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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Realism, Ethics and U.S. Foreign Policy


Event Recap

Realism is a school of thought in international relations that asserts the need to carefully assess and project national power to achieve maximum stability and security among states. Some political realists (such as Henry Kissinger) deny any role to ethics or morality in this process, while others (such as Walter Lippmann and Reinhold Niebuhr) have argued that moral issues must be a part of any serious realist analysis. On February 18, less than a month after President Obama promised in his inaugural address foreign policy that would not sacrifice ideals for security, the Boisi Center brought together three of the nation’s most influential scholars on political realism. Andrew Bacevich (Professor of History and International Relations, Boston University), Jean Bethke Elshtain (Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics, University of Chicago) and Rev. J. Bryan Hehir (Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University) spoke to a packed audience about the role of realism and ethics in U.S. foreign policy at the dawn of the Obama administration.

Citing the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, Bacevich argued that the President is first and foremost obligated to “provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Our posterity—future generations of Americans—cannot enjoy our present quality of life, he said, without a balanced budget, a cap on federal entitlements, alleviation of the current account deficit, an end to our dependence on foreign oil and the restoration of the environment and its protection from further harm. Likewise, a clearheaded appraisal of our common defense counsels us to abandon the dominant view of “national security” as requiring global hegemony instead use our military for defensive purposes only. President Obama’s moral obligation to the American people demands no less.

Professors Elshtain and Hehir both began with historical perspectives, differentiating the classical form of political realism, which completely eschewed talk of morality and ethics, from the modern version, which is open in varying degrees to ethical considerations. Elshtain focused her remarks upon a particular form of modern realism epitomized by the work of Reinhold Niebuhr. Christian realism, as this view has come to be known, argues that a theological understanding of human nature—as invested with natural rights and capable of transcendence, but bound by a sinful pride that refuses to admit the limits of our rationality and altruism—affords a much more accurate portrait of international relations than its alternatives. President Obama has claimed Reinhold Niebuhr as an important influence in his thinking, and Elshtain skillfully outlined the sort of policy critiques Christian realism could offer the new administration.

Hehir faulted classical realism for over-emphasizing the moral importance of nation-states, reminding the audience that while states are crucial political entities, they must always have relative, not absolute, moral value. Human dignity transcends national boundaries, and political leaders should understand the world as a human community, not simply a collection of states. With regard to the challenges facing the new president, Hehir argued that Obama needs to reclaim a sort of Niebuhrian foreign policy that embraces both moral realism and (in opposition to the Bush administration) limits to American power and influence. This will entail careful attention to our responsibilities in Iraq and Central Asia, along with a redefinition (and limitation) of the scope of our present,  “war on terror.”