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Security

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.