America's World Role Has to be Realistic and Moral

October 17, 2006

Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, co-authors of Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World, explain the essence of their strategy in the Financial Times.

A particularly American way of looking at the world has failed in Iraq, alongside the strategy of the Bush administration. This is a widely shared belief in expanding American power whilst spreading "freedom".

Because this belief is deeply rooted in US political culture, no alternative approach has yet emerged from this failure. Instead, we see intellectual and political bewilderment.

There are now worrying signs that a bipartisan consensus is arising from this confusion, based on the same assumptions and myths as before. This consensus is convincing to many Americans, but thoroughly unconvincing to other nations, and utterly out of step with reality in much of the world.

It is true that any approach to foreign policy that hopes to win support in the US must embrace elements of both realism and morality. For on the one hand, a majority of Americans have always insisted that US policy serve the interests and above all the safety of Americans, rather than exclusively pursuing its ideals. Equally, dominant strains in the US tradition have repeatedly shown a deep aversion to strategies based purely on a "classical" realism free of all moral constraints and aims.

Neo-conservatives and liberal hawks do try to balance realism and morality. They correctly perceive that the internal nature of foreign countries matters as never before to American security -- because Islamist revolution and extremism flourish in failed states and collapsed societies.

They are right to argue that a classical realist approach is inadequate to tackle this problem. Their answers, however, lead in the radically contradictory directions of both hardline realism and utopian morality -- or rather, pseudo-realism and pseudo-morality.

Instead of this hypocritical and unsuccessful approach we propose the philosophy of ethical realism as an intellectual and moral basis for US strategy. Ethical realism was propounded in the past by some of the great figures of the American intellectual tradition, including the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the philosopher Hans Morgenthau and the great thinker and diplomat George Kennan.

These men were strong opponents of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, but all three became deeply disillusioned with US Cold War strategy, especially its combination of national messianism with paranoia and militarism. Niebuhr, Morgenthau and Kennan were all supporters of resisting communist aggression in Korea, but all joined in strong opposition to the Vietnam war. Their voices have been largely, and hauntingly, absent from the recent foreign policy debates.

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 these do not contradict America's own truly vital interests; and a mixture of profound American patriotism with an equally profound awareness of the limits on both American power and on American goodness.

From ethical realism, we derive the concept of the Great Capitalist Peace, which echoes Kennan's and Morgenthau's concepts of international order and the moral purposes of diplomacy. It denotes a global order tacitly agreed to by all the major states of the world, and which guarantees their truly vital interests, including the defeat of terrorist groups.


The Great Capitalist Peace depends in part on American global power.

However, both the real limits on American power and the need to accommodate the legitimate interests and ambitions of other states mean that, in most areas, the direct use of American power needs to be deliberately restrained.

Instead, the US should whenever possible work through informal concerts linking the most important states of a region. In the Middle East, for example, the US needs to help create a regional concert of states including Iran and Syria, and to seek through this concert to contain and regulate the conflict in Iraq after the US withdraws from that country. To that end, it is also essential that the US act with determination to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the Far East, the US should understand that China, not America, will in future be the regional "first among equals". As long as China is prepared to act responsibly and in co-operation with other regional states like Japan, the US should explicitly recognise China's leadership in seeking answers to the dangerous actions of the North Korean regime and other future regional challenges.

This concept is not opposed to the long-term spread of democracy. On the contrary, it is an essential precondition for true democracy in much of the world. For it would be a guarantee of international peace, order, trade, and development, without which democracy can in any case never long endure.

Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. John Hulsman is von Oppenheim Scholar at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Their book, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World, is published by Pantheon. This article originally appeared in the Financial Times (October 16, 2006), and is reprinted here by permission of the authors.

Posted by coalition at October 17, 2006 11:24 AM

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