American foreign policy will never be wholly realist or idealist and that’s a good thing.

By Clay Risen

Tagged Foreign Policynational security

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it,” William Faulkner said in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up?” Such apocalyptic gloom, he went on, made it hard for the writer to press forward on the central question of literature, the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” Nevertheless, Faulkner concluded, while acknowledging the realities of impending nuclear destruction, it is the writer’s duty to continue to plumb the depths of the human spirit. “It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” I was reminded of Faulkner’s speech while preparing for a panel this past fall, jointly sponsored by Democracy and the New America Foundation, on the future of American foreign policy. Most progressives, and by now even most conservatives, agree that the invasion of Iraq has not only been a disaster, but that it has undermined our nation’s ability to project power, both soft and hard, for years to come. In doing so, it has upended previous assumptions about what we can and should do abroad–and created new divisions among progressives about what shape that course should take.

There are those, such as the New Republic’s Peter
Beinart, who, while criticizing the execution of the war, argue that
the goal–overthrowing a bloody dictator, establishing a democracy, and
establishing a precedent for further democratic expansion–was a noble
and correct one. Had America been better prepared to rebuild, had Bush
done a better job of involving the international community, things
would have been different, these idealists hold. That belief in turn
lays the ground for a forward-looking liberal internationalism that
advances, unsullied, the ideals of democracy promotion through American
power. And, while they see this as a benefit to American interests,
they also, and in some cases primarily, see their position in moral
terms: We have power, and so we must use it for the good.

Others, such as New America’s Anatol Lieven, however,
argue that while the spread of democracy should be a goal of
American foreign policy, it is sheer hubris to assume that any plan
would have succeeded in Iraq; indeed, they doubt whether any grand
deployment of American power can succeed given the realities of
international relations. Chastened by the disaster of Bush’s vision for
a new Middle East, these realists would, to varying degrees, have the
United States eschew the frequent deployment of hard power, regardless
of the ends–the proverbial road to hell being paved with good

With only two years left in the Bush Administration, a
hashing out of these two ideas–idealism and
realism–is in the offing. Of course, the debate is hardly simple:
Especially after Iraq, few consider themselves complete idealists; and,
being progressives, few consider themselves complete realists, either.
Nor is it new. As both sides dig into American history in search of
intellectual forebears, it becomes clear how persistent (and
consistent) the realist/idealist tension has been through recent
American history. Indeed, realism and idealism have been the twin
driving forces of American foreign policy at least since the country
emerged as an international power at the turn of the last century, and
most notably during the first generation of the Cold War. But neither
has ever been completely in control. Then as now, true idealism was
impossible in the face of an enemy willing to annihilate itself to
defeat us. But true realism is to accept, in Faulkner’s words, “defeats
in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and
worst of all, without pity or compassion.” And as the panel discussion
made clear, while the settings and specific challenges have changed,
the central questions have not. What can, and should, the United States
do with its power? What outcomes are beyond the reach of our power–or
not worth the price? These questions are not exclusive to
progressives–the right has its own tension, between the Scowcrofts and
the Wolfowitzes. (Indeed, while the particulars may differ, the
existence of the realism/idealism tension on both sides of the aisle
should give us hope that, even in today’s politically divisive era,
partisanship in a way still stops at the shore.)

The realist/idealist tension is not unique to American foreign
policy. In high school English, we are taught that the
great human tension is that between passion and reason. But, while that
may be true as a universal claim, in American literature we find an
even more prominent tension: that between the morally compromised self
and its yearning, despite everything, for the good. It pervades
everyone from Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway to Philip Roth and Cormac
McCarthy. Perhaps that is because the tension describes America itself.
As the historian C. Vann Woodward noted, our country is founded in an
original sin, that of slavery, and yet from the beginning we struggled
to overcome it and ever since have struggled to overcome its legacy. We
accept that we are not a perfect nation, but we do not accept that we
cannot improve.

Woodward’s historical philosophy owes much to
Reinhold Niebuhr, the twentieth century’s preeminent American
theologian. Niebuhr has been much in the air these days; both the
idealists and realists claim him as their own. But, as with any great
thinker, he is too large, and too nuanced, to be captured by any one
particular camp. As both sides understand, Niebuhr’s most vaunted
achievement (in this realm, at least) is to continue reminding us that
we are a morally compromised nation and that humility must be a part of
any foreign policy. But his subtler, though no less significant, lesson
is that the genius of American political life lies in its refusal to be
captured by one way of thinking. Speaking of the tension between
liberalism and conservatism in The Irony of American History, Niebuhr
wrote, “The triumph of the wisdom of common sense over these two types
of wisdom is, therefore, primarily the wisdom of democracy itself,
which prevents either strategy from being carried through to its
logical conclusion. There is an element of truth in each position which
becomes falsehood, precisely when it is carried through too
consistently.” And just as the strength of our democratic system arises
from the never-resolved tension between two political beliefs, so too
does the strength of our foreign policy arise, pragmatically, from the
eternal tension between idealism and realism. Our foreign policy will
always be protean, because we can never be truly idealist or
realist–indeed, if we were, we would no longer be American.

One does not have to be a cynical functionalist to see
that these two competing notions are, in fact, necessary
constituent parts of a greater whole. Just as the irresistible force
and the immovable object depend on each other for their definition even
as they deny each other’s existence, so too do realism and idealism
rely on each another for their own constitution: To be an idealist is
to reject the status quo; to be a realist is to reject the idea that we
can ever move beyond it. They cannot resolve themselves, nor can one
exist without the other.

A similar point was made by Ambassador James Dobbins at the
September launch of the Princeton Project on National
Security, one of the more notable, and noteworthy, efforts to advance
liberal internationalism as the Democrats’ post-Bush foreign policy
paradigm. Dobbins reminded his audience that while today we look back
on the immediate postwar era as a golden age of liberal
internationalism, the reality was much messier. It is, in fact, crude
presentism to believe otherwise; history rarely unfolds according to
neat plans. Instead, it is radically contingent. Anyone who has read
the first half of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest will
understand what Dobbins meant. There was never a foreign policy
consensus, only a foreign policy that emerged out of the warring camps
of realists and idealists within the Truman (and later Eisenhower)
Administration. But therein lies the unrecognized genius of American
foreign policy: Because we do not advance according to a single
philosophy, but rather allow our responses to world events to bubble
forth out of the tension between two ideological poles, we are better
able to adapt, pragmatically, to the vagaries of world politics while
believing that we have not sold out our ideological core.

Indeed, many of the low points in American foreign
policy have come at times when we allowed one extreme or the
other to overtake us. In the 1930s, we failed to stop the rise of
annihilationist fascism in Germany and expansionist militarism in the
Pacific because our leaders, in the thrall of isolationist realism,
ignored their better angels and decided to accommodate rather than
arrest such forces. Likewise, the ultimate responsibility for the Iraq
war lies not in the fact that we believed Bush’s lies about weapons of
mass destruction, but because we assumed away the consequences of our
invasion–not enough people asked the tough questions about whether we
could, in fact, remake a country in our image, so captured were we by
our own idealism.

Much in the same way that many religions believe God cannot be
described fully by human language, so too can American
foreign policy never be captured by bullet-pointed plans. It emerges,
instead, from their tarnished wreckage. Does this mean that those who
put forth detailed plans, realist or idealist, for a post-Bush foreign
policy are wrong? No. On the contrary, they are keeping the spirit
behind American foreign policy alive. In fact, it would be a disaster
if they stopped. As in the case of Faulkner’s troubled writer, to
accept the irresolvability of our national condition would be to
surrender to our base selves. True pragmatism is not a position, and
cannot be captured as a doctrine; it is, after all, the antithesis of
doctrine. But it cannot exist without lively debate, with energetic
advocates on each side. Nevertheless, both realists and idealists must
keep in mind that their success will be measured not by whether they
win the debate–because they won’t–but by whether the mix of ideas
fostered by the debate equips us to make the right decisions when the
time comes.

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Clay Risen is an op-ed staff editor at The New York Times and the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination.

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