That Machiavelli is the father of “realism”is universally acknowledged, and probably no sentence from The Prince is more often quoted than the following from ch. 15:

“But since my intention is to write something useful for anyone who understands it, it seemed more suitable for me to search after the effectual truth of the matter rather than its imagined one. Many writers have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen nor known to exist in reality. For there is such a distance between how one lives and how one ought to live, that anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done achieves his downfall rather than his preservation.”

But what truly is “realism”?  As its proponents today generally understand the term, it is a posture towards foreign relations that rejects the authority of super-national institutions and moral standards, and accepts that states act in accordance with their own self-interest and security.

But this is a very partial and highly misleading characterization. In truth, “realism” is not so much the description of an objective reality, as a label for the way the realist thinks things ought to be. (The irony is palpable.)

Actually, nations often behave in ways that “realists” think they shouldn’t, and the most common invocation of “realism” is by an infuriated “realist” who is exasperated by opponents that aren’t behaving as the realist thinks they ought to on questions of, e.g., human rights in China, female circumcision in the mid-east, or ..whatever.

The most striking example from history is the enraged Athenians, baffled by what they regard as the manifestly insane intransigence of the about to be besieged Melians.  The Athenians have more men, more ships, more resources. Defeat for the Melians is certain: why on earth won’t you do the rational thing and just capitulate?!!!  Why aren’t you behaving in accordance with our knowledge of the way the world actually works?

If “realism” is thus correctly diagnosed as a species of frustrated rationalism, it is also remarkably dogmatic.  I have never seen or read a “realist” who showed any evidence of having asked what the notion of “national interest” actually means. In practice of course, the realist understands the term to mean security, wealth, and power, and believes the equation to be self-evident, even “axiomatic.”

But is it?  George Kennan’s superb book American Diplomacy contains a marvelous essay in which he describes what happened after Teddy Roosevelt had induced the United States to annex Cuba.  Having discovered that it wasn’t willing to make Cubans citizens or extend the vote to them, it rather shamefacedly, and under no particular pressure, returned its autonomy to Cuba. Democratic self-governent, it turned out, was inconsistent with unconditional imperial expansion.

Kennan (a self-described realist) cites the episode as evidence of how haphazard and unthought out so much of our foreign policy has been in the past century.  Fair enough.  But is it not also fair to conclude that national interest, power, and security are highly conditioned by the more fundamental opinions about good and bad, just and unjust contained within a country’s regime?

To be clear, this has nothing to do with the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of annexing territory.  My only point is that–from the most realistic point of view imaginable–all foreign policy is necessarily carried on under constraints imposed by the nature of the regime.

Similarly, Kennan’s own suggestion that our foreign policy be turned over to a council of experts is manifestly un-“realistic.” Democracies can only sustain policies–especially policies that make demands on people such as waging war–when they have public support. To wish that our foreign policy were governed by a council of experts is to wish that one did not live in a democracy.  Fine! But even if one has nothing else to say on that question, is one really obliged to acknowledge that it is a superior accommodation to the way things “actually are”?   Will you, Mr. Kennan,–for all that I respect your experience and knowledge deeply– blame me if I decline to acknowledge that your assessment is the more “realistic”?

There is more to say about Machiavelli’s “realism”–and the credulity of those readers who accept it for that at face value.