Russia, Iran, and the New Realism

It seems like realism is enjoying a worldwide renaissance. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev took to the editorial pages of the Washington Post today, trumpeting a return to national interests as the foundation of international affairs.

Overcoming our common negative legacy is possible only by ensuring equality and mutual benefit and by taking into account our mutual interests.

Today, effective leadership must be collective, based on the desire and ability to find common denominators for the interests of the international community and major groups of states.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been on a similar kick regarding Iran's involvement in Afghanistan. As delegates from more than seventy countries meet in the Netherlands to strategize Afghanistan's future, Secretary Clinton sounded confident that Iran would play ball by virtue of its own self-interest.

From our information, they are really concerned about all the narcotics crossing the border into their country...This is a matter of their own internal security. . . . I would imagine that's an area where they are willing to work with others.

A recent debate on Radio France International (Quelle nouvelle politique américaine en Asie?) made a similar point about India. According to one of the interviewees, India is looking to create a multi-polar world that strikes not only a balance of power, but also a balance of interests.

The last bit about a balance of interests adds an interesting twist to the notion of a balance of power -- one of realism's most prized intellectual possessions. Realists insist that countries pursue their own self interest at all costs. Even if states abhor aggressive behavior and want nothing more than to survive, warfare will inevitably result from the scramble for securing self interest. It may be tragic, but it's just the coin of the realm.

While realists would not deny that self-interest can lead countries to engage in alliances and coalitions, they tend to think that international cooperation has a limited shelf-life. At some point, interests collide. But that's what makes the above statements so fascinating. They accept the language of realism, but seem to believe that the nature of self interest is changing. Since we're all in the same boat in today's world, the self interest of individual states is starting to coalesce to a greater degree than ever before.

This is good news -- if it's true. The whole world may be threatened by climate change, a declining economy, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but that does not mean Iran and the United States are going to start holding hands in public. Not to mention any of the other major issues that divide the nations of the world. So we'd do well to take the "balance of interests" with a grain of salt.

Nevertheless, we'd do well to take it. The Bush administration approached the world with an undisciplined mishmash of rhetoric, cynicism, doublespeak, and raw power. The results have been disappointing. If the Obama administration can chart a new course that defines clear goals based on shared interests, the prospects for peace and stability will start to look a lot brighter. It's unlikely we'll ever reach a perfect balance of interests in international politics, but we can bring the scales a little bit closer.

The world seems to be calling out for just this kind of leadership. It's a call the United States should answer.