Magazine article The American Conservative

Model Citizens: Beyond the Realist vs. Idealist Divide

Magazine article The American Conservative

Model Citizens: Beyond the Realist vs. Idealist Divide

Article excerpt

THE DEBATE OVER the Iraq War has been portrayed as a clash between realists and idealists. According to this popular plotline, realists pursue security policy based on hard national interest, whereas idealists are committed to a diplomatic approach that advances more abstract concerns.

Thus realists such as Brent Scowcroft and John Mearsheimer insisted that their opposition to the invasion was grounded in the recognition that occupying Iraq would harm central U.S. geostrategic and geoeconomic concerns. Those pushing for war, like Paul Wolfowitz and Bernard Lewis, integrated their support into an ambitious narrative in which Iraq would be transformed into a model of political and economic freedom and a base for expanding Western forms of government in the Middle East.

Op-ed writers and media personalities, needing to condense arguments over complex issues into easy sound-bites, fall easily into the habit of using what the late German sociologist Max Weber referred to as "Ideal Type." As he defined it, "An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct." Or, in simple English, typecasting is the last refuge of the pundit.

So the argument over America's foreign policy is portrayed as a realist-versus-idealist showdown, though many Realpolitik types often exhibit a powerful idealistic bent, while romantically inclined idealists frequently adopt survival-of-the-fittest strategies. Notice how Scowcroft and Mearsheimer sound idealistic when they insist that America should use its power to bring peace to the Holy Land. (They argue it's in U.S. national interest to do so.) Or you might find yourself facing an acute case of cognitive dissonance when you hear John Bolton and Richard Perle described as the sort of "idealists" who wanted to plant the seeds of democracy in Iraq. Aren't these the same guys who pride themselves on being hardheaded nationalists, if not cynical Machiavellians? And, indeed, the two stress that their support for Bush's grand designs in Iraq and the Middle East was based on unsentimental analysis of U.S. interests. (From their very unique realist perspective, U.S. national interests happen correspond neatly to Israel's.)

You may sound realistic, if not cynical, if you oppose the use of American military power to prevent genocide in Darfur, but then you're transformed into an idealist when you back the application of U.S. military might to protect democratic Israel and Taiwan. It all depends on how you define national interest.

But let's be realistic and admit that we don't have the airtime and newspaper space to discuss issues by referring to Scowcroft as the "proponent of war against Iraq when it invades Kuwait but not when it is gassing Kurds" or describing John Bolton as an "advocate of using military power to promote democracy in Iraq and Iran but not in Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Typecasting is cost-effective and in many ways entertaining since it assumes a confrontation between two "schools of thought" as opposed to "a somewhat dull debate involving many complex arguments over the use of diplomatic, military, and economic power."

Seeking a middle ground, historian Walter Russell Mead provided a nuanced typology of the foreign-policy debate in his Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. He proposed four schools of American foreign-policy thought that he named after three U.S. presidents--Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson--and the first secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton. This election cycle saw each of these predilections ably represented in the Republican field.

Libertarians would find themselves at home and more importantly, not abroad, with the Jeffersonians, whose main concern is the protection of domestic liberty. …

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