Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Misunderstood Division between Realism vs. Idealism

Scrolling through the Corner at NRO, e.g.: here, here, and here, I have become mighty disturbed with the general tone of the discussion in the Corner on realism. The most egregious case was when Rich Lowry wrote that "I always scorned Bush's notion that there is no conflict between our interests and our ideals." Let me put this as bluntly as possible: if we truly separate our ideals and interests, the American experiment is dead. Our ideals, our first principles, are our interests--that is the genius of our system.

American realism was born of the Cold War, as a counterpart to liberal internationalism (Wilsonianism). What is forgotten now by international relations scholars is that both Cold War realism and liberalism were foreign policy tactics in support of our ideals/interests. Communism was such an obvious threat because it ran counter to everything we stood for. Realists supported non-communist dictators in the short term during the Cold War because they believed that was the best way to defeat communism in the long term. Liberals supported international institutions during the Cold War because they believed that was the best way to defeat communism in the long term. But the ideals/interests were the same. The fact that so many have forgotten that truth is an indication of the success New Left critics had in slandering the motivations of Americans in the past. Why conservatives, who believe in first principles most of all, would follow that line of thinking escapes me.

Obviously, the best way to support our ideals/interests in the long term is to accept that parts of the world just are not ready right now. But that's a far cry from saying that short term dealmaking separates our ideals and interests.

(I've written about this in more detail in the past here.)


Chris1961 said...

Newsflash: The American Experiment is already dead. It was on life support for most of the 20th century, and the plug was pulled on January 20, 2009.

Jim Hanson said...

You say that liberals supported international institutions because they thought they were the best way to topple communism. Many on the left had no interest at all in toppling communism and spent plenty of effort supporting it, often aided by the UN and other international institutions.


Uncle J

jeff bloodworth said...


Your post reflects ecumenical and judicious thinking. Too bad Chris 1961 amd Jim Hanson either reject the whole of the 20th century and forget Truman, Humphrey, Jackson and JFK existed

DocCox said...

Nice post.
I wonder if you could comment on the situation prior to WWII. A lot of political science scholars feel the theories of international relations you mention stretch back a long ways (Thucydides, Machiavelli, Grotius, Schmidt, and so on). Also, are these the only choices in framing the world system? What about World Systems analysis, critical constructivism and hegemonic stability theory?

To me the genius of the term "American Realism" lies in its melding of two international relations theories: constuctivism and realism. Are there differing flavors of Realism and Liberalism that owe their differences to disparities in national identity? That seems implied by the notion of "American Realism." This might be a vein of inquiry worthy of exploration.

Stephen said...

Uncle J,
Liberals did support international institutions as a way to fight communism. And many on the left had no interest in fighting communism. That distinction is the most important distinction between the left and American liberalism.