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Do Realists Need to Check Their Idealism?

Courtesy of Thomas Hawk/Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This article was originally published by Political Violence @ a Glance on 16 May 2017.

In this series we often focus on what academic studies can tell policy makers, but these days I find myself thinking more about what the policy environment should tell academics, particularly when it comes to their assumptions about American national interest and the public good.

Many who study security, particularly in the United States, assume that we can objectively know what US national interests are, and that protecting the national interest is beneficial to the US as a whole – the ultimate public good (this is the case whether one is arguing that US engagement  or US retrenchment is the key to protecting those interests). In analyzing the impact of the Trump administration, scholars commonly impute a public benefit to protecting national interests, whether they are critical (arguing that the Trump administration should learn the lesson of the limits to military power, that his budget threatens US counter terrorism, or that his incompetence undermines US credibility) or more supportive (claiming that his military build-up promises to correct past failures) of current trends and policies. At a recent meeting focused on national security, I was struck by the certainty of those who discussed US national interests, and their assumption that protecting them would benefit “us” – especially given the contrast between that certainty, the divergent reactions to the periodic Trump tweets, and the uneasy break-time conversations about our fraught political environment.

Shortly after I was at a different meeting on peacebuilding. Here scholars spoke of the pursuit of “national interests” as something much more political and prone to undermine stability. Evoking national interest gave opportunistic leaders rhetorical fodder and resources to pursue strategies that would damage anything approximating the “public good”. Indeed, the peacebuilding literature councils that establishing peace requires taming the exclusionary efforts of national leaders. Protecting the peace also requires protecting people. And protecting people means understanding what makes individuals in particular communities feel threatened or secure – everyday peace indicators – rather than looking only at objective measures of national security such as military or economic capacities. The peacebuilding crowd was much more prone to critical reflection about not only national interests but also what “good” meant and whether it could be imputed to any particular “nation”, “community”, or “public”. Thinking back to the conversation about national security from this perspective made the equation of the “national interest” with the “public good” seem remarkably idealistic – ironic given the dominance of, as one participant put it, “card-carrying realists” in the national security discussion.

If anything was clear in the recent US presidential election, it was that Americans have very different visions about their country’s identity, let alone its interests. And the differences have only intensified since. Though Trump’s overall approval ratings are low by historical standards, what is striking is the difference between his approval by Democrats (8%), Independents (35%) and Republicans (87%).  While some feel more secure given the immigration ban, others feel much less so. This is a reflection of the crisis of sovereignty that joins recent books by Rosa Brooks, Richard Haas, and David Kennedy. Without agreement on who we are, or what we care about, there is little in the way of common concern to inform either a national interest or a public good. And there is ample evidence that pro and anti-Trump forces are using the national interest for political purpose. Though Nathan Sears recommends that Trump should learn from Morgenthau’s political realism, the reality of the world (even setting aside yesterday’s revelations) appears to be telling security studies scholars to stop and think about whether their realist assumptions are, in fact, a bit idealistic.


About the Author

Dr Deborah Avant is the Sié Chéou-Kang Chair for International Security and Diplomacy and Director of the Sié Center at the University of Denver. She is also the inaugural Editor-in-Chief of the ISA’s Journal of Global Security Studies.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit our CSS Security Watch Series or browse our Publications.

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