President-elect Donald Trump is being called a “realist” in foreign policy. Don’t believe it. He may have some crude realist instincts, but that only makes him a terrible messenger for realism. Realists like myself should be very nervous about his election.
Realism is a sensibility, not a specific guide to what to do in each crisis. And it is a sensibility rooted in a mature sense of the tragic — of all the things that can go wrong in foreign policy, so that caution and a knowledge of history are embedded in the realist mindset. Realism has been with us at least since Thucydides wrote “The Peloponnesian War” in the 5th century B.C., in which he defined human nature as driven by fear (phobos), self-interest (kerdos) and honor (doxa). Because the realist knows that he must work with such elemental forces rather than against them, he also knows, for example, that order comes before freedom and interests come before values. After all, without order there is no freedom for anybody, and without interests a state has no incentive to project its values.
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