The United States has entered an age of global turbulence. Great-power competition has returned with a vengeance; the world is being roiled by conflict and disorder. While inter-state violence has not returned to the peak levels seen in the last century, the security challenges facing American policymakers today are greater than at any time since the Cold War. The need for an intellectual discipline devoted to power politics and forging a stable international order is thus as pressing as ever. Realism—a school of thought traditionally focused on precisely these issues—should be having its moment in the sun.And yet realism is currently in crisis.
Realism was once a sophisticated intellectual tradition that represented the best in American statecraft. Eminent Cold War realists were broadly supportive of America’s postwar internationalism and its stabilizing role in global affairs, even as they stressed the need for prudence and restraint in employing U.S. power. Above all, Cold War–era realism was based on a hard-earned understanding that Americans must deal with the geopolitical realities as they are, rather than retreat to the false comfort provided by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.