If a politician wants to convey a sense of gravitas and sound like a serious foreign-policy thinker, they are apt to declare that they are a “realist.” Genuine realists may still be an endangered species in the Western foreign-policy community—not extinct but definitely outnumbered by liberals, neoconservatives, and other idealists—but embracing the realist label is intended to convey a certain tough-minded sophistication about the complex world of international politics. But caveat emptor: Experience suggests that such claims need to be viewed with considerable skepticism.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described his policies as based on realism and restraint, for example, even though he is more accurately described as a faith-based fabulist (and one of the least successful secretaries in living memory). One of his predecessors, Condoleezza Rice, used to write essays extolling a “new American realism,” but the policies she helped implement and defend (e.g., the war in Iraq, the “Freedom Agenda,” etc.) violated most realist precepts and were opposed by most genuine realist thinkers. Former President Barack Obama called the realist theologian Reinhold Niebuhr his favorite philosopher and occasionally displayed a realist’s sense of prudence, but he never challenged the non-realist strategy of liberal hegemony that had repeatedly backfired before, during, and after his presidency. The moral: Some politicians want you to think they are realists; they just don’t want to act as realism prescribes.
Given this tradition of misrepresentation, it should not surprise you that Vivek Ramaswamy—the latest slick neophyte to say that he knows how to set U.S. foreign policy right—has claimed the realist mantle for himself. Writing in the American Conservative, Ramaswamy advances what he calls a viable doctrine of “Realism and Revival.” He embraces George Washington’s 18th-century warnings about “entangling alliances,” associates himself with the supposedly “cold and sober realism” of Richard Nixon, and defends the principle of hemispheric dominance first espoused by James Monroe in the 1820s. A cursory read of his article might lead the unwary to see him as the answer to a realist’s prayer.
Indeed, you might think I’d be giddy about Ramaswamy’s shtick, insofar as some of what he seems to be proposing sounds like what I and other realists/restrainers have been advocating for some time. He thinks foreign policy should be designed to advance the national interest (though he never tells us what that interest is). He wants U.S. allies to do more for their own defense (a view shared by every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower), would like to minimize the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, and says he’ll drive a wedge between Russia and China. When I read him calling for the U.S. to be a “balancer of last resort” but not a first responder all over the world, I can’t help but wonder if he’s been reading my stuff.
So why am I not clamoring to get a spot on his team, sending his campaign a nice fat contribution, and writing a column praising his remarkable insights?
Let’s start with the basics. Foreign-policy realism begins by trying to comprehend the political world as it really is, not as we might like it to be, and that requires an accurate understanding of history and a clear sense of what is politically feasible. Ramaswamy’s article fails on both counts: His analysis and recommendations are glib, shallow, and rest on some dubious historical assertions. Moreover, his confident claim that he can achieve swift and sweeping foreign-policy successes at little or no cost is as dependent on magical thinking as the policies of the neoconservatives and liberal internationalists he repeatedly criticizes.
True realists see the world differently. In a world of separate states that lacks a central authority, ambitious schemes rarely go exactly as planned or as easily as their architects predict. For realists, foreign policy is a complex realm of chance, contingency, and unintended consequences, and even the most powerful states often find their efforts thwarted by open opposition, foot-dragging, unforeseen accidents, their own mistakes, and the inherent limits of knowledge. For this reason, realists emphasize the need for prudence and warn against efforts to remake distant societies that are very different from our own. Ramaswamy, by contrast, thinks it will be child’s play to get other countries to reorient their foreign policies and restructure their societies according to his dictates.
His ignorance is also apparent in his choice of historical role models. Invoking Washington is a safe move, of course, and Washington’s famous “Farewell Address” does contain some useful cautionary advice for us today. But an approach to foreign policy that was appropriate for a weak and still-vulnerable republic at the end of 18th century can hardly be applied mutatis mutandis to the strategic decisions that confront the world’s most powerful state today.
His next role model is Nixon, whom he calls “the president I most admire,” but his grasp of Nixon’s policies and achievements is spotty at best. The 37th president was no idealist, but Nixon’s “realism” also contained plenty of gaps, limitations, and avoidable errors. The opening to China was classic balance-of-power politics, but Ramaswamy overstates its importance and its overall impact on the Cold War. China and the Soviet Union had been at odds before Nixon went to Beijing, and China was too weak to shift the global balance of power just by making nice with Washington. His claim that Nixon “got us out of Vietnam” is risible; in fact, Nixon and Henry Kissinger ignored the advice of realists like Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, and George Kennan and prolonged the war to no good purpose for an additional four years. Ramaswamy says he’ll implement his own version of the Nixon Doctrine—which called for the United States to shift security burdens to key regional allies—but he seems unaware that this rhetorical declaration had little impact on U.S. commitments or defense burdens. And some of the key elements of that doctrine—such as a growing reliance upon regional allies like the shah of Iran—ultimately backfired badly. It is also worth remembering that Nixon and Kissinger greatly expanded the overall U.S. role in the Middle East, which is the opposite of the direction that Ramaswamy says he wants to go.
Ramaswamy’s departure from true realism is perhaps most apparent in his discussion of Latin America. He wants the United States to “re-embrace the Monroe Doctrine” and announce to the world that “our hemisphere is not to be encroached” upon. As an offshore balancer, I don’t have a big problem with that general idea, but what exactly does Ramaswamy mean here? Will Washington bar Chinese investment in South America or tell Brazil not to trade with Beijing? Good luck with that. Is he going to use the 82nd Airborne to tackle drug gangs or punish left-wing regimes? Taken literally, Ramaswamy’s recommendations would entrap the United States in local quagmires for which we have no ready solution. He’s worried about Latin American “leftism,” “unstable states,” drug cartels, and migrants, but his only answers to these challenges are a chest-thumping warning that other states must keep their distance (or they “will be made to regret it”), to place greater reliance on the U.S. Navy (to do what?), and to propose a bunch of new trade deals. This is foreign policy by bumper sticker, not a serious analysis of the region’s challenges and the different ways the United States might respond.
Magical thinking is also evident in Ramaswamy’s ideas for remaking the global chessboard. Driving a wedge between Russia and China is a desirable goal, but he seems to think that all he must do to achieve that aim is declare an end to NATO enlargement and concede the occupied portions of Ukraine to Russia. Halting further NATO enlargement would be a good first step, but at this point separating Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping is going to be a lot more difficult than Ramaswamy thinks. Putin has little reason to trust U.S. assurances at this point, no matter who makes them, and what would prevent him from pocketing Ramaswamy’s concessions and then resuming Moscow’s mutually beneficial partnership with Beijing?
Similarly, Ramaswamy wants Europe to take greater responsibility for its own security—which is going to cost a lot of money and take some time to achieve. It’s the right goal, but he also wants Britain and France to “reposition their naval forces and permanently garrison their Pacific protectorates.” As I’ve written before, European allies can’t do much to help us in the Indo-Pacific, and it would make far more sense for them to focus their resources on their own region rather than squander time and money garrisoning distant possessions in the Indo-Pacific.
Ramaswamy says he respects India’s “realist tradition of non-alignment and equidistance,” but insists he will “find ways to draw them closer.” He is mostly silent on how he’ll accomplish this miracle, though what he does propose sounds like a lavish attempt to bribe India with tech transfer, including an “AUKUS-style deal to share nuclear submarine technology.” He seems to think this largesse will guarantee Indian support in the event of a war over Taiwan, but it is far from clear that India would take significant military action in that scenario even if Washington spent the next decade handing out more goodies.
There’s one final, glaring element of unreality in Ramaswamy’s essay. It is silent on the issue of climate change, which is not surprising given his view that the whole matter is a hoax. But if true realism requires us to see things as they really are, then denying this element of our geophysical reality is both ludicrous and irresponsible. Realism tells us to avoid wishful thinking and face our problems squarely and honestly, and a would-be president who is blind to how human activity is altering our environment—with far-reaching geopolitical and national security consequences—is living in a dream world.
Sadly, Ramaswamy’s recent surge is not so much a sign of renewed realism within the Republican Party as it is evidence of its members’ continued susceptibility to slick con men promising magical solutions to difficult problems. The resemblance to Donald Trump is unmistakable, insofar as both men appear to be congenitally unable to avoid lying. This situation is lamentable, because the GOP (and the country as a whole) could use more leaders who embraced genuine realist principles without bringing a lot of absurd baggage along with them. As I wrote back in 2018, a strategy of realism and restraint “will need champions who are smart, sophisticated, well-informed, articulate, patriotic, and free of embarrassing skeletons.” Ramaswamy is undeniably glib and even has a Harvard degree, but he doesn’t come close to meeting that standard.