July 29, 2022

Realism Is More Than Restraint

In his first book, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822, Henry Kissinger wrote that, “Every statesman must attempt to reconcile what is considered just with what is considered possible.” What is considered just depends on one’s own domestic values, but what is considered possible depends not only on the resources at your disposal but of the resources and values of opposing states. In other words, we can’t always get our way in a complex and intractable world. This may be one of the most useful and simply stated definitions of realism. A related definition is embodied in the “particularism” of George F. Kennan. Particularism stands against universal values and the legalistic rules that uphold them, and implicitly accepts the world as it is, with all of its cultural and philosophical differences that require different strategies. Because realism comprehends the sheer variety of the world, it has traditionally been the friend of area specialists: the Arabists, Sinologists, and others whose deep cultural knowledge has argued for particular approaches to different regions that abjure one-size-fits-all universalist strategies.

A world in which realism requires intense international engagement at many levels merely in order to operate effectively and be realistic.

But comprehending the world with all of its limitations and variations also means something deeper: recognizing, especially in the cyber age, just how ferociously claustrophobic and interconnected the world actually is. The protection afforded by oceans still matter, but less and less so. Of course, this was true even during the Cold War. Because it was a world struggle, the Cold War witnessed both hard-headed realism and internationalism. The world today is even more inextricably linked than it was then. A world now united by financial markets as much as by the spread of disease, to say nothing about how a war in Ukraine is affecting food supplies in sub-Saharan Africa, is a world in which realism requires intense international engagement at many levels merely in order to operate effectively and be realistic.

Read the full article from The National Interest.

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