The Realpolitik of the American People


It is often stated that, in contrast to people from other countries, Americans’ political values preclude them from accepting a foreign policy based on realism. Realists themselves are especially strong proponents of this argument. Henry Kissinger, for instance, has argued that, “no serious American maker of foreign policy can be oblivious to the traditions of exceptionalism by which American democracy has defined itself” when crafting policy.

John Mearsheimer makes the case more forcefully, when he asserts that Americans inherently reject realism in favor of liberalism:

“Americans tend to be hostile to realism because it clashes with their basic values….  In particular, realism is at odds with the deep-seated sense of optimism and moralism that pervades much of American society. Liberalism, on the other hand, fits neatly with those values. Not surprisingly, foreign policy discourse in the United States often sounds as if it has been lifted right out of a Liberalism 101 lecture.”

In contrast to Kissinger, however, Mearsheimer argues that liberal discourse notwithstanding, U.S. foreign policy is actually guided by realist logic.

“It should be obvious to intelligent observers,” Mearsheimer writes, “that the United States speaks one way and acts another.” He goes on to contend that while the duplicity of American foreign policy is obvious to foreigners, the American public believes that the U.S. acts based on its moral principles.

The reason for this, according to Mearsheimer, is two-fold. First, in certain cases, such as the Cold War, U.S. values and realism coincide so that while the U.S. is motivated by its national interest, it can reasonably claim to be supporting liberal principles. However, sometimes America’s values and interests do conflict. In these cases, American elites become spin doctors who weave together a liberal, value-based narrative to explain the country’s foreign policy to the public. The American people, in turn, readily accept this narrative “because liberalism is so deeply rooted in their culture.”

There’s likely a great deal of truth to these claims. Nonetheless, I take issue with at least two points.


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