Why Foreign Policy Realism Isn’t Enough

Why Foreign Policy Realism Isn’t Enough, by William Smith.

Idealism in foreign policy is, by definition, the pursuit of a dreamy vision of a better world that does not seriously ask whether the ideal is actually compatible with reality. Illusions set idealists up for terrible surprises. …

George W. Bush created a dream world in his mind where it seemed plausible for American military power to end “tyranny in our world.” Tyranny, as anyone who has not slipped the bonds of reality knows, is rooted in the human soul and cannot be “ended.” Tyranny can be checked and mitigated, but only through extraordinary effort and with the help of a rich tradition.

But it is always easier to assign oneself virtue based on self-applauding and unrealistic notions about world peace. When realist thinkers — from Machiavelli to Kissinger — prick the bubbles of the dreamers, they incur only wrath. For idealists, it is the height of cynicism and bad manners to point out that cunning and force are what actually dominate world affairs. …

Kissinger was intellectually astute enough to recognize that, in order to create and maintain this equilibrium of power, something more than a mechanical balance is required: enlightened statesmen. Kissinger states explicitly that balance-of-power “does not in itself secure peace.” If world leaders refuse to play by Westphalian rules, the system will break down. He warns of the rise of radical Islamists, for example, who refuse to think in Westphalian terms.

Kissinger also says that enlightened leaders must not only recognize the realities of power politics and the hard Machiavellian truths of international competition, but possess a certain moral quality that he calls “restraint.” Without a willingness to restrain themselves and to act dispassionately, world leaders will be incapable of building an international order. When facing difficult challenges, enlightened diplomats and statesmen must have the moral courage to accept certain “limits of permissible action.” Implicit in Kissinger’s thought is that morality, though of a realistic kind, is essential in foreign policy. Only statesmen of a certain temperament and moral character can support the Westphalian model.

hat-tip Stephen Neil