A More Nuanced Foreign Policy: Realism and the Necessity of Playing Rough

By Marc Dubois

Bruce Thorton, a Fellow of various institutions and a professor at California State University, recently wrote an article criticizing the Obama administration’s foreign policy towards Russia and the conflict in Syria.  In short, the United States has focused too heavily on international liberal desires for democratization and failed to understand Russia’s realist foreign policy.  The National Security Strategies of 2006 and 2015, for example, similarly demonstrate that expanding democracy remains central to US foreign policy.  In fairness to President Obama, Thorton argues that similar quixotic delusions of “shared commitment[s] to peace, prosperity, democracy, and human rights” preceded him from the George W. Bush administration.  From the expansion of Russian influence into Crimea and Ukraine to its bombing of anti-Assad rebels, Russia primarily perceives the world through a realist lens.  Material power and influence are the nation’s core foreign policy focus, one that is unencumbered by concerns of democratization.  The United States has, in contrast, focused too heavily on the panacea of costly democratization and the spread of international liberalism.  As a result, it has found itself flatfooted in responding to Russian maneuvers.  Indeed, the United States has fundamentally misread the orientation of Moscow’s Foreign Policy and now struggles to respond to bold, opportunistic Russian maneuvers across an arc stretching from the Black Sea to the Western Mediterranean.  This is not to claim that the US should relinquish its values.  Our support for democracy, though occasionally overzealous, is an important part of our national character.  Instead, the US must recognize that many international actors operate from a realist perspective and it should adjust its foreign policy towards them accordingly.  Until it does so, the US will continually struggle anticipate the otherwise expectable behavior of realpolitik nation’s like Russia playing for their realist interests.  This realization is even more imperative as Moscow turns its eye towards the escalating tensions in the Balkans, a location in which the United States cannot allow Russia to once again outmaneuver it to expand its power within the region.

Russia’s Realpolitik

While the United States dissipated its energies tilting at the windmills of creating spontaneous, stable western democracies in the infertile ground of Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia is playing realpolitik.  With the stalled drive against ISIS and the gradual erosion of Assad’s position, Russia seized the opportunity to assist its ally while appearing to join the effort to eradicate ISIS.  A glance at a map of Russian airstrikes, however, quickly shows Russia’s true targets.  The result has been significant advances by Assad forces and the securing of Russia’s sole Mediterranean naval base.  Russia’s war in Georgia, conquest of Crimea, and fomenting unrest in Eastern Ukraine similarly present cases of Moscow exploiting weakness in the region to expand control in the Caucasus and acquire Crimea’s Black Sea naval base despite the imposition of damaging, yet ultimately impotent, sanctions.  Once again, these moves surprised a western world that should have anticipated these realist behaviors.

The Russian Bear in the Balkans

Russia now appears to be turning its eye towards the Balkans, where the Serbian majority Republika Srpska portion of Bosnia and Herzegovina challenges the Dayton Accords and openly seeks full separation from its Bosnian-Croat counterparts.  This coincides with the marked decrease in both international personnel in the region and assertiveness by the High Representative tasked with maintaining the Accords.  Supported by Russia and Serbia, failure to block secession here could spell disaster for the region’s fragile two-decade peace, as well as generate a seismic geo-strategic shift in the Balkan balance of power.  Should Republika Srpska succeed in breaking away, it will likely join a greater Serbia surrounding the rump Bosnian state.  Given Russian support in this enterprise and protections against international initiatives in the UN Security Council, any efforts toward reintegration would most assuredly fail.  Moreover, a reinvigorated greater Serbia with international protections it lacked in the 1990s may possibly set the stage for renewed outbreaks of violence or even ethnic cleansings in the region.  Liberal internationalist hopes that international organizations and Srpska’s democratic process inherently leads to peace will be small comfort to a Bosnia now surrounded by a hostile Serbia and Republika Srpska protected from international punishment at the United Nations.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

US Policy Options Towards Bosnia and Herzegovina

The United States must therefore stop these developments in their early stages and block Russian adventurism.  This is a region in which it cannot afford another foreign policy setback where failure to approach Russia from a realist perspective allows the latter to outmaneuver and spoil its efforts to stabilize the region.  Instead, the United States must lead in this crisis with the support of its European allies, as these states have the most to lose from reignited conflict in the Balkans.  Fortunately, the United States has a number of tools at its disposal to achieve these goals.  First, a greater physical presence will both dissuade Russian opportunism and reinvigorate the Dayton Accords by tangibly demonstrating western commitment to maintaining Bosnia and Herzegovina’s territorial integrity.  True, the US is already heavily engaged in other theaters, such as in Afghanistan and the fight against ISIS, and therefore is somewhat limited in the number of personnel and funds that it can devote to this issue.  It is also likely that the American public is unwilling to enter another conflict zone.  Nevertheless, while the West will not return to the 60,000 peacekeepers that once oversaw the region, expanding the present 600 by a couple thousand additional personnel sends a strong message to Moscow and regional actors in the Balkans that the United States and European nations are committed to maintaining the Dayton Accords.

Dayton Peace Accords
Dayton Peace Accords Source: Wikimedia Commons

Second, Republika Srpska’s actions violate the binding international agreement they signed in the Dayton Accords.  As such, the United States and European nations can legitimately sanction Srpskan officials as punishment for their actions.  Lastly, the West can dissuade Russian opportunism by threatening to extend NATO and EU membership to Bosnia and other states that feel threatened by a stronger Serbia or independent Republika Srpska.  Bosnia is already a potential candidate for future EU membership and regional actors such as Bulgaria, Albania, and Croatia are already NATO members.  It would thus be relatively easy to extend this defensive alliance to include Bosnia as a potent deterrent against threats from an independent Republika Srpska or greater Serbia.  Moreover, it sends a clear and relatively cost-free message to Russia that the West is determined to underwrite Bosnia’s territorial integrity.


Recent events over the past few years present a poor US foreign policy record in the Black Sea region to the Middle East.  From prolonged, costly rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the rise of ISIS to the impotent response following Moscow’s adventurism in Ukraine and Crimea, the West has failed to block or deter future Russian opportunism.  Yet this opportunism should not come as a surprise to western nations familiar with Putin’s realist perspectives.  The problem is that the United States has fundamentally misread the orientation of Moscow’s Foreign Policy while at the same time expecting liberal internationalist goals of democracy and international organizations to sweep across the globe to usher in a global era of peace.  As a result, the United States failed to anticipate Russian maneuvers based on an appreciation of power and national interests.  It has also simultaneously squandered its resources trying to transplant western democracy in the desserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than allowing the region to grow its own political system.  With Moscow now turning its gaze towards escalating tensions in the Balkans as Republika Srpska seeks secession, the United States cannot afford another misstep.  To be effective, the United States needs to approach Russia on its terms from a firm understanding of realism and realpolitik.  Neither the promise of Republika Srpska’s democratic process nor UN mandates will solve this problem.  Yet, through expanding NATO and EU membership status towards Bosnia while working through our regional European allies to reinvigorate the Dayton Accords, we will reaffirm its territorial integrity and send a strong realist message the Kremlin will be sure to understand.

MPSAPres1Marc DuBuis is a M.A. candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce focusing on International Security and Intelligence.  Marc completed his undergraduate degree in 2015 at Oakland University with a B.A. in Political Science with research interests focused on the resource curse and international conflict.

He has presented at multiple research conferences, including regional Phi Alpha Theta history conferences, Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) Conferences in Chicago, and the International Studies Association Midwest Conference in St. Louis.  Published works include “The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization” inSecurity and Intelligence Studies Journal (Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2015), with electronic versions of “Resource Diversification and the Durability of Autocratic Regimes” (coauthored with Dr. Matthew Fails) and “Swedish Conduct in the Thirty Years’ War” forthcoming in Political Research Quarterly and the Grand Valley Journal of History respectively.


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