Realism and Restraint


Most questionable ideas begin their life in a pub, and this website is no exception.

A few days after the House of Commons voted to authorise airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, I found myself in a beer garden with four friends I’ve known since high school. They’re a diverse bunch—a man of God, a nurse, a civil servant, a charity worker—and owing to that fact the first few pints went down easily. We talked about the things that long-separated acquaintances usually talk about—our spouses, our kids, our shared past, our uncertain futures, and so on. But as the empty glasses piled-up, the conversation inevitably turned to more profound matters.

It didn’t take long for somebody to mention Syria. The consensus was that the Government and its backers had done the right thing. ISIL is a fascist organisation that poses an “existential threat” to the West and it was therefore unconscionable for a country of Britain’s stature to stand back and allow it to grow in size and influence. Ah, I thought. So I’m in a minority of one. That’s never stopped me, of course, but the Paris attacks were fresh in everybody’s memory, and it was hard to avoid the daily drip of horror stories emanating from places like Raqqa and Mosul. So I launched my counter-attack with a volley of clauses, sub-clauses, and get-out clauses.

I made sure to acknowledge the complexity of the situation, noting that there was no obvious solution to any of the problems associated with the Syrian Civil War and Arab Spring. I also made a point of criticising the posturing of the Left, which I felt at times veered dangerously from proselytising to intimidation. Not only that; certain groups such as Stop the War were seemingly deaf to the meaning of “limited strategic strikes”, preferring instead to talk in terms of ‘carpet bombing’ and ‘mass civilian casualties’. This was patent nonsense, I said, and it shifted the tone and content of the public debate in an altogether unhelpful direction.


What about the fact that aerial bombardment has limited strategic utility when not accompanied by meaningful military action on the ground? These so-called ‘moderate’ rebels the Prime Minister spoke about in the Commons debate; where are they? A month or so ago, the Cabinet was at one in the belief that the Russian air campaign would cause “further radicalisation” and “increase terrorism”; what makes R.A.F. bombs so different? What impact will British intervention have on the delicate balance of power in the region? Even if British airpower does help dislodge ISIL, then what? Oh, and how can we ignore the fact that every single Western military intervention in the twenty-first century has been an unmitigated disaster? What about Afghanistan? Iraq? Libya? Surely if the threat of terrorism is so great, then we should focus on counter-radicalisation efforts at home? And is any of this stuff our job to sort?

I reeled them off, one by one, but each time I was met with the same responses. ‘Doing nothing’ would amount to an abrogation of our moral responsibilities to the international community, I was told. ‘Doing nothing’ would lead to the deaths of tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of innocent civilians. ‘Doing nothing’ would embolden our enemies abroad and weaken our resolve to defeat them at home. By questioning the purposes and efficacy of British foreign policy in the Middle East, I was no different to the appeasers and isolationists of the 1930s, somebody chipped in.

After a while, we tired of going around in circles, and wisely decided to call it a night. That wasn’t the end of it, though—at least not for me. I lay awake, tossing and turning until the early hours of the morning, wondering why I’d found it so difficult to mount a convincing defence of realist principles.

After all, the dominant approach to statecraft in the Anglosphere—interventionism, internationalism, liberalism, neoconservatism, call it what you will—had, over the past few decades, left the West lurching from one catastrophe to another. Every single sacred cow served up by political and economic elites, from free trade to globalisation, from democracy promotion to Pax Americana, from RMA to COIN, had turned out to be a busted flush. In fact, far from enhancing the power and influence of the West, years of open-ended liberal foreign policy had undermined both, resulting in the near financial, philosophical, and spiritual bankruptcy of a civilisation as old as the city states of antiquity. On top of that, the realist tradition, which I suppose can very broadly be defined as the application of prudence to the realm of international relations, is blessed with a rich genealogy of thinkers and practitioners—Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Hobbes, Burke, Carr—all of whom have something important and insightful to say about the big issues of the day.

What was I doing wrong, then? Why did I find it so hard to communicate my own views in a coherent and lucid manner?

Looking back, I think the problem was one of fundamentals. I spent so much time picking apart the minutia of the subject at hand that I failed to pose a really simple question. What is the point of foreign policy? There are many possible answers to that question, but I can think of none better than the one George F. Kennan gave to an audience at Princeton University in March of 1954. In a lecture entitled ‘The Two Planes of International Reality’, he stated clearly that “a political society does not live to conduct foreign policy; it…conducts foreign policy in order to live.” This seems sensible enough, but in late capitalism Kennan’s formulation has increasingly been turned on its head. Indeed, it’s almost as if modern liberalism and its adherents can’t stomach the notion that there are limits to our knowledge, our ability to effect change, and our ability to control the consequences of that change. That makes it very difficult to distinguish between existential threats and serious threats, between imminent danger and immediate danger, between pre-emptive action and preventive action, between self-defence and provocation, and ultimately, between necessity and desire.

What I’m really talking about here is the relationship between means, ends, and interests. As far as I see it, objectives flow from capabilities, and, more importantly, strategy. Strategy is determined by policy, which in turn is determined by interests. If we don’t establish what our interests are, and what the interests of our allies and adversaries are, and instead focus on capabilities alone, then our policy will be ambiguous, our strategy misguided, and our objectives impractical and counter-productive.

I’m sure we’ve all heard Einstein’s admonition that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Well, by that measure, bombing country after country into the ground and expecting a peaceful conclusion seems as good a definition of insanity as any. It might offend the egos of liberals and neoconservatives from Berlin to Washington to say so, but perhaps the time has come for constructive disengagement from ‘over-there’ and a welcome re-engagement with ‘over-here’.

Don’t get me wrong, balancing interests in a multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-faith society is really hard. It takes time and patience. It involves a lot of listening. It means swallowing and digesting hard-truths. It requires folk to sit down with people who they don’t like again and again to hammer out a compromise that falls ten miles short of their personal or collective utopia. Above all, it demands maturity and a willingness to sacrifice. And in the end, it might fail. But one day, if it works, it will have been worth it, and we’ll be glad that we decided to lead by example and not through force.

Hopefully, Atlantic Bulletin will play a part—no matter how trivial—in bringing about such a day. Ideology and hubris have had their centuries in the sun. The time has come for realism and restraint.[1]


[1] ‘Realism and Restraint’ was the name of a foreign policy conference hosted by The American Conservative in November 2015.