In America, this backlash fuelled an electoral swing to the left, first felt during the 2006 mid-terms and then in Obama’s 2008 victory over John McCain (although it also animates some of the isolationist currents within the conservative “Tea Party” movement). In Britain, it is likely to fuel an electoral swing to the right, and a Conservative victory in this year’s elections. Some signs and portents of the “realist” backlash at various scales include: the attempts at self-rehabilitation by John Major, whose foreign policy was a blend of appeasement and inactivity; the re-emergence onto the geopolitical scene of Zbigniew Brzezinski; the enormous undeserved prestige of right-wing Kissinger acolytes Walt and Mearsheimer among the literati; the assault on Bernard Kouchner and the value of responsibility to protect in the pages of London Review of Books.
“Realism” has played quite a role in Obama’s foreign policy so far, and is likely to play a major role in any post-Gordon Brown administration Britain might be run by.
So, to remind us of what is it stake in the backlash, here is how George Bush I and his sidekick James Baker, the archetypes of “realist” geopolitics, responded to the mass movements against Soviet dictatorship in 1989, from Neal Ascherson in the LRB.
Early in 1989, the new American president, George H.W. Bush, still assumed that Gorbachev was ‘too good to be true’. General Scowcroft, his national security adviser, suggested he was ‘potentially more dangerous than his predecessors’.[...]
Bush the Elder took over in 1989, suspicious of Gorbachev and determined to halt Reagan’s rush into arms reduction agreements, which Bush thought were destabilising the global balance. But he was far from being a passionate freedom fighter. As the year drew on, and widening cracks spread across the Cold War’s architecture, he was not so much happy about the new birth of liberty as worried about Europe’s growing unpredictability. All these books give examples of his exaggerated caution. He came to prefer reforming Communists, who at least had experience of managing things, to dissidents and opposition heroes. In Poland he urged General Jaruzelski to run for president, judging him a much safer pair of hands than Lech Walesa, and declined to pour aid money ‘down a Polish rat-hole’. In Hungary, he shocked opposition members by appealing to them to back the new Party leadership. He was dismayed by the enthusiasm of rebels like the bearded János Kis, who reminded him of a Woody Allen character: ‘They’re just not ready.’
His team shared his fear that the Cold War might end in chaos and local conflicts. At the start of the year, Bush had sent Henry Kissinger (codenamed ‘Kitty’) to Moscow on a secret mission to make contact with Gorbachev. Kissinger, going far beyond his brief, suggested that the United States and the Soviet Union set up a joint superpower condominium over Europe: ‘Let us make an agreement so that the Europeans do not misbehave.’ Bush later backed away from this appalling proposal, but Kissinger wasn’t wrong about his president’s instincts. At the end of 1989, as Ceausescu’s tyranny fell apart in wild bloodshed, Secretary of State James Baker sent a message to Gorbachev that the United States might not object if the Soviet Union intervened with armed force in Romania.
Bring back the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ of military intervention – and at America’s suggestion? Eduard Shevardnadze, Baker’s Soviet opposite number and friend, laughed and said the idea was not sinister ‘but merely stupid’. The story, well told in his book by Constantine Pleshakov, shows yet again how reluctant American policy-makers were to see the end of the Soviet imperium as an undiluted triumph, rather than as a threat of trouble ahead. As Sebestyen puts it, ‘there were times in the middle of the year during which [Bush] tried desperately to keep Communist governments in power when he felt that Eastern Europe might be careering out of control.’ When the Wall finally fell, all President Bush could say to the expectant media was: ‘I’m not an emotional kind of guy … I’m very pleased.’
Further reading: Proposed witnesses for a US Chilcot-style Inquiry, by Andrew Murphy; Obama is the most reactionary president since Nixon, by Nick Cohen.
Previous: Conservatism, realism and the anti-war movement; The conservatism of the anti-war "radicals"; Chas Freeman; Realism Watch; Walt and Mearsheimer and Brzezinski.