The Washington Ideas Forum January/February 2010

What Would Wilson Do?

As the president wrestles with policy decisions about Afghanistan, Iran, and elsewhere, pundits try to pigeonhole him: Is he a realist or an idealist? But the best American foreign policy has always been both, mixing moral aspiration with unsentimental prudence. Obama’s most useful model may be a predecessor who was a realist wrongly pegged as an idealist.

To the delight of late-night television comedians, President George H. W. Bush used to talk incessantly about “prudence,” but in fact the term is a deadly serious watchword for the “realist” school of foreign policy. It was on realist grounds that the elder Bush refused to press on to Baghdad after defeating the Iraqi army in the Gulf War in 1991. However alluring the goal, he said, pursuing it “would have incurred incalculable human and political costs”; he was expressing the kind of unsentimental caution that is realism’s most important characteristic. In contrast, his son, George W. Bush, was arguably among the most idealistic of American presidents. The younger Bush believed that there is but a “single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise”—the kind of universalizing ideological claim that idealists have traditionally embraced. On those grounds, he set out to sweep into Baghdad, depose Saddam Hussein, and compel Iraq to embrace that unique model—an instance of unchecked idealism whose full consequences remain to be seen. President Barack Obama must now strike his own balance between the claims of realism and idealism. But are these ways of thinking about foreign policy as incompatible as they seem?

After the Peace of Westphalia ended Europe’s religious wars in 1648, the principle of sovereignty came to dominate the theory and practice of international relations. Sovereignty was trumps. States had no right to intervene in the internal affairs of other states. Yet no “higher authority,” papal, Protestant, or otherwise, stood above them. Only the ceaseless exercise of power, especially by the weighty “great powers,” might hold contentious states in tenuous equilibrium.

That concept was eventually accepted as the foundation of the international system, forming the bedrock on which the foreign-policy school of realism has ever after rested its case.

Realism also has roots in antiquity, as famously recorded in Thucydides’ account of the invading Athenians’ diktat to the hapless inhabitants of Melos during the Peloponnesian War, in 416 B.C. The Athenians dismissed the Melians’ appeals to morality and justice with the chill calculus of might: “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.” If one sentence could be said to comprise a Realist Manifesto, that would be it. Realism insists that moral considerations and reveries about “international law” or permanent peace are not only utopian but dangerous. Raison d’etat, or the national interest, is the sole standard that should guide any sovereign state’s external relations.

When Britain’s North American colonies struck for their independence in 1776, they simultaneously invoked and defied Westphalian principles. In the process, they introduced a new concept—“idealism”—into the lexicon of international politics.

The Declaration of Independence sounded a Westphalian note when it pronounced the Americans to be “one people” claiming their “separate and equal station” as a sovereign state. Yet at the same time, the American revolutionaries challenged inherited notions of sovereignty when they asserted that only certain kinds of states could be regarded as fully legitimate.

Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, is credited with convincing the American colonists that their cause was independence, rather than reconciliation with Britain—mainly because without independence they could not hope for foreign assistance. But we’d do well to remember that Paine opened his tract with a treatise on government. He eloquently anticipated the declaration’s claim that only republican states deriving “their just powers from the consent of the governed” were rightfully constituted. He then laid out the case for the kind of foreign policy that would secure the American republic—and suggested that a world composed of republics might be markedly more peaceful than the world of monarchies and empires that the Americans were repudiating. Common Sense was both the inspiration for American nationhood and the founding charter for American foreign policy.

From its birth, the United States thus infused its diplomacy with a revolutionary ideology that looked to the creation of a novus ordo seclorum in the international sphere as well as the domestic. That ideology constitutes the core of the idealist tradition in foreign policy. It is value-driven, morally infused, and devoted to concepts of international law and lasting peace. From its inception, idealism melded with an inherited sense of America’s providential mission to redeem the world. It also fitted easily with America’s emerging culture of mass democracy, and adumbrated some conspicuous facts about all popularly elected governments thereafter: that democratically accountable leaders must justify their foreign policies on grounds that the mass of citizens will accept—and that self-interest alone often appears inadequate to that end. In democracies, history attests, a measure of idealism may be necessary if a state is to sustain a coherent foreign policy.

Idealism was a prudential policy for an infant republic that could no more plausibly wield conventional power against the colossus of imperial Britain than Melos could against Athens. In that sense, idealism’s appeal to transcendent standards of justice was arguably what made it America’s most realistic policy in the nation’s early days. What’s remarkable is the degree to which the United States continued to honor those idealist precepts well after it ascended to great-power status.

Yet American diplomacy has proved most successful when it has tempered its idealistic aspirations with that canonical realist precept: the importance of limits. Balancing ambition with feasibility, ideational goals with material costs, has been perhaps the highest realist doctrine. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams gave it classic formulation in a Fourth of July address in 1821:

What has America done for the benefit of mankind? Let our answer be this … wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy … She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own … she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.

In Adams’s day, the United States had limited capacity indeed to export its ideals. But in time, when its influence would reach to the farthest corners of the planet, how would the United States pursue its transformative agenda?

Presented by

David M. Kennedy, a professor of history at Stanford University, is working on a book about the historical determinants of the American national character.

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