Dr. Stephen Walt of Harvard University wrote today on his blog at Foreign Policy magazine about how employing ‘realism’ theory instead of ‘idealism’ theory in foreign affairs would have resulted in ten improved outcomes in American foreign policy over the past decade. Among the improvements: no 2001 or 2003 interventionist wars in the Middle East, no Israeli settlements on the West Bank, no eastward expansion of NATO, all of Europe and Asia would begin to finance their own self-defense, and, oh yes, China would not expand its military capabilities as it grew increasingly wealthy (sigh). In Dr. Walt’s world-view, all good things in foreign policy emanate from employing realism, and all bad things result from idealism.
Less than a century from now–sooner than a decade, if we are lucky–the entire current debate between idealism and realism in foreign affairs will be regarded as being as scientific as the practice of blood-letting to cure a cold. The two theories jaw at each other about how correct their approach is and how wrong the other’s is, and nothing, certainly nothing scientific or objective, is resolved.
Idealism in foreign affairs is the view that employing institutions is the best method to resolve issues in the relations between nation-states. Realism counters, it is the self-interest of the nation-states that accurately describes actual nation-state behavior, and is therefore the best method to resolve issues. They are both as much wrong as they are correct.
Idealism and realism are actually competing theories in International Relations based upon contrasting psychologies. Each proponent of each theory is, unintentionally, making an argument based upon their own psychology. If the interlocutor personally has a more pessimistic psychology, they argue for realism. If they have a more optimistic personal psychology, they argue for idealism. Just as there is a psychological divide between a political Left and Right, there is a psychological divide between realism and idealism. Which means, every nation is never going to have an objective, rational foreign policy so long as only one psychology dominates the internal debate on how to conduct relations between states.
A more rational approach to foreign affairs would be to admit to fallibility (this is an important first step because, as Talleyrand noted long ago, nothing is worse in foreign policy than to make a mistake), work constantly to try to identify unintended consequences of any policy option, and then include both competing views in crafting foreign relations. Dr. Walt’s realism is just as arrogant about its own infallibility as is the idealism he criticizes; our Republic is not well served by the hubris in either theory.
Perhaps it would help our foreign policy if we required any appointment of Ambassador have an education that includes as much political psychology as International Relations.