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Rejecting the Realism Vs. Idealism Foreign Policy Debate

President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan speech and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech have generated considerable discussion about the old dispute between realists and idealists in foreign policy. The president has been criticized for being a narrow realist in the first speech and praised for finding a middle ground between realism and idealism in the second speech.[IMGCAP(1)] But one thing that has emerged in the aftermath of his two speeches is the supreme importance of ethics – whether it is the president’s ethical responsibility to protect us, as he said in the Afghanistan speech, or his effort to show that the surge is a legitimate case of a “just war,” as he did in his Oslo speech.In the discussions of ethics – of justice, of responsibility, of good vs. evil – the question arises as to whether the old realist/idealist dispute provides a useful framework for analysis. Many people claim the categories are simplistic, and indeed there are many leaders and thinkers who embrace either complex versions of one of the two approaches or complex combinations of them.What has not been pointed out is that the distinction between ethical vs. power cuts across the distinction between self-interest and other-regarding interests, or, interest in your own country vs. interest in other countries or indeed the whole world.It is more or less assumed that if one adopts an idealist approach to foreign policy – if one is a Wilsonian – that one is necessarily adopting a foreign policy that concerns other countries, typically promoting democratic values in other countries if not the whole world. To be an idealist in foreign policy is then to adopt the view that one’s foreign policy must promote ethical norms of justice, freedom, and equality throughout the world.Likewise, it is more or less assumed that if one is a realist in foreign policy that one is essentially focused on protecting the interests of your own country and using one’s power to navigate relationships with other countries to ensure that your own country’s interests are promoted.So idealism is equated with promoting ethical values throughout the world, and realism is equated with protecting your own interests with the tools of power.This point of view, though, is confused, because one can adopt a foreign policy that is based on ethical values like justice but is not focused on promoting these values in other countries; likewise, one can adopt a foreign policy that is not based on ethical values but which is based on influencing the entire world, namely by dominating other countries.From this it follows that the distinction between ethics vs. power and self-interest vs. other-regarding interest cut across each other: You can have a foreign policy that is ethically based, which is either focused solely on your own country or on the entire world, and you can have a foreign policy that is power-based, which is either focused solely on your own country or on the entire world.The traditional realism and idealism categories are ineffective because they make you think that if you are a realist you must have a power-based theory that is focused on promoting the self-interest of one country and if you are an idealist you must have an ethically based theory that is focused on promoting democratic values throughout the world.The range of reactions to President Obama’s Afghanistan speech helps to show why the old taxonomy fails. To many people the president’s speech was not a good example of a message based on democratic values because it was not focused on promoting democratic values throughout the world; rather, it was largely focused on protecting the national security of one democratic country, the United States. But it is manifestly absurd to deny the moral dignity of a position simply because it restricts the scope of its concern to one nation. The president was determined in his speech to lay out the arguments why it was morally imperative for us to send more troops to Afghanistan; indeed, it was his moral responsibility as president to protect us. The speech had a very strong moral foundation. The fact that it was not also about promoting democracy in Afghanistan or ridding the world of the Taliban because that was important to do in its own right does not deny the moral stature of the speech he gave.But on the standard taxonomy it would appear that President Obama was adopting a realist foreign policy that says countries must use their power to protect their self-interest, where power is a tool and where ethics has no place.The taxonomy, though, fails, because President Obama did not base his argument on a theory of power; he based it on concepts of ethics and democratic values, especially his moral responsibility to employ our resources to protect us from harm.The president, you might say, really used an idealist justification for protecting democratic values in our country. The truth is that this formulation is not useful because the category of idealism demands a notion of making the world safe for democracy: The category therefore is inadequate because it cannot classify or explain the actions of a country that acts from moral reasons to protect itself in the world theater.What is needed, therefore, is a new set of categories that can locate the importance of ethical considerations in a country’s foreign policy on one vector and locate the scope of its concerns – ranging from its own interest to regional interests to worldwide interests – on another vector.The Afghanistan speech was, at least some of us think, pitched at a level of 10 on a scale of 10 concerning the moral foundation of the argument, but it had a very limited scope of application, namely the interests of the United States itself. The fact that the president was not trying to make the world safe for democracy in this speech in no way detracted from its ethical force. The truth is that the old debate between realists and idealists in American foreign policy reflects two very different paradigms of analysis, where one, the realist approach, starts with empirical observations about the world and the other, the idealist approach, starts with normative theories about how the world should be. The realist approach really begins with political science, as it observes that the world, in fact, is made up of countries that are vying for power; the idealist approach really begins with political philosophy, as it articulates a normative vision of the world where norms of social justice and peace would be upheld by countries. In philosophy a similar fundamental debate exists between naturalists and Kantians, since the former really begin with facts about the world and the latter really begin with normative assumptions about moral agents. In an interesting way, the political science debate in foreign policy pits a scientific against a normative view and the philosophy debate about ethics and political philosophy also pits a scientific against a normative view: Which is another way of saying that there is no sharp distinction between political science and political philosophy, factual and normative disciplines.Although debates between rival theories will always result in standstills because the opponents not only have different conclusions they are supporting but different overall frameworks from which these conclusions get generated, it is time for the foreign policy community to jettison the realism/idealism dichotomy and develop a new set of categories and concepts to help classify and explain what our most pressing disputes are about.The place to start this process of reconstruction is ethics and the relative weight of ethical concerns in a given foreign policy approach and the role ethical concerns play in the framework of a particular approach overall. The reason this is the place to start is that in the end we are most concerned with values and how the world should be. David M. Anderson has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan. He taught political ethics at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management for 12 years.

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