world simply trust not just in the benevolence but also in the intelligent use of absolutely unconstrained American power. As Francis Fukuyama has pointed out this is a trust that Americans would never for a second place in any other country - and rightly so.

Moreover, ethical realism demolishes the shabby argument now being put out by former hardline supporters of the Iraq War, that we should excuse their responsibility for this disaster because their intentions were good. Neither in statecraft nor in common sense can good intentions be a valid excuse if accompanied by gross recklessness, carelessness, and indifference to the range of possible consequences. Such actions fail the test not only of general ethics, but of the sworn moral commitment of state servants and elected officials to defend the interests of their peoples, and not simply to pursue at all costs their own ideas of morality - another central point in realist ethics.

We need to bring morality in American statecraft down from the absolutist heights to which it has been carried, and return it to the everyday world where Americans and others do their best to lead ethical lives while facing all the hard choices and ambiguous problems which are the common stuff of existence in this "lower world".

Niebuhr wrote that the modern West thinks it "has an easy solution for the problems of anarchy and chaos on both the international and national levels of community, because of its fatuous and superficial view of man. It does not know that the same man who is ostensibly devoted to the "common good" may have desires and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set him at variance with his neighbors."

A prudential recognition of this on the part of the Founders is responsible for the checks and balances, the constraints on absolute power - even when exercised in the name of goodness - which are integral to the U.S. Constitution, and therefore to American democratic civilization and its positive example to the world.

Numerous opinion surveys now that large majorities of Americans are deeply concerned not only at the war in Iraq, but at the entire strategy being followed by the Bush administration. Their elected representatives, and their political system, have so far failed to present a coherent and effective alternative to that strategy. We offer our book as our contribution to the creation of such an alternative.

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