A New Realism for American Foreign Policy?

Given the rise of new powers in the world and America’s relative decline, do the neo-cons in the Republican Party and the liberal institutionalists in the Democratic Party both have it wrong on foreign policy?  Do we need a new realism in American foreign policy?  John Hulsman, a scholar at the German Council on Foreign Relations, and Wess Mitchell, Director of Research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, think so.  I attended a lecture of theirs at a political salon, in which they expounded on their short book utilizing Mario Puzo’s and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” to explain what America is doing wrong in foreign policy today.


Their main point was that the United States, a declining hegemon, is similar to the character of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), whose criminal empire loses power relative to other crime families.  Vito’s three “sons,” represent three currents in American foreign policy.  Sonny (James Caan) represents the neo-cons, always ready to use force.  Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), not really Vito’s son but his “consigliere,” represents the liberal institutionalists, Hillary Clinton if you will, who wish to use diplomacy and America’s moral authority to build alliances and cajole nations into participating in U.S. hegemony.  Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who triumphs in the end, represents realism in foreign policy.  This is Hulsman and Mitchell’s main point: America needs a new realism to manage its decline in a multi-polar world.  The neo-cons and liberal institutionalists both remain mistaken about America’s relative power, believing America is stronger than it in fact is.  They differ only over tactics.  On the other hand, Hulsman and Mitchell’s realism would represent a new strategy for America, as Michael Corleone developed a new strategy for the Corleone family.


Not a bad point, though it has been made before.  Others have noted Great Britain’s shrewd adjustment to its relative power decline from its 19th century zenith.  Britain relinquished its colonial empire and allied with the United States, thus forestalling a more dramatic power decline.  The Rising Powers blog will have more to say in the future about an appropriate U.S. foreign policy in an era of rising powers.  I wish to highlight in today’s blog Hulsman and Mitchell’s entertaining idea and accompanying book, and encourage you to watch Coppola’s fabulous film again!  I would add one point to the Hulsman and Mitchell thesis, however.  I allude to Kissinger’s fine work, Diplomacy.  He notes that during the 19th Century, European diplomacy shifted from a system based on the balance of power plus shared values (the Concert of Europe), during which there were few major wars, to one based on a pure balance of power, to Hulsman and Mitchell’s realism.  Kissinger argued that while realism worked well for a time, exemplified by the successes of Bismarck, realism ultimately turned on itself.  Actions of statesmen less adept than Bismarck in a world of pure balance of power, pure realism, may have led to World War I.   Kissinger argued, somewhat ironically, that realism must be married to shared values and ideals, Teddy Roosevelt “married” to Woodrow Wilson if you will, in order for a stable multi-polar balance of power to work. 

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