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A realist’s foreign policy in the time of Biden

Realism has been around since the time of the ancient Greeks. Perhaps Plato put it best when he said, “He who wishes to serve his country must have not only the power to think, but the will to act.” It is this unity of thought and action — what the ancients called “praxis” — that gives realism its edge as a way of thinking over more utopian schools of thought, such as Wilsonianism and neoconservatism. Realism is a statesman’s handbook, uniquely suited for the combined tasks of thinking and doing.

So what would a realist advocate the United States do in this coming new era, during the administration of the admittedly Wilsonian Joe Biden? Realists in the Republican Party, both in dominant positions in Congress and in the court of public opinion, above all else must have a clear, articulated alternative program for America’s foreign policy, wait for the Wilsonians (predictably) to run into difficulties, and then offer helpful and effective policy alternatives to the new White House, being Americans first and partisans second.

If the Biden administration accepts this well-meant offer of strategic help, all to the better. If they do not, Republicans will have put in place a strategic blueprint for running the world when their turn next comes to occupy the White House. In either case, being constructive about devising an alternate, creative, cutting-edge realist foreign policy ought to be the party’s next step. Here are six strategic realist precepts that do exactly this:

1. Make sure the Biden administration’s strategic focus remains on China, America’s only possible superpower rival. Wilsonians have a tendency to lose focus; philosophically they care about everything, but in practice they all too often care about nothing. Realism’s strength is in articulating American interests and then correctly prioritizing them. 

The new administration’s feet must be held to the fire regarding the centrality of China as America’s primary great power rival; everything else is secondary. Overall, focusing once again on great power politics — involving China, Russia, Japan, India, the Anglosphere countries, and the European Union (EU) — must be the overriding American priority, because these power blocs along with the United States will determine the nature and future of our new era.

2. Realists ought to encourage the growing parallel Wilsonian hawkishness over Beijing; creating an enduring bipartisan strategic consensus regarding the China threat over the next four years should be a political priority. While realists traditionally think in more concrete terms about strategy — of geopolitics, macroeconomics and the power structure of the world — in coming to conclusions about China, Wilsonianism offers an alternate road for arriving at the same policy destination. 

Ethical realists such as Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower poached a fine Wilsonian ideal, knowing the power of human rights in advancing America’s agenda. China’s abuses in western Xinjiang province, Tibet and their crackdown in Hong Kong speaks to the dark nature of the Communist Party regime, and impels Wilsonians to join realists in reaching the common conclusion that China’s expansionism in Asia must be halted.

3. Realists must encourage the Biden administration’s correct desire to bolster and further construct an anti-Chinese security alliance in Asia, centered on the Quadrilateral Initiative, or the Quad. A fledgling strategic alliance composed of India, Australia, Japan and the United States, the Quad must be further expanded to include more regional Asian players and great power allies further afield, such as the United Kingdom. The new White House’s enthusiasm for alliances means this is another area ripe for strategic realist-Wilsonian cooperation; enhancing the Quad as the strategic bulwark against China’s expansionism in the Indo-Pacific is a vital realist interest.

4. Despite the unpopularity of free trade in both parties, re-joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (now called the CPTPP) is a vital American task, as it creates economic norms for the entire Pacific Rim region based on American terms and not China’s. Traditionally protectionist Democrats will not take the lead on this, so realist Republicans have an imperative to do so. It must be made clear to the new Biden team that if they really care about alliances as much as they claim to, and truly see China as America’s most important rival, the easiest and best thing for them to immediately do is to push the geo-economic button, re-signing onto TPP, which guarantees American worker’s rights, and equally importantly ties the vast and booming Asia-Pacific rim in macroeconomic terms in the long term to America primarily, rather than China.

5. The Biden team rightly has signaled that declining great power Russia must be reckoned with. While realists agree that NATO’s eastern border must be bolstered — making it clear to Moscow there is absolutely no room for brinkmanship, let alone Russian expansionism on NATO’s eastern flank — at the same time, the U.S. must do all it can to not throw Moscow into China’s arms. This is presently the only great power combination that can, in tandem and over time, threaten American strategic dominance. 

6. As President Trump rightly practiced and preached, America must stop fighting “stupid wars,” secondary wars of choice (such as in Iraq, the Balkans, Haiti and Somalia) that fritter away American power at great cost and no gain, all for areas of absolutely no primary American interest. Realists must follow up on Trump’s better historical example, shepherding American blood and treasure for use only when primary American geostrategic interests are in play, and calling out the Biden administration’s likely Wilsonian impulses to “do something” — the vague, but most dangerous phrase in the foreign policy lexicon — the next time there is a humanitarian crisis somewhere.

These six realist markers, along with shoring up our alliances in Europe, mark the beginnings of an effective realist foreign policy for the time of Biden. Armed with this strategic playbook, realists must serve as a loyal opposition, working with Wilsonians where we can and calling out their mistakes where we must. We are all first Americans, and successfully defending American interests around the world, in the end, is what a realist foreign policy is all about.  

Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political-risk consulting firm headquartered in Milan, Germany and London. A life member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Hulsman is a contributing editor for Aspenia, the flagship foreign policy journal of The Aspen Institute, Italy.

Tags Donald Trump International relations Joe Biden Political realism US foreign policy Wilsonianism

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