The American Renaissance: The Return of Realism in American Foreign Policy and Its Impact on the Global Alliance


September 2007

Ryan Henderson


The ultimate blunder of a policy-maker is to discredit or ignore the primacy of historical precedent in the study and application of international relations theory.?While the uniqueness of a situation demands an individual approach, on the whole “grand strategy?must and always should be conducted within the context of former actions, events, and ultimately results.?History has shown that supra-national peace, even at the height of a great power, is only relative and finite.?Even during the romanticized Pax Romana, the classic hegemon was constantly engaged in wars in order to uphold and fortify its perceived security.?Considering this period, the famous historian Edward Gibbon once judged that if any man were to “fix the period in the history of the world in which…the human race was most prosperous? that he would “without hesitation?choose the climax of the long peace during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.[1]?However, in less than three centuries the once majestic Rome, ripe with corruption and turmoil, would be overwhelmingly consumed by the inferior “barbarian?tribes from the north.? Unfortunately, the structural limitations existent within the Roman socio-political system over-encumbered the empire and doomed it to an inevitable collapse.?Rome simply couldn’t adapt to the changing world that it had so laboriously constructed.? What it needed was a paradigm shift in its foreign policy, however, as noted; it was unable because of foundational architectural flaws in its government.[2]?

The United States, the modern world’s version of a global hegemon, is experiencing a similar problem.?Historically, the American government has been capable of dealing with structural shifts in the international system, an issue that will be focused on later.?The real danger lies with the fact that the United States is simply too small, economically and demographically, to retain its position as the global hegemon.?The idea of a marginalized America is hard to accept to the present generation of political leaders.?Few would disagree that the 20th century truly was the American century, however, despite its prowess; the US was simply incapable of becoming a true global hegemon.?Due to internal constraints, it was unable to fill the void opened after the collapse of the Soviet Union.?In the wake of this failure, the most alarming issue has been the nationalist efforts by “non-integrated?states to retain and even hedge their own political independence.[3]?These states have chosen to ignore pressure from the West to adapt and alter their modes of administration towards a more liberal, western ideal.?Unfortunately, the West, in particular its leader the United States, has been unable or unwilling to apply force behind its demands.? That option is quickly becoming unapproachable.?International economic interdependence has significantly raised the cost of any action.? Furthermore, the quagmire in Iraq has eroded, and nearly destroyed, the capability of the United States to act in a forceful manner in other regions.? In essence, the West is suffering from over-expansion and democracy will be the first victim.

If the United States wishes to maintain its primacy in the international community then it must accept its limitations and pursue a new form of foreign policy.?What this entails is a paradigm shift in the perception of America’s geopolitical position.?It must accept that it is not, nor is it capable of becoming the global hegemon that the neoconservative movement believes possible.? Furthermore, it must alter its foreign policy towards a more realist approach.?The belief in American Exceptionalism can no longer serve as inspiration for political governance. While the American people have always tended towards liberalism in there worldview, i.e. the concept of Manifest Destiny; the US government historically executed its foreign policy from a realist viewpoint.[4]?In the wake of the transforming international system, the United States must return to its foundational mode of governance and realize its limitations.?It is simply too small to balance a power like China.?If constitutional liberalism is to survive, then America must undertake these fundamental changes in order to form a Grand Alliance with the realistic capability of balancing this emerging totalitarian great power.


The Awkward Peace


The end of the Cold War signified an abrupt change in the normalcy of the international system.?This bilateral arrangement had lasted over 50 years and defined a generation of policymakers.?For the first time in history, two halves of a separated world underwent a bizarre and unforeseen period of awkward rapprochement.?While many heralded it a triumph for Western-style liberalism, the decentralization of warfare throughout the 1990’s revealed that an end to history was only skin-deep.[5]?States of the former first world, with America at its helm, enjoyed an unprecedented level of economic integration, social mobilization, and relative peace and stability.? However, this satisfaction was hardly universal.?While the West enjoyed the spoils of an arduous victory, civil strife and gross human rights violations erupted in its own backyard.[6]?From a present perspective, the conflict in the Balkans serves merely as a prelude to a subsequent decade marked by mounting civilizational clashes.?

The idealism emanating from the “peace dividend?of the early 1990’s led the US government to pursue policies of absolute gain to the international community.?Unfortunately, this spirit allowed non-democratic regimes to equate themselves with Western democracies in terms of international trade.?The most evident example is China’s membership in the World Trade Organization.[7]?In doing so, the West willingly eroded its moral leverage over non-democratic regimes, in other words, a term especially relevant to the Clinton Administration; it weakened its ability to use “soft power?to coerce other nations.[8]?More importantly, by accepting China as a worthy and equal member of the international community, it surrendered it ability to apply “hard power?pressure to force the totalitarian nation to democratize.?Economic sanctions, high tariffs, and trade restriction that could have been very effective in the mid-1990s?are no longer feasible.? Economic interdependence means that any negative impact on the Chinese economy would have dreadful ripple effects for the economies of the endorsing states as well.?

          ?As China continues to develop and emerge as a world leader, the influence of the West and its values will further diminish.?Rather shortly it will begin to lose its military advantage and be forced to cooperate with the totalitarian capitalist regime as an equal and integral part of the world.?Unlike communism, this form of political economy has proven to be very adept at governance and modernization.[9]?In fact, it is in this menace that constitutional liberalism faces its gravest threat.?The liberal approach has failed to guarantee the democratization of China, a change is needed.


The Case for Realism


While history is filled with optimistic anecdotes proclaiming residual peace, the tragedy of September 11 demonstrated that harmony is in actuality highly relative and conclusively finite.?The fall of the Soviet Union was supposed to indicate the emergence of a “new world order? much akin to the mission of the United Nations to “save succeeding generation from the scourge of war?a style='mso-footnote-id:ftn10' href="#_ftn10" name="_ftnref10" title="">[10], itself an idea reminiscent of the failed League of Nations after the First World War.?The concept of a statutory peace between states dates back at least to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.[11] Nevertheless, this principle has on no account been realized and in today’s “flattening world? the time period for relative peace seems to be diminishing.[12]?Remember that while it took Europe roughly two decades to attempt a “second suicide? the two great victors of World War II were at each other’s throats before the close of the decade.[13]

The presupposed peace following the Soviet dissolution was abruptly spoiled by an immediate military invasion in the same year (Gulf War I), a major terrorist incident two years later (World Trade Center I), and a series of humanitarian actions both in Africa and Europe throughout the remainder of the decade (Somalia, Balkans).[14] Whereas the militancy of the 1990’s supersedes prior proportions, it pales in comparison to the belligerence of the new millennium, in which the U.S. has conducted both a multilateral and unilateral invasion of two nations in response to 9/11.?War is an inevitable aspect of interstate interaction, even in a state representative of Kant’s Tripod of Peace.[15] History has shown that despite the public optimism, a resolute peace has never been achieved, and that the survival of a state can never be fully guaranteed.   For that reason, the most rational and consistent approach a policy maker can follow is from a realist perspective.

Superficially, the world of the 21st century is remarkably different than the one that Thucydides observed in ancient Greece.?He could not have foreseen nor in any manner predicted the technological advancements that allow for transcontinental travel and communication.?Nor could he have envisioned the rise of multi-national corporations and international non-governmental organizations that have brought together a seemingly unbounded world.?However, despite all the glamour of these new actors and advancement, the philosopher would likely remark that the fundamental structure of the world has changed little in the proceeding millennia.[16]

The past century proved to be the “bloodiest era in history?with somewhere between ?67 million and 188 million people?killed as a result of controlled hostility.[17]?The most problematic factor is that these atrocities still occurred in spite of an abundance of historical precedents, advanced technologies which eased the human condition, and the existence of peaceful international organizations. A substantial fraction of this devastation can be attributed to supposed “peaceful?and “modernized?nations which have practiced a duplicitous approach towards foreign policy.[18] These figures demonstrate that despite the perceived complexity of international relations, the foundational elements of realism remain valid and functional even in today’s multifaceted world.? The precise reason why realism has persisted as the dominant and most applicable form of international theory is because it continues to be exceptionally relative in long term analysis.? In other words, realism best explains the ultimate outcome of interstate interaction.


America’s Realist Foundations


Throughout its history, the United States has exhibited a seemingly prescient ability to advance and maintain its own interests without encumbering or jeopardizing its global status.?Almost intuitively, and with apparent ease, it has persuaded others to fight its wars, adopt its methods, and follow its lead.? The foundations of this talent are rooted in America’s own colonial mindset.?Over a century before it emerged as the principal power, a juvenile US was already quite adept at realpolitik.?By playing the European powers off each other, a young America was freed from its colonial bondage, and then allowed to expand well beyond its formal boundaries.?Experience under the yoke of English rule had taught young patriots that “real independence…{required a disconnection} from all European interest and European politics?[19]?Early on, America had learned that the art of balancing could ease the burden of national sovereignty.

In this same period, the United States was ruthlessly educated in the principle of humility.?Young and naive, it made a terrible miscalculation that nearly smothered its growth and returned it to a state of vassalage.?Its leaders, for the sake of “reputation? ignorantly led their constituents “stumbling into an unnecessary…badly managed war??Only by the sheer ambition of a Corsican was America saved from being “little more than a grimy republican thumbprint?span class=MsoFootnoteReference> .[20]?The failures of this campaign have become such an anathema that one of the most important dates in our history, August 24, 1814, passes each year with little remembrance.?It was on this fateful day that British forces “marched into the newly established city of Washington, having routed its ragged defenders, and proceeded to burn the Capitol and the White House.?a style='mso-footnote-id:ftn21' href="#_ftn21" name="_ftnref21" title="">[21]?So significant was this event that it irrevocably changed the course of American destiny.?As Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis points out, this occasion set a “pattern…that has persisted ever since: that for the United States, safety comes from enlarging, rather than from contracting, its sphere of responsibilities?a style='mso-footnote-id:ftn22' href="#_ftn22" name="_ftnref22" title="">[22]?In an instant, it taught the United States the humility of foreign policy, that arrogance and ignorance could only lead to failure and peace was always a better alternative to war.


A New Approach


The realist approach provides policy makers with a historical advantage in international relations that when and if applied can and will greatly benefit the state. ?/span>The liberal consensus that has contaminated the American foreign policy establishment is a recent phenomenon and hopefully a brief one.?In order for the United States and the West to secure its future it must institute a new approach towards international relations, one based upon pragmatic interpretations on global events. ?/span>Above all it is an absolute necessity that America and Europe bind together, improve relations, and restore the cooperative efforts that succeeded in defeating the authoritarian version of communism. ?/span>This approach begins in America, which must accept that its global power is limited.?The quagmire in Iraq, failures in Afghanistan, disdainful global support and the emergence of a rising China have all succeeded in balancing American arrogance.?The problem of the 1990’s was that the United States viewed itself and its institutions as grand, capable instruments for global change.? It became policy to institute a “new world order? a modern version of a Kant’s ?/ins>democratic peace?/ins>.?Such foolhardiness has since caused millions of deaths in Africa, Asia, and even Europe.?

The U.S. should be mindful of the great successes it has achieved not as an independent nation, but as the foremost member of a cooperative regime.?The task ahead is daunting and will require the finest of statesman.?It will demand a disproportionate amount of time, effort, and sacrifice upon the world’s preeminent nation.?In its short history the United States has displayed an unequivocal willingness to better the world and in return, the world has turned to it for leadership.?America is a land of idealist, it always has been, and always will be.?If it wishes to remain the preeminent power, then it must remember its lessons that it learned in its youth: that all power is finite, unruly and must be balanced and that a humble foreign policy will always lead to greater riches than a pompous one.?Perhaps with the advantage of historical precedents, we as Americans can avoid the same haughty idealism that ultimately eroded the Pax Romana and ended the “most prosperous?era of humanity.







List of Works Cited



Barnett, Thomas P.M. 2004. The Pentagon’s New Map. New York: Berkley Books,


Ferguson, Niall. 2004. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. New York: Penguin Books


Ferguson, Niall. 2006. The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflcit and the Descent of the West. New York: Penguin Books


Friedman, Thomas L. 2005. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.


Gaddis, John Lewis. 2004. Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Gaddis, John Lewis. 2005. The Cold War. New York: Penguin Press.


Gat, Azar. 2007 The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers. New York: Foreign Affairs


Pelanda, Carlo. 2007. The Grand Alliance. Milan: FrancoAngeli


Halberstam, David. 2001. War in a Time of Peace. New York: Scribner


Johnson, Chalmers. 2004. The Sorrows of Empire. New York: Metropolitan Books


Nye, Joseph S. Jr., 2004. Soft Power. New York: Public Affairs,


Walt, Stephen M. 2005. Taming American Power.New York: W.N. Norton and Company


Zakaria, Fareed. 2003. The Future of Freedom. New York: W.N. Norton and Company











[1] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (London: Clarendon Press, 1992)

[2] Menon

[3] Thomas P.M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map (New York: Berkley Books, 2004)

[4] Gaddis John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004)

[5] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man

[6] David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace (New York: Scribner, 2001)

[7] Carlo Pelanda, The Grand Alliance (Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2007)

[8] Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2004)

[9] Azar Gat, ?/span>The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007) 59-69

[10] Preamble, Charter of the United Nations

[11] Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom (New York: W.N. Norton and Company, 2003) 41-42

11 Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat (New York:?Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005) 7

[13] Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-5

13 David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace (New York: Scribner, 2001)

[15] Michael W. Doyle, Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs (New York: Pearson Education, 2005)

[16] Thucydides, The Melian Dialogue

[17] Niall Ferguson, The Next War of the World (New York: Foreign Affairs, 2006) 61

[18] Ibid., 62-66

[19] John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004)

[20] Ibid, 14-15

[21] Ibid, 10

[22] Ibid, 13