TOPICS: Is realism rising in US politics?

Is realism finally back in the driver’s seat of US foreign policy? That’s the conclusion featured this week on the op-ed page of the New York Times, in a column by the managing editor of foreign-policy journal, Foreign Affairs, published by the nation’s most influential foreign policy think-tank, the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). While personnel changes, and notably the resurrection of the State Department as a dominant bureaucratic player and the departure of top Pentagon neo-conservatives, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, help explain the shift, “the real story is simpler,” according to Rose. While realists have predicted the final demise of the unilateralist and neo-conservative forces since they first gained dominance over foreign policy in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon only to be proved dead wrong, many observers now believe that the balance of power within the administration has indeed shifted decisively in favour of the realists.

While the pro-democracy rhetoric, particularly as regards Iraq and the Middle East, continues to dominate official discourse, the evidence of realist dominance is indeed very clear, especially regarding the two surviving members of Bush’s original “Axis of Evil.” US backing for the efforts of the EU-3 to achieve an agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme was an early sign of change that was subsequently bolstered by the relaxation of US procedural conditions for engaging North Korea in the context of the now-resumed Six-Party Talks. The administration’s efforts at tamping down rising anti-Chinese sentiment in Congress,

as well as its apparent determination to remain on friendly terms with what Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld once contemptuously dismissed as “Old Europe”, suggests a new appreciation for diplomacy at the very least. While it is clear that these perceptions are centred in the State Department, and are most strongly promoted by Rice’s team of Deputy Secretary Robert Zoellick, Undersecretary for Policy Nicholas Burns, and Counselor Philip Zelikow, it appears that they have become shared by National Security Adviser as well, who, unlike Rice during her tenure in that post, is apparently willing to weigh in with his own views at critical moments.

In addition, no one should discount the influence of another heavyweight who has tied her fortunes to Rice’s — Bush confidante, Karen Hughes, the State Department’s new public diplomacy chief. Rumsfeld’s backing for the brass’ recent efforts to re-brand the “global war on terror” with the less martial-sounding “global struggle against violent extremism” and to suggest that Washington will begin a substantial withdrawal from Iraq beginning next spring, come what may, has drawn outraged calls for his departure from neo-conservatives, but, as noted by Lieven: “If you’re actually in charge of the US armed forces, there are certain realities you have to take into account.” —IPS