The Duck of Minerva

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Realism vs. Idealism in US Foreign Policy


September 19, 2007

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a fascinating speech Monday to the World Forum on the Future of Democracy addressing “a ‘realist’s’ view of promoting democracy abroad.”

The whole speech is worth reading (here). In it, Gates reflects on the longstanding debate between the “realists” and “idealists” in US Foreign Policy. It is very closely related to the great debate between Liberals and Realists in IR Theory. It also happens that many Intro IR and Intro to IR Theory classes (such as mine this semester) are covering these very topics right now.

In IR theory, we like to look back to Woodrow Wilson as the paragon of Idealism, and study EH Carr’s withering criticism of the 20 Year’s Crisis as the paragon of realism. As Gates reminds us, this debate has even deeper roots than that:

[W]e Americans continue to wrestle with the appropriate role this country should play in advancing freedom and democracy in the world. It was a source of friction through the entire Cold War. In truth, it has been a persistent question for this country throughout our history: How should we incorporate America’s democratic ideals and aspirations into our relations with the rest of the world? And in particular, when to, and whether to try to change the way other nations govern themselves? Should America’s mission be to make the world “safe for democracy,” as Woodrow Wilson said, or, in the words of John Quincy Adams, should America be “the well-wisher of freedom and independence of all” but the “champion and vindicator only of our own”?…

…In short, from our earliest days, America’s leaders have struggled with “realistic” versus “idealistic” approaches to the international challenges facing us. The most successful leaders, starting with Washington, have steadfastly encouraged the spread of liberty, democracy, and human rights. At the same time, however, they have fashioned policies blending different approaches with different emphases in different places and different times.

Gates recalls his own career as a realist, opposing the Helsinki Final Acts, for example, and comes to terms with the value they ultimately had, both as idealist goals and realist tools of national interest.

The obvious backdrop for this is Gate’s realist reputation contrasted with Bush’s crusading idealism (epitomized in his second Inaugural speech) to democratize the World Middle East Iraq. This administration has been particularly hostile to some traditional realists (ie Scowcroft) but the failure of its grandest Idealistic project in Iraq has prompted a reconciliation of sorts. Gates attempts just such a balancing act:

It is our country’s tragedy, and our glory, that the tender shoots of freedom around the world for so many decades have been so often nourished with American blood. The spread of liberty both manifests our ideals and protects our interests – in making the world “safe for democracy,” we are also the “champion and vindicator” of our own. In reality, Wilson and Adams must coexist.

How well does he do?

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.