Model Citizens: Beyond the Realist vs. Idealist Divide

By Hadar, Leon | The American Conservative, March 10, 2008 | Go to article overview

Model Citizens: Beyond the Realist vs. Idealist Divide

Hadar, Leon, The American Conservative

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. They stress that foreign entanglements damage the American constitutional system, centralizing power in Washington, increasing the power of the executive branch, weakening the power of Congress and the states, and amassing huge deficits while creating an environment in which the central government imposes restrictions on free speech in the name of national security. Jeffersonians believe in a form American exceptionalism that acts as a political and economic inspiration for people around the world--the Shining City on the Hill, not a crusader that searches for monsters abroad or tries to plant utopias.

Enter Ron Paul. Like the early Jeffersonians, he is a deficit hawk who believes that wars aimed at opening markets or "protecting access to energy resources" increase the national debt, benefit mainly the bankers, and oppress the citizenry with higher taxes. As a Jeffersonian, Paul could be described as a "minimalist realist." (After all, Jefferson did do foreign policy.) America needs brilliant diplomats who will solve our global problems with minimal risk--not secret warriors masquerading as diplomats who aim to advance the interests of Big Business and the Military-Industrial Complex.

Then there are the Jacksonians, who are sometimes mistaken for Jeffersonians (and vice-versa). Mike Huckabee would feel comfortable with these guys who tend to be looked down upon by foreign-policy elites despite the fact that, by the numbers, they--Jim Webb's Scots-Irish--constitute the silent majority. Their slogan is "Don't Tread On Me!" and their driving belief is that the priority of the government in both foreign and domestic policy is the physical security and economic well-being of the American populace. Jacksonians argue that the U.S. shouldn't seek foreign quarrels, but if a war starts, then "there is no substitute for victory," and all resources must be mobilized to ensure our triumph.

Huckabee believed that the Iraq War made sense when it was defined in terms of protecting the American homeland from terrorist attacks and nuclear strikes. Perhaps in retrospect it was a mistake. But now we don't have a choice but to achieve victory--and only then return home. In the long run, Huckabee, who like most Jacksonians tends to be skeptical of free-trade arguments, believes Americans can develop a powerful economic base without relying on foreign oil.

Mitt Romney, like George H.W. Bush, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton, is a typical Hamiltonian who puts an emphasis on the economic primacy of the United States. Hamiltonians believe that close ties between Big Government and Big Business are an integral part of the American ethos and a key to the survival and success of the country. Unlike the Jeffersonians and the Jacksonians, they favor an activist U.S. foreign policy that makes the world safe, not necessarily for democracy (see the Wilsonians below), but for their business partners at, say, oil companies. The U.S. should be integrated in the global economy on favorable terms through multilateral institutions such as the UN and the World Bank, by free-trade accords, and through balance of power strategies that help maintain American status as primus inter pares among other nations.

Romney wouldn't have invaded Iraq to spread democracy in the Middle East. But he would have made sure that our exit from Iraq did not harm U.S. access to the oil resources in the Persian Gulf or weaken the United States' position vis-a-vis other great powers. His main focus would have been on establishing a stable relationship with China, which is becoming corporate America's main frontier.

Now it's time to meet the Wilsonians. They believe that our moral and national interests are served by spreading American democratic and social values throughout the world. We have had peaceful Wilsonians like Jimmy Carter (and perhaps Barack Obama) who want to use American diplomatic and economic power to expand co-operation among members of the "international community" through the force of globalization. They would use military power to prevent genocide, but not to promote strategic and economic interests.

Then there are the Wilsonian warriors, including Wilson himself, who hoped that a military victory in World War I would "make the world safe for democracy," and George W. Bush with his vision of freedom on the march across the planet. Bush's designated successor, John McCain, seems to share the view that American military power should be used to achieve that goal.

It is perhaps more useful to think in terms of Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, Hamiltonian, or Wilsonian foreign policies, than the realist versus idealist model. But these four schools of thought still only represent ideal types. Jefferson himself was not completely Jeffersonian, as he demonstrated with the Louisiana Purchase, and he co-operated occasionally with Hamiltonians (the Monroe Doctrine). Bush I was a Hamiltonian who exhibited the characteristics of a warrior Wilsonian, not unlike the Hamiltonian Clinton's decision to intervene in Yugoslavia. Ronald Reagan was a Hamiltonian who combined a Realpolitik approach to great powers (the Soviet Union) with Wilsonian rhetoric (the Reagan Doctrine) and Jacksonian escapades (Grenada and Lebanon), tempered by Jeffersonian instincts (withdrawal from Lebanon and negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev).

George W. Bush sounded Jeffersonian during his 2000 debate with Al Gore when he promised a "humble foreign policy." But he was transformed into a Wilsonian-Jacksonian crossdresser who at the end of his term seems to be embracing a more Hamiltonian approach.

So while much of John McCain's rhetoric sounds Wilsonian, it's not inconceivable that the limits of our military and economic power could also force him in a more Hamiltonian direction. One could imagine that McCain's National Security Council would turn into a forum for debate between Wilsonians and Hamiltonians--and one would hope that the Hamiltonians win out. Ideally speaking, that is.

Leon Hadar is the author, most recently, of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East. He is also a Foreign Policy Adviser for Ron Paul.

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