Head Home Previous Next Last

Realism, Idealism and Chaos

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.

In his farewell message to the American public, President George Washington urged Americans to avoid permanent alliances with foreign governments. United States foreign policy makers followed his advice for over 100 years. Foreign affairs mostly consisted of westward expansion into Indian and Mexican lands with little interaction with Europe or Asia.

The Louisiana Purchase, military action against North African pirates, the Monroe Doctrine, and Perry's "opening" of Japan were one-time events. While the U.S. did embark on colonial adventures in Hawaii and territories seized in the Spanish-American war, foreign "entanglement" was minimal.

World War I changed all that. President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points proposed an overhaul of the entire international system, including a "League of Nations" to settle international disputes and insure permanent peace.

The League was formed, although without U.S. participation. Wilson's ideal of democracies working together to guarantee a peaceful world ran smack into Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, Stalin, and the Japanese empire. By 1939 the world was again at war.

The counter-theory to Wilson's idealism is "realism." Nations pursue their own interests and should not interfere in each other's internal affairs. War can best be prevented by deterrence, not good intentions. The U.S. will not attack Russia with nuclear weapons if it knows that Russia will retaliate with nuclear weapons...and vice versa.

A realist might say, "We can't be the world's policeman." An idealist might say, "We can't allow the slaughter of the Rohingya."

It is often difficult to tell exactly whether a particular policy is realist or idealist. Less than a year after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, a multi-nation force freed Kuwait in the Gulf War. A realist might say Iraq's aggression was a threat to U.S. interests and had to be rolled back. An idealist might say that the world could not permit an independent country to be snuffed out by an aggressor nation.

The war in Afghanistan is another confusing example. It began as an effort to deny Al-Qaeda an operational base after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Most realists would approve. Then it morphed into an idealistic attempt to remake the government of Afghanistan into a western style democracy.





What is the best international strategy? In typical professorial style, I will come down squarely in the middle. However, here are some questions to consider in determining foreign policy.

• What is the possibility of success? In Rwanda the Hutu slaughter of the Tutsis could have been prevented by a fairly small U.N. force, or the French military, or a U.S. action. On the other hand, the mistreatment of Uighers by China is probably something no other nation can alleviate short of World War III.

• What is the level of international support? In the Gulf War a large number of nations, including some Arab nations, joined the coalition. In the Iraq and on-going Afghan wars, not so much. In the global effort to combat climate change, most nations of the world are at least recognizing the problem. (The U.S. is the exception.)

• Can we play an "honest broker" role? President Carter, one of our most idealistic presidents, achieved some measure of Middle East peace with the Camp David accords. In order to be an honest broker, however, a nation must be trusted by both sides in a conflict.

• Can "soft power" achieve the objectives? Soft power includes movies, music, the Peace Corps, foreign economic aid, and setting an example. The U.S. once excelled in soft power, although in its current state of mass shootings, erratic leadership, electoral dysfunction, and general disarray, we are no longer much of a role model.

Which brings us to the current state of foreign affairs. To be succinct, it is a disaster. The Majority Leader in the Senate is unconcerned about foreign powers hacking our elections. The "tariff wars" are driven by personal pique rather than a rational plan. The Paris climate accords were torn up. Soft power is used to praise dictators. North Korea receives accolades; allies are denigrated. Policies are neither realistic nor idealistic. Chaotic is the word.

~ Roy Christman































Last page
Next page
Previous page
Home page