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Guest Editorial: The uniquely American realism

By Lasha Tchantouridze
Monday, August 4
Forrest Gump, a quintessential American character of the eponymous 1994 movie, as he struggled with the meaning of life concluded that perhaps our lives are both guided by destiny and not. The question, which has bothered intellectuals and philosophers for millennia whether humans are part of destiny or not, found a simple and laconic resolution in the mind of Forrest: “I think maybe it’s both,” he said, addressing his wife’s grave.

A similar problem has been bothering scholars of international politics for centuries: are decisions by foreign policy makers guided by idealistic values of their societies or not? In late 1930s, and especially during the Cold War, the discussion around this question became especially heated as scholars and opinion makers got divided into opposing camps—those who answered yes have been branded ‘idealists’ or ‘liberals,’ and those who answered no proclaimed themselves to be ‘realists.’

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has emerged from the latter camp, and gained prominence in the administration of George Bush the father as a Soviet and Eastern European affairs advisor. After serving as National Security Advisor in Bush the son’s first administration, Rice joined the second team in the capacity of secretary of state. Dr. Rice has recently tackled the same eternal question of realpolitik vs. idealism in foreign policy. In the article, “Rethinking the National Interests: American Realism for a New World,” published in Foreign Affairs (July/August 2008), her answer to the question what guides US foreign policy, idealism or realism, appears refreshingly simple: it’s both.

The new realism in American foreign policy, according to Rice, means that US international concerns for the last eight years have not been guided solely by pre-occupation with major powers, such as Russia and China, but with concerns of human rights and democracy as well. She acknowledges that Washington’s ability to influence strong states is limited, but in terms of enhancing “the peaceful political and economic development of weak and poorly governed states” (such as Georgia) the said ability could be considerable.

Georgia stands as a beneficiary of such a vision in US foreign policy. American interests in Georgia, and in the Caucasus in general, have been guided by both realist considerations (energy plus strategically important location), and idealistic interests (“Rose Revolution,” democratic reforms, etc.). It appears that Georgia would further benefit from sustained American attention to the region, if such a dual approach to foreign policy priorities were to be continued by the next US administration.

In terms of describing US foreign policy, Dr. Rice offers a fairly accurate and common sense account. However, any description of foreign policy activities, whether American or not, that insists idealistic goals and motivations to trump national interests (outlined by the international system) would simply end as a wild and unrealistic exaggeration. Secretary of State Rice carefully avoids such claims.

The international system, just like any other social system dictates its own values. States and state-like entities (self-proclaimed provinces, like Abkhazia) strive, first and foremost, to provide for their own survival—and these often come from more powerful allies. To survive they need power, both military and economic. Further on the list of the most important international values would be legitimacy, prestige, and similar things that normally provide for state survival, security, and prosperity. To imagine any state entirely ignoring dynamics of the international system, and acting according to its own internal ‘values’ would be like a member of an orchestra ignoring the rest of the group and playing whatever comes to mind. One could easily imagine that even the most gifted musician will not last long as an orchestra player.

The bottom line: Dr. Rice’s article resembles more a political statement rather than an academic contribution. It seems to me that it could be both. Considering the fact that Secretary of State Rice intends to return to her academic appointment at Stanford University, where she previously worked as Provost—very much a political appointment—and among other things was responsible for the university budget (Stanford University budget, by the way, is larger than Georgia’s national budget), the current blend of academic analysis and political pronouncements seems rather fitting.

How does Dr. Rice characterize her analysis of American foreign policy? Well, according to her, still “it is realism, of a sort.”

Lasha Tchantouridze, PhD, is Research Associate and Adjunct Professor at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies