Pragmatism Matters in Foreign Policy

Dimitri Simes is the president of the Nixon Center. A longer version of this article appeared in the winter 2003-04 issue of the National Interest.

During the Cold War years, the undisputed goal of the United States was to contain and, if possible, to defeat the Soviet empire. But we approached this goal carefully, within clearly defined limits -- because there were few U.S. objectives that justified risking nuclear Armageddon. That’s why Harry S. Truman stopped short of total victory in Korea, and why Dwight D. Eisenhower declined to help Hungarians in their uprising against the Soviets. That’s why John F. Kennedy did not seek to raze the Berlin Wall.

But when the Soviet Union finally collapsed, leaving the United States as the world’s lone superpower, many believed the handcuffs of the Cold War had been removed and that American power could finally be unleashed on the world. It became conventional wisdom to dismiss foreign policy realism as defeatist “old think.”

But this was a mistake. Realism and pragmatism should always guide our actions abroad. By contrast, extremism in the defense of liberty, or anything else, is still extremism. Those who believe in the infallibility of their own views have a dangerous tendency to dismiss the views of others and to believe that the ends justify their means. That’s what we’re seeing today in Iraq.

But let’s be clear about it. Despite all the partisan wrangling today over Iraq, the reality is that this new, “unleashed” America was not created by the Republicans. It began before that. Flush with the U.S. victory over the Soviets, it was the liberal interventionists who proclaimed that the U.S. could and should intervene anywhere in the world to promote “universal good.”


Sen. John F. Kerry’s advisors who today criticize President Bush for invading Iraq without United Nations approval conveniently forget that the 1999 Kosovo operation also occurred without Security Council approval.

Furthermore, Slobodan Milosevic was no enemy of the United States, had no international terrorist connections and was not developing weapons of mass destruction. So why would those who supported action against Milosevic now question moving against Saddam Hussein?

The truth is that the current operation in Iraq was to a large extent predetermined under the Clinton administration in 1998 when it made “regime change” in Iraq official policy.

By the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush was left with little choice but to take action. In the post-attack environment, no prudent president could indefinitely allow a no-war, no-peace situation -- one in which the U.S. and its British allies were enforcing “no-fly” zones, protecting the Kurds in their de facto independent zone in northern Iraq, maintaining painful sanctions against Iraq and plotting to overthrow Hussein.

At that point, there were still two realistic alternatives to war, but neither held much appeal for either the neoconservatives in the administration or the liberal internationalists among the Democrats, with their contempt for compromises short of moral absolutes.

One alternative was containment. Under a credible threat of military action, Hussein might yet have been persuaded to allow free inspections, stop supporting Palestinian suicide bombers and cease his attempts at regional hegemony -- if he was assured he would be allowed to remain in power. But, fearful of being accused of kowtowing to a genocidal despot, the administration never really tried.

The second option was to take all possible steps to get Security Council approval for an attack. Even without proof that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, the other great powers could have been provided with real incentives to support the U.S. Instead, even states like Russia found an administration unreceptive to its own interests. Why should President Vladimir V. Putin have accommodated Washington’s priorities if the United States was ignoring his concerns about neighbors like Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Uzbekistan?

Today, American priorities are combating terrorism and limiting the proliferation of WMD. How other states fit into U.S. efforts to deal with these priorities should be the principal determinant of American relations with them. Such calculations are unpopular among both liberal internationalists and neoconservatives, who believe that American democratic values should be aggressively promoted worldwide regardless of the feelings of foreign governments. However, in the real world, other nations have their own interests and perspectives and are unlikely to surrender them just to be on the right side of history as interpreted by the benign American Big Brother.

As Americans debate foreign policy during this campaign year, it is important to go beyond bumper sticker cliches and to talk about real choices facing the nation. In the end, U.S. citizens without question expect their elected leaders to put protecting their lives and liberty above the pursuit of messianic dreams, as noble as they may be.