Foreign Policy Blogs

Realism vs. American Exceptionalism

Leading political realist and Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt recently published an article in Foreign Policy which argues that realism is intrinsically at odds with the concept of American exceptionalism. While Walt’s construct of American exceptionalism may appear overly simplified for the sake of the argument, the article does shed light on the inherent dangers of how myopic self-interest, when enjoined with the ideals of exceptionalism, can ultimately lead a nation to hubris:

Every country has certain unique features and interests, of course, but the idea that any state is truly “exceptional” is sharply at odds with a realist view of international politics. Realism depicts international politics as an anarchic realm, where no agency or institution exists to protect states from each other. As a result, states must ultimately rely on their own resources and strategies to survive. It is, in other words, a “self-help” world, and this situation forces all states — and especially the major powers — to compete with each other, sometimes ruthlessly. Although realists acknowledge that domestic politics sometimes matters and that there are important differences between different great powers (and different leaders), the most important difference between states is their relative power.

Because it is a competitive world, even highly principled leaders will end up doing some pretty unprincipled things when they can get away with it, and even cruel despots may be forced to constrain their evil impulses if they are confronted by resolute opposition. This world-view helps insulate realists from the sort of myopic hyperpatriotism that leads others to see their own conduct as moral and justified, yet to see others as evil or aggressive when they do exactly the same thing.

The real difference between the United States and virtually all other countries is that the United States has been unusually secure for much of its history, and very powerful for six decades or more. Realist theory tells you that when a state is really powerful, it will be less constrained by the power of others and it will be able to indulge all sorts of foreign policy whims. It can decide that it has “vital” interests on every continent; it can declare itself to be “indispensable” to almost every important issue, and it can convince itself that it really knows what is good for everyone else in the world. If you’re wrong, it may not matter that much in the short term. If you are really powerful, in short, you can do a lot of stupid things for a long time. Even when those blunders are costly, the damage will add up slowly and demands for reform may be ignored.

Read the full article here: