Operational Realism Overwhelms Democratic Notions

A fascinating article* in the current Atlantic magazine discusses the forces involved in the rise and fall of nations. Author Robert D. Kaplan explains the concept of “operational realism,” which posits that global powers attain and maintain such a status not through upholding noble democratic principles, nor through mere force. They conquer international rivals by leveraging power and influence to outmaneuver and intimidate them. Kaplan’s article omits any reference to a sovereign God who controls or even influences planetary affairs.

Without pretending to grasp all that is envisioned by operational realism (OR), I will venture to describe the difference between a biblical worldview of geopolitics versus OR’s global humanism.

Operational realism (in a geopolitical context) is the brainchild of John J. Mearsheimer, who, although Jewish, presents a secular perspective rooted in the principle of “anarchy.” This is not spontaneous mayhem but strategic political pragmatism. Believing as I do that Almighty God has a plan for this planet, I view the rise and fall of nations through the grand prism of Bible prophecy. Thus I cannot accept OR as the foundational principle of geopolitics. That said, it’s also true that humans—both individually, and corporately as families and nations—enjoy temporary divine authorization to exercise free choice and then experience the requisite consequences. And so operational realism, despite its secular limitations, does have value in both describing and predicting those consequences.

For example, Mearsheimer’s realism debunks America’s national notion that democracy is a necessarily superior force that ultimately triumphs—if only given a chance. (Consider the soaring rhetoric of George W. Bush’s second inaugural address.) I certainly don’t dispute the inherent morality of government by the people. It’s just that democracy doesn’t automatically triumph in a world influenced by operational realism. Indeed, democracy will succumb to other types of government that not only achieve global power but leverage it wisely.

In practical terms, OR requires strategic international policies rooted in reality rather than idealism. Even a global power cannot intervene militarily to put down every bully on the world stage. A superpower must choose its battles wisely according to its national interest. Mearsheimer concedes that it may be proper, from a humanitarian perspective, to intervene militarily in non-strategic emergencies, such as the 1994 Rwanda massacre (which Bill Clinton regretfully failed to do). But OR forbids functioning as the world’s moral policeman. In fact morality per se has nothing to do with national success among rival powers. Rather, Mearsheimer points to fear and intimidation as being dominant in the rise and fear of nations.

Machiavelli, the medieval master of political strategy both for his day and ours, perceived that. He declared that it is better for the Prince to be feared than loved.

By contrast, America seems to care (particularly in the Obama administration) much about how the nation is perceived in the international community. Giving supreme regard to popular acceptance (not only of a country among its peers but among our own citizenry), Americans denounce hegemony and tyranny. Fine so far, but we overstretch our democratic ideal when we insist that it’s the only form of government that is sustainable in the long term. OR disputes this. Brutal hegemony may be immoral (from whatever perspective one derives moral judgments), but world history shows that a despotic power can work and work well—as long as it remains a strategic bully.

Consider the various “Arab Spring” revolutions, in which newly empowered populations are democratically committing themselves to coercive and non-pluralistic theocracies. Many Americans (liberals and neocons alike) express surprise and disillusionment that democracy has not facilitated freedom. But what could one expect when the vast majority of a population savors the strictures of Sharia law?

Perplexed proponents of democracy in Egypt, for example, are scratching their heads wondering: “Whatever happened to the ‘Google Guy,’ who spearheaded the takedown of a dictatorial government?” Lenin might have pointed to the first wave of revolutionaries, rather unkindly, as “useful idiots.” In the Arab Spring, naïve idealists did the dirty work in overthrowing the old order, unwittingly setting the stage for a more powerful political force waiting in the wings—Islamic extremism. Events in Egypt is are similar to the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, which followed the overthrow of the Czars months earlier by those whose idealistic vision didn’t coincide with the brute force of the Soviets’ more enduring pragmatic reality.

But didn’t the Second World ultimately implode according to the inevitable outcome of Soviet oppression? No. All those political science professors in Western classrooms were mistaken in their rhapsodies about power to the people. The USSR collapsed after backsliding from seven successful decades of OR. Factors leading to its fracture included adventurism in Afghanistan (déjà vu, America), an arms race against Ronald Reagan that was economically unsustainable, and the Gipper’s clever alliance with the Vatican in Polish Solidarity.  After Reagan’s clarion call for the fall of the Berlin wall, it did come down—but not because of any supposed manifest destiny for democracy.

If in doubt about that, consider what happened to the democratic uprising in Tiananmen Square. Unlike their comrades at the Kremlin, wily Chinese Communists—in true OR fashion—retained their native oppression. They adroitly adapted Marxism totalitarianism to the new necessities of personal initiative in the thrall of international commerce. Chinese hegemony survived like a virus, morphing into a revised version capable of continuing to conquer all threats, both internal and external.

Therefore, in the second decade of the 21st century—supposedly prime time for democracy—China’s star is rising. Mearsheimer foresees its triumph. Rather than collapsing under its enduring policy of oppression and persecution, China is on track to supplant the United States throughout Asia Pacific. Meanwhile, Russian leaders have pushed the reset button and booted up a modified totalitarianism that features a flat and thin democratic display.

Global powers may march to the drumbeat of operational realism, but they are unwittingly parading under the banner of Bible prophecy. Based on Daniel chapter 11, for 20 years I’ve publicly anticipated a union of leftover Communists and militant Islam as the “King of the South” coalition to compete with the “King of the North” collection of western Christianity, Israel, India and non-Islamic Oceania.

Meeting its bitter end, Mearsheimer’s operational realism will come to a crashing halt at the glorious return of Jesus Christ to this planet—not this time as the crucified Lamb of God but as the conquering King of Kings. Almighty Yahweh will have had enough of Machiavellianism, Marxism, democratic materialism, racism, chauvinism, and all the other viral human “isms.” The Bible illustrates Christ’s coming as a divine meteor speeding unnoticed through space but then crashing catastrophically upon this planet (see Daniel 2:34-45). Nearly three millennia ago, the teenage captive Daniel described this scenario to the Babylonian despot King Nebuchadnezzar, educating him about Someone above the royal pay grade who supervises geopolitics. (Read Daniel’s triple emphasis about celestial sovereignty in Daniel 4:17, 25 and 32).

When Christ returns, those who trust in Him rather than in human salvation will be airlifted from Armageddon. They will travel through starry galaxies to heaven. For the next 1,000 years, this emptied earth will be a huge chunk of charcoal. Ultimately, Eden’s paradise will be restored here. Adherents of Jesus will return to inherit this earth, which will be newly recreated and crowned with the New Jerusalem, God’s celestial headquarters.

Meanwhile, how does everything on your to-do list today compare with your opportunity and responsibility to reserve the place God offers you in His great eternity? It’s free to you in the gift of Christ’s death and resurrected life. “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

*Robert D. Kaplan, “Why John J. Mearsheimer Is Right (about some things).”

Atlantic, January/February 2012, p. 80.