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April 2009

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Higher Realism: A New Foreign Policy for the United States
Review by John M. Handley, Ph.D.
Text Box:

Seyom Brown, Higher Realism: A New Foreign Policy for the United States, Boulder: Paradigm, 2009, (187 pages of text plus endnotes and index), ISBN 978-1-59451-398-5; hardback.

Seyom Brown currently holds the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security in Southern Methodist University’s Department of Political Science.  Additionally, Dr. Brown remains a Senior Advisor to MIT’s Security Studies Program.  Prior to accepting the SMU position, Dr. Brown taught political science at Brandeis University as the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation, and he taught international relations at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.   In addition to teaching and writing, Dr. Brown provides research and policy analysis to entities such as RAND Cooperation, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Brookings Institution.  He has served in both the Department of Defense and the Department of State, in the former as Special Assistant in the Office of International Security Affairs, and in the latter as Special Assistant to the Director of Policy Planning.

Seyom Brown’s stated reasons for writing Higher Realism are twofold.  First, in order to ensure the security and well-being of the United States, as well as the survival of the human species, he believes it is essential for the United States to develop and adopt policies that address global concerns.  Second, he provides anyone interested in this subject with a list of instruments and programs to implement such policies. 

Dr. Brown begins the book with a explanation of how the current world order has changed from the unipolar world of Pax Americana to a world he describes as “Polyarchy,” which comes from combining the many (poly) powers – states and non-states – that play an essential role in the current world order, with anarchy, the lack of recognized and enforceable international structure or world governance.  In the second chapter, Dr. Brown compares and contrasts Conventional Realism with what he terms Higher Realism. 

Although the two “isms” share many similarities, they differ largely on the definition of a national interest.  The former sees national interest from a rather narrow, state-centric, viewpoint, while the latter believes that global interests, global problems, and global concerns constitute a global commons in which all states share a national interest in addressing and resolving a multitude of issues.  Subsequent chapters deal directly with these varied global concerns, including survival of the species, reducing force in the world, alleviating poverty and disease, the global economy, ecological issues, democracy and human rights, and cultural and religious diversity.  The last three chapters address establishing transnational accountability, improving the policy process, and building public support.

Seyom Brown tells his readers in the introduction to this book that Realism, both Conventional and Higher, holds that the cardinal purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to serve the country's irreducible national interests – as stipulated in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: "to establish justice, to insure domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defense, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

Additionally, both Conventional and Higher Realism favor diplomacy rather than “hegemonic diktat,” with sufficient military power to deter military action against the United States as well as to deter efforts to physically deny access to foreign sources of essential energy supplies.  Both Conventional and Higher Realism recommend that states, regardless of their power, should use power prudentially. They should not engage in hubristic attempts to run the world, nor should they intervene militarily in other countries unless required to secure the essential national interests or, under broad international mandate, to prevent genocide or a comparable gross violation of elemental human security.

Conventional Realism, the author contends, provides a long list of what not to do but little on what should be done to counteract the chaos in what he describes as a “polyarchy” world – a world that thwarts cooperation in providing international public goods.  Conventional Realism, in the author’s view, does not or cannot address global issues such as preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, effectively countering global warming, or alleviating the starvation of billions of people. Additionally, Conventional Realism has no vision of system transformation, let alone global governance, for resolving or lessening these dangers.

Higher Realism views the national interest of a state from a global perspective, believing that the liberty, prosperity, and security of any one state is actually linked with or joined to world interests, and these interests include the security and well-being of everyone everywhere. This view calls on the U.S. government to change its foreign policy in order to address evolving global problems and issues within this new “polyarchic” global system. 

Higher Realism, while recognizing that a state’s national interests exist, transcends nationalistic definitions of self-interest and recognizes that the health and well-being of one country are connected with the health and well-being of other people. Higher Realism looks toward the long-term effects of current action, or the lack thereof, in order to calculate the impact current policy choices will have on future generations.

Higher Realism and Conventional Realism both believe that, with the absence of strong institutions of global governance, U.S. foreign policy must be centrally concerned with the country's international power. Both “isms” recommend that U.S. statecraft be directed at ensuring that others do not impose their will on the United States.  Thus, the military and economic instruments of power, and the will to invoke them coercively at times, must remain essential components of U.S. grand strategy. But unlike Conventional realism, Higher Realism encourages subjecting coercive power to standards of legitimacy and, preferably, to international authorization.

Dr. Brown sees Conventional Realism as rigidly nationalistic, blatantly materialistic, and often amoral.  As such, Conventional Realism creates significant domestic opposition from both individuals and groups that expect the United States to address global issues, to include resolving international conflict and eliminating hunger, poverty, and repression. These individuals and groups want the United States to pursue moral policies that assist others while refraining from policies that inflict harm. Altruistic policies need not undermine a country's economic and strategic self-interests; thus the United States should adopt policies that both secure self-interest and the well-being of others.  

Higher Realism, though supportive of democracy and human rights, opposes the view that a universal adoption of the essential features of the U.S. market economy and democratic governance, or even more broadly "Western" modernization, is necessary for world order and justice.  Higher Realism insists on the need for a universal enhancement of norms and transparency in institutions of international accountability.  It regards strengthened international accountability among countries as a world interest increasingly crucial to the long-term security and well-being of the people of the all states, including the United States. 

Although a well written and easy to read book, Higher Realism left me somewhat confused, not for what the author had to say about the problems in the world and how to resolve them, but why the author believed it was necessary to create another “ism.” It seems to me that the differences between Conventional Realism and Higher Realism are the same differences between Conventional Realism and Neo-Realism.  Perhaps Neo-Realism has become a pejorative term, much like Liberalism recently morphed into Pluralism.  For whatever reason, Higher Realism not only specifies global problems, it provides reasonable solutions and, as such, will be of interest to any serious international relations student or political science practitioner.


Colonel (ret.) John M. Handley, Ph.D., American Diplomacy Publishers Vice-President for Outreach, is Adjunct Professor of International Relations for Webster University's Ft. Bragg and Pope AFB campuses. Col. Handley spent most of his Army career in military intelligence, including as Dean of the School of Attaché Training at the Defense Intelligence College, and Deputy, Resource Management, for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

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