Remember the old national-security lingo? It featured nouns like stability and order and the French detente, along with the adjective pragmatic. The central establishment word was realism.
Though the Reagan "evil empire" rhetoric presaged a break from that bipolar era, policymakers remained reluctant to rock the diplomatic boat. Realism reached its peak in 1991 when president George Bush warned independence-minded Ukrainians not to separate from the Soviet Union lest they engage in "suicidal nationalism." A hard-line vituperator labeled that his "Chicken Kiev" speech, and the elder Bush never spoke to me again.
Then, four years ago today, came the attacks of Sept.11, the Pearl Harbor of the war on terror. Soon after, a national-security policy incorporating Woodrow Wilson's idealism -- of "making the world safe for democracy" -- took hold. Led by hawkish neoconservatives determined to overthrow the Taliban and Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the muscular approach to extending democracy shouldered aside the vocabulary of realism that had dominated US foreign policy for decades in the Cold War.
But now that the insurgency in Iraq has turned an initial "shock and awe" campaign into what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged to be "a long, hard slog," many in the national-security field are reasserting their criticism of the audacious Wilsonian ideal. In their language choices, however, the critics are not making the mistake of repeating denunciations of this Bush administration's unilateralism. Too many syllables, and most of us think of a lateral as a sideways pass in football often resulting in a fumble. And they recognize the need to update their self-identification. Enter the New Realism, often given the cachet of neorealism.
Philosophers remember this phrase as used by the Liebnizian metaphysician Bertrand Russell nearly a century ago: Back then, the neorealists, or New Realists, held that contrary to the theory of the Idealists, objects existed in the external world independent of the way we perceived them. I anticipate learned e-mail chastisement from philosophers for oversimplifying.
"In the academic field of international relations," writes Gary Rosen, managing editor of Commentary magazine, long a forum for neocons, "self-proclaimed neorealists have flourished for decades." After their post-Sept.11 period of quiescence, among their mainly Democratic articulators are Republicans who include the former Nixon aides Brent Scowcroft -- who wrote the elder Bush's Ukrainian speech -- and Robert Ellsworth, as well as Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
An advocacy group strongly opposing the conduct of the present conflict in Iraq named itself the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. Although Josef Joffe, the publisher-editor of Die Zeit in Hamburg, notes that "realpolitik and idealpolitik" have reinforced each other in the past, in the natural shortening of political labels we can expect the neocons to find themselves faced by the neoreals (pronounced NE-o-re-ALS).
President George W. Bush put a rhetorical shot across the neorealist bow last summer in his Air Force Academy speech: "Some who call themselves realists question whether the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be any concern of ours. But the realists in this case have lost contact with a fundamental reality. The US is always more secure when freedom is on the march."