What is Progressive Realism?

By Robert Wright, Dec 30 2020

A slightly condensed version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Outlook section of the Washington Post. 

Recently Michael McFaul, ambassador to Russia under President Obama, expressed puzzlement about a term he had been hearing—a label adopted by some people on the left who aren’t happy with the emerging outlines of the Biden administration. “In the debate about the future Biden foreign policy I’m seeing people self-identify as ‘progressive realists’,” he tweeted

This term bothered McFaul. After all, in foreign policy circles, “realism” has long signified a strict focus on national interest, with little regard for the welfare of people abroad. The famously pitiless Henry Kissinger called himself a realist. Maybe McFaul had Kissinger in mind when he lamented the “deaths and horrific repression” that past realists had countenanced and then asked plaintively, “Where are the progressive idealists?" 

Speaking as a progressive realist, let me first say that the answer to that question is easy. “Progressive idealists” are everywhere! 

If by that term you mean left-of-center people who wax idealistic about America’s global mission—who think our foreign policy should emphasize spreading democracy and defending human rights abroad—then “progressive idealists” pervade liberal foreign policy circles and will be running the show in a Biden administration. Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s picks for secretary of state and national security adviser, are progressive idealists.

That’s the problem. Though McFaul considers realism an ideology with blood on its hands—and God knows Kissinger has plenty of blood on his—the fact is that in recent years naive idealism has been responsible for much death and suffering and dislocation. And a lot of that happened on the watch of the Obama administration, where Blinken and Sullivan played important roles; both did stints as Vice President Biden’s national security adviser and both had high-level state department jobs.

So, with another round of progressive idealist foreign policy apparently on the way, it’s worth reviewing the previous round and seeing how things might have been different had realists been in charge. What follows are four basic principles of progressive realism along with examples of their violation by Blinken and Sullivan and the Obama team generally. Whether or not this exercise inspires any defections from the idealist to the realist camp, I hope it will inspire people like McFaul to revisit their assumptions about the moral superiority of idealism.


1) Strategic humility. One thing contemporary realists of the left and right share is a healthy respect for the law of unintended consequences—an awareness, in particular, that the best-intentioned military interventions have a way of making things worse. One thing Jake Sullivan and Tony Blinken have in common is their support for past interventions that made things worse.

For example, while in the Obama administration, both supported the 2013 proxy intervention in Syria, when America joined Middle Eastern and European allies in arming various rebel groups that were said to be fighting for freedom and democracy. (Some were, some weren’t.) This led to the same outcome that non-intervention would have produced—Bashar al-Assad is still in power—except with lots more dead bodies and refugees. 

I can see why idealistic supporters of this intervention might have viewed realists who opposed it as cold-blooded. Assad is a brutal authoritarian who had responded to peaceful protest viciously and who, in the absence of intervention by America and its allies, would have suppressed any insurgency ruthlessly. Still, the fact remains that the intervention produced much more death and suffering on all sides than ruthless suppression would have produced. That’s not, by my lights, a morally superior outcome.

Many idealists who supported this intervention (including Blinken and Sullivan) supported an earlier Obama intervention—the bombardment of Libya in 2011—that also worked out badly in both humanitarian and geopolitical terms. In helping rebels depose Muammar Qaddafi, the US and its allies left Libya mired in bloody chaos—and, meanwhile, its suddenly liberated stock of weapons flowed, with lethal and destabilizing consequences, into African and Middle Eastern countries (including, in a kind of negative synergy between unfortunate interventions, Syria). 

2) Cognitive empathy. Hans Morgenthau, the chief architect of realism, wrote in the mid-twentieth century that an effective strategist must have a “respectful understanding” of all relevant actors and so "must put himself into the other man's shoes, look at the world and judge it as he does." This doesn’t mean “feeling his pain”—that’s emotional empathy; it just means seeing his point of view.

Cognitive empathy helps explain why many realists are critical of the Obama administration’s attempt in 2013 and 2014 to help opponents of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych remove him from office. From Vladimir Putin’s point of view, it was unacceptable for American officials to come to a country on Russia’s periphery, egg on protestors who sought the ouster of its pro-Russian president, and meanwhile maneuver behind the scenes to select and anoint a new head of government. And this meddling became only more outrageous, from Putin’s perspective, when, with armed opponents of Yanukovych roaming the streets, he fled the country for fear of his life.

There’s no way to know what a hands-off American policy would have produced—whether Yanukovych would have been deposed at all, or perhaps deposed in more orderly fashion. But the hands-on policy left us with this: Russia invaded Crimea and backed Ukrainian rebels, keeping the country violently divided; and Russia—in what Obama adviser Ben Rhodes thinks was in part payback for Ukraine—meddled in the 2016 American election.

Idealism has its virtues. But when an exercise in “democracy promotion” culminates in the forcible overthrow of a democratically elected president and is followed by tons of blowback, including the death of many Ukrainians and enduringly damaged relations between Russia and the US, you have to wonder whether this particular kind of idealism is a reliable moral lodestar.    

Deficits in cognitive empathy don’t just lead to specific bad policies. They can lead to large-scale delusion about America’s goodness, and hence to dangerous hubris, by rendering American officials oblivious to how America is viewed abroad. Consider this passage from an ode to American exceptionalism recently penned by Sullivan:

 “At a gathering of Asian nations in 2011, I heard the Chinese foreign minister address the issue of Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea this way: ‘China is a big country, and other countries here are small countries. Think hard about that.’ This is China’s way, and Russia’s way. It generally has not been America’s way.”

That’s a lovely flight of rhetoric. Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, the claim that America doesn’t muscle small countries into compliance with its will would be greeted by uproarious laughter in small countries near and far—except maybe in those countries where this muscle has involved killing so many people that mirth is hard to muster. For that matter, even when the muscle involves not American or proxy military forces, but economic leverage, the amount of suffering can be considerable—as with our sanctions against such countries as Cuba, Syria, Iran, and Venezuela. 

Sullivan said last year that America should be “doubling down” on Venezuelan sanctions. So an idealist, in hopes of liberating the masses, supports policies that immiserate them, even though history shows that sanctions aimed at regime change basically never work. Realists, in contrast, ask a simple question: Remind me what vital American interest is served by inflicting misery on a small faraway country in hopes that something magical will eventually happen?

3. Anti-Manichaeism. Realists resist the temptation to divide the world’s nations into blocks of good and evil. Obama wasn’t as guilty of this as his predecessor, but much of his foreign policy team (including Blinken, Sullivan, and McFaul) did have Manichaean leanings. Blinken, for example, sees the world as a battle “between techno-democracies on the one hand, and techno-autocracies, like China, on the other hand.” Accordingly, he wants to create a “league of democracies” to advance a “common strategic, economic, and political” vision and strengthen “military security.” 

For every action there is a reaction. Almost inevitably, a “league of democracies” would lead to a de-facto league of authoritarians—and to deep fissures between the two. Which might be OK if everybody was in the mood for another multi-decade Cold War. But progressive idealists profess to see the urgency of addressing various problems—like climate change and pandemics and weapons proliferation—that will be hard to address in a polarized world. 

This is the fundamental tension within the world view of progressive idealists. 

On the one hand, if you asked them what distinguishes them from neoconservatives—who after all share their enthusiasm for military interventions, proxy interventions, economic sanctions, and ridiculous claims about American exceptionalism—they would probably start talking about climate change, arms proliferation, and other challenges that call for international governance of the sort progressives like and neocons view more skeptically. 

Yet the interventionist inclination they share with neocons has created so much chaos and antagonism around the world that the challenge of building such governance is now steep. And the determination of many progressive idealists to rally the world’s democracies in an existential struggle against authoritarianism (another thing they share with neoconservatives) would further steepen the odds. All the more so since China, with nearly a fifth of the world’s population and one tenth of its economic output, would be among the nations on the other side of the divide. 

Progressive realists, like progressive idealists, want to build strong international governance. Indeed, one distinction between realists of the left and right is that the ones on the left are more seized by the need to confront transnational challenges ranging from the familiar (climate change, nuclear arms control) to the less familiar (arms control in space and cyberspace) to the almost never mentioned (research in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, which could go badly awry in a world with fierce competition among nations and no rules of the road). Realists on the left are also more inclined than those on the right to use trade agreements to address environmental and labor issues.

But, however ironically, this progressive emphasis on international governance is grounded in something realists of left and right share: a steadfast focus on the national interest. Progressive realists believe that as technological advance makes relations among nations more non-zero-sum—with more threat of lose-lose outcomes and more promise of win-win outcomes—enlightened American self-interest calls for more and more international cooperation. 

Which helps explain a fourth principle of progressive realism:

4) Respect for international law. Contemporary realists of both left and right are inclined to stay out of the internal affairs of other nations, and in that sense both show respect for national sovereignty. But progressive realists are more likely than conservative realists to wrap that respect in a larger sermon about respect for international law, which deems national sovereignty inviolable except in specified circumstances.

One reason for this emphasis is the belief that, if there is to be international governance that is up to the challenge, it will require more effective international laws and norms than are now found on this planet. Another reason is the recognition that, had America abided strictly by international law over the past couple of decades, a number of big mistakes—such as the invasion of Iraq and the proxy intervention in Syria—wouldn’t have happened. 

At the same time, this emphasis on respecting international law and exercising international governance can in principle make progressive realists more open to intervention than some realists to their right. The 1995 NATO intervention in Bosnia, which used air strikes to protect civilian populations, was authorized by the UN Security Council and was thus lawful. So you could support it without getting your progressive realist credentials revoked (though of course being a progressive realist doesn’t compel you to support an intervention just because it’s legal). 

Even the 2011 Libyan intervention was briefly eligible for progressive realist support. The initial stage—the aerial defense of residents of Benghazi, whom Qaddafi’s forces were poised to attack—was authorized by the Security Council on humanitarian grounds. But the Obama administration then turned the mission into an unabashed regime change effort, which arguably violated the letter of the UN resolution and certainly violated its spirit.  

By progressive realist lights, this regime change mission—spearheaded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while Jake Sullivan was one of her top aides—entailed a cynical exploitation of international governance and a disingenuous invocation of international law. So its downside went beyond the humanitarian and geopolitical disaster it ushered in; there was damage to the machinery of international governance and the normative authority of international law.    

The degree of emphasis placed by progressive realists on strengthening international law and governance may be their most distinctive feature. It separates them from progressive idealists, neoconservatives, and many realists to their right. 

Another way of stating its underlying premise—that relations among nations are growing more non-zero-sum—is that the fates of people around the world are growing more intertwined. Disease jumps across continents, arms races make both hemispheres unsafe, and grievance abroad can morph into transborder terrorism or into authoritarian populism that works in synergy with dark forces at home. So we progressive realists do—if only out of national self-interest, though nobler motivations are permissible—care about the welfare of people abroad. 

But we believe that the expressions of concern for that welfare emanating from the American foreign policy establishment are suspect. They tend to be selective in focus, often dovetailing conveniently with the aims of interest groups and corporate actors. And even when they’re pure in motivation, they are, as converted into policy via our increasingly dysfunctional political system, a manifestly bad guide unless your intended destination is death and disarray. 

Progressive realists believe that the pursuit of humankind’s long-term welfare  has to be governed by principle and restraint if it is to succeed; our good intentions have to be disciplined, consistently subordinated to the imperative of building a true global community. 

Progressive idealists—the people who ran Obama’s foreign policy and will be running Biden’s—say that they, too, want to build a global community. But they’ve got a funny way of showing it.

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