Real and Fake Realism

I think “realism” has to be reclaimed from the people who get called realists. Realists in policy circles flatter themselves relentlessly, saying that only they really know the way the world actually is, only they are prepared to accept and accommodate the inevitable disappointments of the world, only they know the contours of our possible futures. These were the people inside of the world of American and European policy formation who professed (often through leaks and indirect remarks) that the neoconservative dogma of Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and other planners of the Iraq War horrified them, and for that, they were often regarded as a preferable alternative.

But these are the people who sold us aid to Mubarak, support for the Saudi royal family, accomodation with tyrants everywhere. Today’s realists are the lineal descendents of the people who felt there was no choice but to accept the permanence of similar regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia, no alternative but to pay off Mobutu, Marcos, the Shah. And these are the people who quake at “instability” and look for the next authoritarian to back, to manage the possibility of genuine change back into predictable org-chart forms of patronage and clientage.

They triumph on the fields of policy for a day, but against the deeper powers now stirring, stirring since the 18th Century all around the world, that realism is delusion. The political elites who try so hard to turn liberal democracies into dusty-dry technocracies reveal again and again that they have no real faith in the long-term revolutionary force of liberalism. Every declaration of independence, every constitution written, every proclamation of human rights, they have tried to limit or hedge or restrict those commitments before the ink on them is dry. Democracy, but not for you. Rights, but not there. Emancipation, but not so far. Free elections, but not where we need stability. And every hedge and limit condition since the 18th Century been a self-evident kludge, transparently temporary and provisional.

And so again and again, the realists, pundits and technocrats and advisors, find themselves dully amazed to be on the wrong side of history, staring forlornly from a ditch at the side of the road as their ride disappears into the distance. Eventually they pick themselves up, dust themselves off and say, “I knew it all along”. And a few days after that, “We must be realists about what will happen next”, as they restore a managerial composure, make scenarios, wargame out the possibilities, repaint and reframe what was for them a black swan event.

The thing is, it’s not a black swan for those of us who see in the history of liberalism an idea that unfolds from the inside out into a potentially endless series of expansions and expectations. It’s not inevitable that it will succeed perpetually in this unfolding, nor are all the forms and ways in which that idea is and will be expressed, lived and understood the same. But the pseudo-realist sets himself or herself against that unfolding without having the guts to actually oppose it. They pretend to defend, support, embrace the promise of liberalism, but believe that somehow it will fail to be defended, fail to be embraced, that some “they” cannot handle liberalism, that “we” are too weak to defend it, that entropy and decline will swallow it up. So they withhold real support, withdraw real hope, and resign to a perpetual expectation of the Spanish Inquisition.

It doesn’t matter how many times that reality exuberantly demonstrates how miserly and complacent this alleged realism actually is, and how ill it serves the actual self-interest of liberal states. What’s a more stable situation for a country like the United States? A world of liberal democratic allies or a world of heavily subsidized autocracies that are always one day away from a sudden eruption into the unknown future? One country can’t be a unipolar hegemon in that former world, but that country might sleep a lot better at night because of it. The realists tell us this is a vision that belongs alongside sugarplum fairies and unicorns. The people of Egypt beg to differ.

Because the aspiration to rights for all and autonomy in economic, social and cultural life is not the end of history, there are no guarantees: not for Egyptians, nor for Americans. Everything we make and achieve and value can be taken away from us someday. Judging from America’s own discontented winter, we are the most likely agents of our potential deprivation. None of the things that fulfill our humanity come with guarantees: we do not love because we are promised that love can never fail, we do not invent and make and create because we have foreknowledge that what we imagine will always come into being. Nor can we take control of every circumstance to gain that guarantee. That was the hubris of the neoconservatives, and whatever happens to Iraq in the long run, it’s hard not to notice that it took 100,000 dead people to make it happen with none of those dead people agreeing to or expecting that cost in advance, versus some hundreds dead in Egypt, nearly all of them people who took their risks knowingly.

What is real is that in every place where autocratic stability now holds eventually people will demand their freedom, and in all likelihood hold a bitterness in their hearts towards the realists who denied that such a day or moment could ever come, or that the risks of such a moment could never be commensurate with the possibilities. My kind of realism, which I think should suffuse every dimension of the policy of the government which represents me, would side with the reality of that eventual moment and scorn the false stability that an outsourced collection of torturers, secret police and hard men hawk to us from the street corner in front of history’s ash heaps.

This entry was posted in Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Real and Fake Realism

  1. nord says:

    Interesting to go back to the debates Post Iraq War I – when there were mass, open rebellions among the Kurds and Shia – it would not have taken much overt or covert assistance to allows those to depose Sadam by 1992. Instead the US was quiet except for the no-fly zones and some modest help for the kurds. Is that an example of the realists or the idealists winning out?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think even more it was the realists who brought us arming and supporting Saddam in the first place, as a bulwark against Iran. Some of whom, of course, were the people most ardently ready to spend blood and treasure to bring him down later on.

Comments are closed.