In praise of pragmatic foreign policy
US presidents often swing between realism and idealism. Obama should reject both.
State College, Pa.
President-elect Obama will soon take charge of a government that is materially and morally depleted. One thing he will not be short of, however, is advice on how to run the world. Among those most willing to offer him guidance on foreign policy will be the proponents of realism and idealism. He would do well to ignore both and instead seek an approach that reflects another "ism" – pragmatism.Skip to next paragraph
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When not offering advice, the realists and idealists are usually found debating each other. The realists – exemplified by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – say it is anarchy out there so every country must put its own interests first. They see the accumulation of power as essential to ensuring a country's survival, even if that negatively affects other countries.
The idealists – exemplified by President Woodrow Wilson – believe, a bit like Rodney King, that all nations ought to be able to just get along. They say countries should cooperate because all will be better off and that, in today's ever more globalized world, no country can go it alone.
To be sure, the realist/idealist debate is not the only one in international affairs. The experts place themselves in many camps as they do battle over a world with which some of them have had little contact. But they are the two colors journalists and pundits often use when painting a picture of foreign policy.
George W. Bush was described as coming to power as a hard-nosed realist who scorned enterprises such as nation building. Now a common story line has him leaving office as an idealist who believes there is nothing a good dose of democracy – spoon-fed by massive US intervention, if need be – won't cure. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was said to have arrived in Washington as an idealist, only to leave as a realist. Having to confront the limits to which other countries are willing and able to cooperate can make a leader feel mugged by reality.