Over the course of American history, and particularly in the 20th Century when America assumed a major role in the world, there have been many arguments about what constitutes the ideal approach to U.S. foreign policy.
The 20th Century began with a period of American imperialism borne out of a sense of obligation to people in the underdeveloped world and spurred, in the case of the Spanish-American war, by humanitarian passions that were excited by yellow journalism. Woodrow Wilson introduced a foreign policy concept that stressed universal principles, such as national self-determination and making the world safe for democracy. “Wilsonianism” has appeared in other guises since then, most notably in George W. Bush’s “neoconservative Wilsonian” efforts to remake Iraq and Afghanistan into democracies.
These initiatives are associated with a school of thought known as “idealism” and sometimes “liberal internationalism.” They have encountered resistance from another school of thought, called “realism,” which is associated with an impulse toward realpolitik – i.e., emphasizing that policy should be guided exclusively by vital national interests and not political ideals or moral crusades. This school has been traditionally associated with figures like Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger.
There has also been a school of thought that was ascendant during the interwar period called isolationism — the desire to retreat from the world to avoid getting embroiled in terrible wars like World War I, and according to some of its exponents, to set up a “fortress America” which would concentrate in its security policy principally on the territorial defense of the American homeland.
The isolationist school, which has some (but by no means all) contemporary libertarians amongst its ranks, claims that U.S. foreign policy during much of the 19th Century was isolationist. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that it was carefully neutralist in character. This policy was designed to avoid the risks of taking sides in great power conflicts, especially in Europe, when the United States was too weak to hold its own. During this period of neutrality, there were many manifestations of American strategic outreach to the world which were by no means isolationist.
The two broader schools of idealism and realism both have deep and authentic historical roots in America. But they have been often in tension: in the words of Walter MacDougall, it is a tension between the impulse towards being a crusader state vs. the desire to create a “promised land” here at home. This tension has everything to do with the achievability of foreign policy goals.
The idealist impulse has manifested itself in many ways, both liberal and conservative, over the last century. It has variously created policies seeking world peace, global democracy, global free trade, global respect for human rights, reliance on international organizations to create world order (which in some cases even envisions creating a world government), the realization of the global brotherhood of man, and reliance on international law and treaties as guarantors of world peace. Most of these goals are so grand and ambitious that, in effect, they are not achievable given the flaws of human nature, the aggressive character of different regimes and ideologies, and the divided, if not anarchic, nature of the international order. But they find substantiation in the universal truths and desiderata articulated in the Declaration of Independence, which asserts that “all men are created equal” — and not just Americans.
Some realists would call these idealist and universalist goals utopian, while maintaining that we should be concerned principally with establishing minimalist but eminently achievable goals for our foreign policy. Some in this camp point to the Constitution and its preamble, which calls Americans to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” — and not necessarily to worry about the condition and future of people far from our shores.
So which of these approaches is the correct one?
There is no easy answer to this question.
Whereas realists can charge idealists with utopianism with regard to the malleability of foreign cultures and their amenability to democracy or with an utter lack of realism about human nature, which the realists argue will perpetually be flawed, there will always be validity for Americans to try to help shape conditions of greater freedom, decent behavior, and respect for human rights elsewhere in the world. For the more these conditions prevail, the more likely governments will be legitimate and therefore the less likely they will be inclined to aggressive behavior (it is a virtual axiom of foreign policy that, in contrast to regimes that rule with the consent of the governed, illegitimate authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, which have internal security problems, tend to behave more aggressively in the international arena in order to demonstrate their invincibility to their domestic opponents).
In fact, the best foreign policy has to be informed both by moral and political ideals. It must also be tempered by the limits of blood and treasure that can be expended on foreign interventions and acute discernment of the vital national interest so that we devote our scarce human, financial, and intellectual resources and national strategic attention only to the highest national priorities.
The setting of those priorities and the balancing of the defense of vital interests and the pursuit of moral/idealistic goals can only be a project involving prudential judgement. Ideological templates do not work here. Scientific quantification can inform, but has its severe limits in this area.
What is necessary for an effective foreign policy is a collection of virtues applied to the analytical and policy process: intellectual integrity, the courage to see the truth about the realities of the world, discernment of the vital national interest, respect for law and the dignity of the human person, the application of justice, and, above all, the exercise of prudence.
While knowledge is a sine qua non, even more important is wisdom. The exercise of prudential wisdom is not a science, but an art. That is why we at IWP insist that our students study moral philosophy, as it uniquely can enlighten the heart and the mind about the cultivation of these very virtues that are the essence of statesmanship and moral leadership.
Without these virtues, there is ultimately no civilization, much less any effective defense of it.