Realism, taken to its logical end, is non-interventionist

Elliot Engstrom Lead Counsel, Civitas Institute
Font Size:

Usually supporters of America’s current wars in the Middle East find me to be naïve when they discover that I am vehemently opposed to an American presence in the region.  In their minds, I just do not understand realism or how power politics actually functions.  My anti-war sentiments are the idealistic notions of an inexperienced youth who thinks that everyone should just get along.

The great irony here is that when followed to its logical end, the realist school of internationalist relations which so many use to justify the American presence all over the world is in fact one of the greatest arguments against our current foreign policy.  I do not argue against America’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan because I think that we would all just get along if these wars ceased to happen.  I argue against these wars because I come from a perspective that sees the people we are fighting as human beings with the same base motivations as myself, and when these people see their livelihood threatened, they take the best course of action that they can find, which unfortunately often involves siding with whatever group holds the most regional power.

The great mistake in logic made by many advocates of an interventionist foreign policy is to merely think of the world in terms of the international stage.  Such people look at the world in terms of what Iran, Al Qaeda, Russia, China, OPEC, or other entities have done or might do, rather than considering actions based on their effects on individuals, and what these individuals are likely to do in response.

This might seem to be a petty complaint, but its ramifications are enormous, for thinking of the world merely in terms of groups and calling that “realism” forces the person examining the situation to apply characteristics that are distinctly non-human to the human beings in these groups.  We assume that all of them have the same reasons for doing what they do, that all of them will react the same way in a given situation, and that the group itself is a fixed entity that does not shift and change due to both time and circumstances.  For such people there is no need to investigate who these individuals are, for by applying a group name to them, we already know everything that we need to know.

However, the largest problem with this view of foreign policy is this – when we look at the world through the lens of picking out only large international players, we are leaving out of the equation the 99.9% of people who do not in reality contribute to the mindset or actions of the group we describe.  We are forgetting the people who make or break power depending on who they turn to for protection.

Maybe an example will help shed some light on this theory, such as the war in Afghanistan.  Mainstream news typically lays out the war in Afghanistan as the United States military hunting down groups of insurgents led by warlords or terrorist leaders.  The idea portrayed to the American public is that if we could only hunt down these groups, the war would be won, but that it is just so difficult to find them because of Afghanistan’s turbulent terrain.

What is left out of the equation is the majority of the population of Afghanistan, a region that these people do not even consider a single nation state, and the impact that our war is having on these people.  For in fact, America’s war in the region is pushing more and more people who occupy the area that we refer to as Afghanistan into a position where they find that their best method of survival is to join in the fight against the United States.  By failing to understand this region on the same scale that we understand our own home country, we are unwittingly fueling the flames of war rather than putting them out.  We forget that what our military refers to as “civilian casualties” are viewed by the friends and family of those killed as nothing less than murder.

This is what true realism is: it is the understanding that every human being is motivated by an instinctive desire to do what is best for themselves and those close to them.  It is an understanding that at the individual level, people do not view themselves as choosing between the good and the evil, but rather between the beneficial and the costly.  Realism is not sitting in front of a Risk board and attempting to forecast the actions of international powers.  Realism demands an explanation into the “why” of how foreign policy operates, rather than simply accepting base assumptions about massive groups of human beings and then skipping straight to the “what.”

Does this mean that we disband any sort of American military?  Absolutely not.  We always must be ready to protect ourselves, for this naivety about the nature of other human beings that fuels our current wars is not merely an American characteristic.  However, we must ask ourselves a difficult question – can a permanently maintained, centrally controlled military possibly resist the urge to go to war?  There are others ways to maintain a national defense.  However, such ideas fall outside of the current discussion.

The point to remember is this – the people fighting for Al Qaeda and other anti-American groups are, at least for the most part, not insane.  Nor are they simply “evil.”  In their minds, what they are doing makes sense, and this is something that we have to understand if we are ever to truly formulate a viable strategy to counter insurgent warfare.  It would help us to remember that the United States as well has perpetrated acts that many have, with some justice, seen as “evil.”  This is not to say that we should blame America for the problems of the world.  It is rather to ask ourselves to what extent would we be willing to go to do what we thought was the right course of action for ourselves and our loved ones, and then to apply this same analysis to the people we are fighting.  If so, we will find that we and the people we are fighting are more similar than we are different.

Again, the above statement could easily be taken to be the rambling of a hippy.  However, it is anything but.  It is a more realistic statement than anything we have seen come out of the American press about the conflict in the Middle East since its beginning.  And until America makes the difficult choice to cease viewing the world in terms of value judgments and “good vs. evil” and instead is able to understand that realism entails understanding the base motivations of individuals, the conflict in the Middle East will find no end.

Would an American withdrawal from the region lead to a perfect, harmonious world?  No, of course it would not.  But the question is rather one of costs vs. benefits, and after viewing the equation through the lens of true realism, it is my opinion that an American withdrawal would bring about far more benefits that it would costs.

Elliot Engstrom is a 2010 graduate of Wake Forest University, where he majored in French with a double minor in history and journalism, and a member of the University of Georgia School of Law Class of 2013. Aside from his schoolwork and contributions to the Daily Caller, he writes for Young Americans for Liberty, Learning From Dogs, and Rethinking the State.