Every Problem Does Not Have a Solution. It is a particular conceit that every problem is solvable. It isn't. Mayhem and human rights violations abound, even as the United States cannot intervene everywhere or take foreign policy positions that will necessarily help. That's why realists are comfortable doing little or nothing in certain instances, even as they feel just as bad as idealists about heartrending situations.
Interests Come Before Values. A nation such as the United States has interests in secure sea lines of communication, access to energy, a soft dominance in the Western Hemisphere and a favorable balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. These are amoral concerns that, while not necessarily in conflict with liberal values, operate in a different category from them. If Arab dictatorships will better secure safe sea lanes in and out of energy-producing areas than would chaotic democracies, realists will opt for dictatorship, knowing that it is a tragic yet necessary decision.
American Power Is Limited. The United States cannot intervene everywhere or even in most places. Precisely because America is a global power, it must try to avoid getting bogged down in any one particular place. The United States can defend treaty and de facto allies with its naval, air and cyber power. It can infiltrate communications networks the world over. It can, in short, do a lot of things. But it cannot set to rights complex Islamic societies in deep turmoil. So another thing realists are good at -- and comfortable with -- is disappointing people. In fact, one might say that foreign policy at its best is often about disappointing people, not always creating opportunities so much as keeping even worse things from happening.
Passion and Good Policy Often Don't Go Together. Foreign policy requires practitioners among whom the blood runs cold. While loud voices abound about doing something, the person in charge must quietly ask himself or herself, If I do this, what will happen two steps down the road, three steps down the road, and so forth? For passion can easily flip: Those screaming the loudest for intervention today can be the same ones calling your intervention flawed or insufficient after you have embarked on the fateful enterprise.
Reading this list, you might think that realism is immoral. That would be wrong. Rather, realism is imbued with a hard morality of best possible outcomes under the circumstances rather than a soft morality of good intentions. For there is a big difference between being moral and moralistic: The former celebrates difficult choices and the consequences that follow, while the latter abjures them. Realism is a hard road. The policymaker who lives by its dictums will often be rebuked while in office and fondly recalled as a statesman in the years and decades following. Look at George H.W. Bush. But foreign policy realists who have served in high office, I suspect, are more comfortable with the kind of loneliness that comes with rebuke than some of their idealist counterparts. Loneliness is normal for the best policymakers; it is the craving for the adoring crowd that is dangerous.