Realism and Conservatism: The Elephant(s) in the Room

By Ethan Kessler

Today, as the world continues to suffer from continued anthropogenic degradation, as mankind enters its fifth month of the coronavirus pandemic, and as America’s cities burn and rend at the seams on a scale not seen in generations, questions of international relations theory may seem too abstract to ponder. Nevertheless some have asked the question: What can realism tell us about the current state of affairs? Many of the answers have focused on the effect of the pandemic on international institutions, or its foreboding message for the future of international cooperation.

Curiously, however, these answers have neglected to seriously consider the converse: What does the pandemic indicate about the state of realism? Focusing on the guiding principle of realism – national self-interest – reveals that realism in America has come to rest on an increasingly precarious foundation: The concept of a shared national self-interest has disintegrated. This disintegration, of which the recent public health catastrophe is the latest and most poignant indication, is the doing of modern mainstream conservatism. We as Americans ignore this at our own peril.

First, a definition. Realists believe that each state is guided by national self-interest. This principle rests on the assumption that states can be considered unitary and more or less rational actors. Though these assumptions greatly oversimplify domestic and international politics, realism remains a useful framework for analyzing interstate interactions. In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt no doubt abhorred the Nazi occupation of France, a friendly state and fellow liberal democracy. But he did not militarily intervene. The most straightforward explanation for why: America’s leaders (comprising not only Roosevelt, but also the more isolationist Congress) did not think it in America’s interest at the time. (Ditto under Presidents Eisenhower and Clinton regarding Hungary in 1956 and Rwanda in 1994, respectively.)

That many casual students of political science often describe realism as “commonsense” or “obvious” illustrates how difficult it can be for Americans to imagine a different set of guiding assumptions in international relations. But the intellectual contribution of realism is best understood by revisiting a time before national self-interest was applicable to the international system – before the age of nation-states. America, and other advanced states today, act as nation-states on the international stage because their governments are more or less understood to represent the people as a whole – the nation. Foreign policy decisions are made by politicians and bureaucrats, who are held accountable to citizens of the nation by elections and laws. Before the nation-state, when empires were the dominant form of territorial organization, foreign policy was crafted instead at the palace by relatively unaccountable nobles and clerics. These elites did not serve citizens, but instead ruled over subjects; their foreign policy was self-serving, not nationally motivated.

Whether imperial England, say, went to war with imperial France depended not only on what Parliament – the representatives of (some of) the English people – desired, but also on the personal interests of the English king. This “pre-national” conception of foreign policy is wholly incompatible with realism’s assumption of a national self-interest for states to pursue. This is not to say that modern-day leaders of nation-states do not factor personal or political interests into foreign policy decisions; it is only to say that a realist believes the primary considerations for foreign policy in a nation-state should be national, not royal or otherwise parochial.

Some may object to this conception of international relations on the grounds that such a dichotomy obfuscates the more complex reality of history. Such objections would note that, in the nation-state era, foreign policy decisions have still been made on the basis of specious conceptions of the national self-interest – for example, the decision by President Eisenhower in 1954 to sponsor a coup of the democratically-elected government in Guatemala, heavily influenced by the United Fruit Company, a private business. Of course, such examples are valid; intrusions of private interests into public policy, like the military-industrial complex, have existed for much of America’s history. But realism is not an airtight framework for analyzing international affairs – such a framework probably does not exist. Instead, it gives observers and practitioners an ideal formulation of national self-interest from which to start. The prioritization of the national, as opposed to parochially elite, interests in international relations has surely distinguished the imperial era from the national one – even if not perfectly.

So where has America’s national self-interest been compromised? And what does modern American conservatism have to do with it? First, modern American conservatism must be defined. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. president. “Revolution” was the correct term for the moment. For the previous half-century, a liberal coalition had maintained near-constant control of Congress, reflecting a desire for a robust public safety net and other government intervention in market affairs after the Great Depression. This hegemony fostered in Democratic and Republican presidential administrations alike a consensus faith in strong government. Reagan shook that faith, promising to rescue America from the scourge of stagflation and the general despair that the liberal consensus had failed to adequately address – all by abandoning the social democratic tenets of American politics since the New Deal.

This departure from the New Deal consensus would remake American society. The previous presidential attempt from the hardliner faction of the Republican Party, helmed by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, had failed miserably. But Reagan was able to take many of Goldwater’s previously unworkable positions – extrication of government from welfare, a less secular public sphere, and pursuit of absolute victory (as opposed to détente) in the Cold War – and win. Under the new Republican Party, the American notion of government was finally altered: Where it had once been viewed as the solution to problems, it was now the problem itself.

Enter “Reaganomics.” Taxes for the wealthy were cut, depriving the state of its very lifeblood. Concomitantly, deficits ballooned and social programs were slashed. This libertarian reworking of the federal government, all to the backdrop of Reagan’s sedative promise that it would soon, again, be “morning in America,” bred in future conservatives a kind of disgust for the political. In 1994, upon winning the House for the first time in nearly 50 years, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans gutted congressional staffs, making elected officials more reliant on private-sector lobbyists. Having the Congress kneecap itself – to the cheers of citizens it supposedly represented – makes little sense outside the bounds of Reagan’s libertarian discourse. The discourse became pervasive. Even President Clinton, Reagan’s first Democratic successor, towed the conservative line, famously telling the nation that “the era of big government is over.”

The effects this discourse has had on America’s national self-interest are obvious now. A pandemic has unleashed chaos on the world on a scale unseen in over 100 years, and America has suffered the brunt of the virus’s human toll. Why? The virus found an America whose state capacity had, indeed, been reduced to the infantile by Reagan’s conservative successors. Early warnings of the pandemic went unprocessed, then ignored, then flat-out denied – outcomes one would expect from an understaffed diplomatic corps and an intelligence community repeatedly politicized by Trump and the previous conservative administration. On top of that, the continuing “war on terror” and an emerging “great power competition” on the national security front crowded out any political room for public health concern; a 2017 tabletop exercise (only conducted at the request of the outgoing Obama administration) found America woefully unequipped for a pandemic, leaving the Trump administration with both a clear idea of what lay ahead and a National Security Council playbook to tackle the inevitable. But, Reagan’s students in the new administration knew better than to have the government chart a path forward. All chances to get ahead of the crisis were squandered. Such brazen affronts to the national self-interest call into question the continued application of realism to conservative-led government.

Some may write off this crisis as President Trump’s doing alone, chalking up the coronavirus pandemic to another casualty of his mercurial and narcissistic personality. But Trump is but one of many Reagan-style conservatives leading America. Thus, today’s misery is the consequence not just of an ineffective principal, but also of the agents that surround him. Much of the American coronavirus response has been coordinated by Alex Azar, Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. In addition to running much of his response plan through an aide with no relevant experience, Azar came up with test kits five and a half weeks after the World Health Organization did and fumbled the initial distribution of masks to hospitals. He still had the gall to tell the country on television that “the government is working on this. You’ve got the right people on this,” couching his empty promises in big-government language even as America has claimed over a quarter of confirmed worldwide cases, with over 100,000 confirmed deaths, because the government has stood at distance from the people it is sworn to protect. A far cry indeed from President Kennedy’s “Best and Brightest.”

These are not the only indications of America’s conservative leaders failing to prioritize the national interest. Early emergency measures as basic as unemployment relief triggered immediate, widespread opposition among congressional Republicans, and continue to do so even as the crisis continues to take lives and cripple the economy. Even in a once-in-a-century pandemic, Republicans are wary of a government that would dare help its citizens too much. As for personal protective equipment, it has not been provided through America’s national agencies (FEMA, for example), but through the conduits of alliance and family that lead back to the president. Like the kings of empires past, Trump has ensured that those connected to his daughter and son-in-law have priority in matters of safety and security. Just as European mercenaries and princes once bought their way into the brass in a time before the nation-state, a young real estate agent now leads the nation’s efforts on the pandemic (in addition to the Israel-Palestine conflict and immigration reform). The private sector has subsumed the public; welfare is no longer connected to a sense of nation. Just as Reagan would have it.

This mainstream conservative vision for America uncannily parallels foreign polities. In many of sub-Saharan Africa’s post-colonial states, regimes are considered “neo-patrimonial,” whereby national public office is less a station for representing the interests of the nation-state and more an arena for wielding influence on behalf of one’s ethnic group or fiscal interests. In Russia, foreign policy decisions are not necessarily subject to a centralized process, but often result from the influence and interests of private actors close to the Kremlin. And in China, the coronavirus has exposed a political system that disincentivizes lower-level officials from acting in the interests of Beijing or the Chinese people. Just as one could not persuasively present Vladimir Putin’s policy decisions as responding to the interests of the Russian people, it would require rhetorical somersaults to level America’s response to the pandemic with the best interests of the American nation. It is unclear, then, how America’s conservatives could consider themselves bound by a sense of the national self-interest.

Is this all to say that there are zero Republican members of Congress and the administration who are truly divested of financial conflicts of interest and who truly believe themselves to be acting in the national interest? Not necessarily. But consider the case of Rep. Justin Amash. Late last year, President Trump was impeached by the House for withholding congressionally-mandated arms sales to Ukraine in exchange for personal political favors. Amash, a Tea Party libertarian and lifelong Republican who left the party last summer, voted for impeachment, noting Trump’s use of his office “not for the benefit of the United States of America but instead for his personal and political gain.” No congressional Republicans voted for impeachment. Because he opposed the monarchical behavior of the president, Amash had to leave the Republican Party. Clearly, something about being Republican per se contravenes the national interest.

For as long as realism has been conceptualized in modern times, realists have had the luxury of taking for granted the primacy of self-interest in international relations – the luxury of believing that, at least in the West, the mission of the American Founding Fathers and their followers to purge royalist tendencies from government has mostly succeeded. In light of recent crises, it has become abundantly clear that these assumptions need to be revisited. The shadow of modern American conservatism has finally, undeniably, caught up with realism.

Ethan Kessler is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with a major in Political Science and a minor in History. Originally from California, he will be returning to Michigan to work on a political campaign in the fall. He enjoys learning about international relations and American politics.






One response to “Realism and Conservatism: The Elephant(s) in the Room”

  1. […] with powerful moneyed interests, and policies of austerity and privatization—are increasingly incongruent with national priorities both domestically and […]

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