Historically, American foreign policy has fluctuated between two competing schools of thought that transcend our left-right political spectrum: Idealism and Realism. Most recently, President George W. Bush has been identified with Idealism and President Obama with Realism. At the dawn of President Trump’s administration, the seminal foreign policy question is whether his approach will embrace the orthodoxies of Idealism or Realism.
Idealism– also called interventionism, internationalism, Wilsonianism- holds that the purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to advance American values by fomenting freedom and democracy throughout the world. Idealists believe that our foreign policy should mirror our domestic political philosophy. The ultimate goal of Idealism is to bring about a just and peaceful world by ending tyrannies. Accordingly, in the idealist view, the United States should engage in all types of humanitarian missions, military interventions, nation building, and whatever else may advance this ultimate goal. Idealists believe that U.S. foreign policy should not be determined by what is best for the United States, but by what is, morally, the right thing to do.
Given the poor results and wastefulness of U.S. resources associated with Idealism, it is unlikely our business-minded President will follow this path.
Realism– also called realpolitik, pragmatism, power politics- holds that the purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to secure America’s “national interest.” Realists believe that moral principles are incompatible with the protection of our national interest. In the realist view, the pursuit of moral abstractions is one of the causes of foreign policy failures. Interests come before values, and U.S. foreign policy should focus, without moral considerations, on whatever works. Realism traces its historical roots to Thucydides and Niccolo Machiavelli. In a bizarre case of strange bedfellows, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Barak Obama’s inept brand of Realism are modern examples.
Because interests are placed before values, foreign policy Realism enables policymakers to immorally embrace tyrannical regimes as President Obama did with Iran and Cuba in the name of the national interest and maintaining a balance of power.
For instance, our ally Israel is currently the only nuclear power in the Middle East. For realists this is a problem because it introduces an imbalance of power where other nations in the region feel threatened by Israel’s ability to attack with impunity. In their view, this imbalance increases tensions and the possibility of military conflict. The realists’ solution is to remedy the imbalance by fostering a balance of power; in this case, by allowing Iran a pathway to develop its own nuclear capabilities as President Obama’s Iran policy clearly reveals.
Theoretically, this follows the fundamental realist premise that nations are “self-interested” and that an interest of self preservation insures that nuclear powers will refrain from attacking each other in what would be a mutual destruction.
The realists’ naive miscalculation is that an ideologically anti-American regime such as Iran will change its nature once it acquires nuclear weapons and thus will be less dangerous. Realists perceive a nuclear-armed Iran, as a good result that balances Israeli power. Under Realism, the United States has befriended monsters in Iran and Cuba in a way that introduces enormous challenges for the new administration.
President Trump has been very critical of Obama’s realist-inspired foreign policy. Given his discomfort with Idealism and Realism, what will be Trump’s foreign policy approach?
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The appointment of lifetime businessman Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, suggests a break from Idealism and Realism into a new foreign policy doctrine I am labeling U.S.-Centrism.
A U.S.-centric foreign policy represents a fundamental return to the foreign policy of the Founding Fathers’ as most eloquently articulated by John Quincy Adams:
“[America] has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings…Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is a well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”