Henry Kissinger, in his book, "Diplomacy," distinguishes between two kinds of president in the conduct of foreign policy.
One is the Woodrow Wilson type, who asserts an American faith in values higher than seeking a balance of power. The other is the Theodore Roosevelt, who favors a policy of "blood and iron" over a policy of "milk and water," as Mr. Kissinger puts it.
Nowadays the labels are different. There is the "realist" president like Bill Clinton, who was able to make a deal with North Korea, bribing the hermit state out of making nuclear bombs. And there is the "idealist" president, George Bush, who speaks a language of "moral clarity."
As Nicholas Kristoff wrote in a recent New York Times column, the idealist president can sometimes defeat his own moral purposes. The Bush administration, outraged at the way the Chinese government sometimes forces peasants to submit to abortions as a population-control measure, cut off $34 million in American funding for the United Nations Population Fund. As a result, in Africa, more women and babies are dying. Less spending on family planning brought more pregnancies, and last year there were 800,000 more abortions. Thus, the idealist president achieved the opposite of his desire.
North Korea also provides an example of the "idealist" president, who can run aground on his own moral purposes. In his State of the Union address a year ago, President Bush defined something called an "axis of evil," and nominated as charter members Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Never mind that these three countries have little in common with one another - they share the president's condemnation as outlaws who might develop weapons of mass destruction to be used against a moral America or passed on to terrorists who would use them.
How Bush idealism will work with Iraq is at the moment a subject of intense controversy and speculation. But the "moral clarity" position on North Korea has already led to serious trouble. Having broken off the Clinton administration's contacts with North Korea, the Bush administration finds itself facing a regime that is on a crash course toward building nuclear bombs, meanwhile claiming - and perhaps even believing - that it is threatened with American aggression.
Having to climb down from an idealist position to a realist position is painful, but in North Korea that is what the American government is now trying to do. The first step was to try to enlist North Korea's neighbors - China, Japan, Russia, South Korea - into talking sense to dictator Kim Jong Il. That was the main reason for the latest trip by Secretary of State Colin Powell to Asia. It was apparently not a great success. Chinese officials advised him that America had to talk directly to the North Koreans, something that Idealist Bush has not so far been willing to do.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio.