Realism and Idealism

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Realism and Idealism

Norman A. Graebner

Philosophically, realism and idealism comprise opposing approaches to the definition and pursuit of national objectives abroad. Realists tend to accept conditions as they are and to define the ends and means of policy by the measures of anticipated gains, costs, necessities, and chances of success. Idealists tend to define goals in ideal, often visionary, forms, and presume that the means for their achievement lie less in measured policies, relying on diplomacy or force, than in the attractiveness of the goals themselves.


These two modes of perceiving world politics were never uniquely American in precept or experience. Western political thought always recognized the tension between realist and idealist views toward the actions of governments in both domestic and international transactions. The stark realism of Niccolò Machiavelli stood in profound opposition to the dominant Christian teachings that favored ethical constraints upon rulers. In the eighteenth century, doctrines of raison d'état contended with Enlightenment doctrines propounded by philosophers who objected to such practices of monarchical statecraft as mercantilism, balance-of-power politics, and the pursuit of dynastic goals at the expense of peace and human welfare.

While the American clash between realism and idealism owes an intellectual debt to antecedent European thought, it was in the United States that both doctrines were fully established, in theory and in practice. Whereas in continental Europe, utopian idealism remained excluded from the realm of practice, in the United States it became a recurrent, contrapuntal theme of statesmen and politicians, commentators and theorists. What underlay the conflicting presumptions regarding the requirements and possibilities of external action was the anarchical nature of the international environment. Whereas governmental structures within established countries assured some degree of order and security, the absence of international authority compelled individual countries to fend for themselves, relying on their own capacities to coexist in what social contract theorists termed a state of nature. Realists and idealists disagreed totally over the capacity of human society, and especially international politics, to eliminate the vagaries of existence in an anarchic state system.

Realists, recognizing no genuine alternative to coexistence in an anarchical world of individual sovereign nations, accepted the modern state system as a necessity. They would defend the country's interests by following the rules of diplomacy and war as propounded by a host of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century writers and statesmen. These rules of conduct were not designed to prevent conflict and war, but rather to mitigate their effects and thereby assure the survival of states. For realists, moreover, war was not an aberration, but a condition sometimes unavoidable, a contingency for which to prepare, but also, when possible, to deter by force or accommodation. Wars, they knew, were generally the only means available for changing unwanted political or territorial conditions. Realists thus accepted power politics as a natural phenomenon of international life, with the concomitant reliance on armies and navies, secret diplomacy, and alliances. Asserting the primacy of national over individual interests, they viewed the universal norms governing human rights as conditional when they threatened the national welfare. Realists observed the essential truth that nations existed successfully amid the world's anarchy. The evidence lay in the precedence of peace over war, as well as the continued material advancement in human affairs.

Idealists viewed the international system, with its accoutrements of conflict and war, as not only deeply flawed but also capable of melioration, if not total cure. For them, international strife was the unnecessary and reprehensible product of outmoded forms of human organization, both in the internal structuring of states and in their international practices. Idealists saw in the trappings of power politics little but ambition, opportunism, deception, and impositions. Whereas realist doctrine focused on national interests and security, idealist concerns looked to individual welfare and the general interests of humanity. Idealists presumed that the objective validity and authority of universal norms, laws, and principles could and should apply to international as well as domestic affairs.

Realists and idealists disagreed fundamentally on the primary determinants of state behavior in international politics. For realists, external factors defined the options available to policy-makers. Those options were uncertain and elusive, requiring preparedness as well as caution. Secretary of State Dean Acheson once remarked: "The future is unpredictable. Only one thingthe unexpectedcan be reasonably anticipated. The part of wisdom is to be prepared for what may happen, rather than to base our course upon faith in what should happen." The German historian Leopold von Ranke formulated this view in terms congenial to American realists. The dangers and uncertainties of international life, he wrote, not only established the primacy of foreign affairs but also dictated the precedence of security interests over domestic concerns. While cognizant of the historical vicissitudes in national fortunes, realists nevertheless saw constancy in the essential traits and behavior of nations. Policies might vary with regimes, but fundamental interests, once established, tended to remain consistent.

Idealists, on the contrary, tended to view the sources of external state action as residing in internal political processes, based largely on political structures, the distribution of political power, and the ambitions of ruling elites. Involvements abroad reflected not external necessity, but internal choice. To idealists, different forms of government led to different modes of foreign policy. Autocratic states, some idealists presumed, too readily threatened the cause of humanity by placing demands on individuals that were sharply at odds with private conscience. By ordering men into mortal combat with other members of the human race, they shattered the peace and defied the civilized norms of human conduct. Authentic republics did not wage aggressive wars, nor did free peoples impose imperial control over others.

However apparent the wellsprings of aggressive national behavior, realists accepted limits on both their intentions and their power to interfere. They recognized the barriers that national sovereignty placed on meliorist efforts to alter the political structures and domestic decisions of other countries. Idealists, as children of the Enlightenment, expected more of themselves and society. For them, the world was not hopelessly corrupt, but could, through proper leadership and motivation, advance morally and politically. This optimistic view of the world became endemic to the idealists' presumptions of human progress and the concomitant conviction that the United States, because of the superiority of its institutions, was ideally constituted to lead the world toward an improving future. The belief that institutional and moral superiority distinguished the United States from other countries found its central expression in the concept of "exceptionalism." This assigned to American suppositions of exceptional virtue the imperative of exceptional obligation to serve the peace and improve the human condition.


America's idealist crusade to minimize the country's role in power politics was heavily influenced by the debates of eighteenth-century British politicians, journalists, and pamphleteers. Despite the quarrel between Britain and its American colonies after the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), largely over Parliament's jurisdiction in imperial, commercial, and political matters, the contestants were closely linked intellectually. What troubled English critics of Britain's role in European politics was the heavy burden of taxation, alliances, and perennial wars demanded of Britain because of its continental connections. By steering clear of such attachments, Britain could concentrate on the pacific activities of trade and commerce, assigning the saved resources to benign uses. Such arguments for reducing Britain's role in European politics applied as well to America's ties with Britain.

Thomas Paine, above all other American writers, created the link between English reformist thought and that of the colonies. Bankrupt and a failure at everything he attempted, Paine immigrated to America in 1774. There he quickly emerged as the chief pamphleteer for American independence. In his famed essay Common Sense (1776), Paine argued that America's attachment to Britain alone endangered its security. It was the British connection that tended "to involve this Continent in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance with nations who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom we have neither anger nor complaint." More specifically, Paine predicted that France and Spain, both New World powers, would never be "our enemies as Americans, but as our being subjects of Great Britain. " An independent United States would have no cause to defy other countries with demanding foreign policies. He assured his readers that "our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of Europe; because it is the interest of all Europe to have America a free port." American independence would symbolize the rejection of Europe and the entire system of power politics. During the ratification debates regarding the U.S. Constitution a decade later, the Antifederalists employed these isolationist arguments against ratification, convinced that the oceans assured the country's security without the Constitution's warmaking powers.

Paine's writings contained the fundamental assumptions of idealist thought on foreign policy. For him the young republic, freed from the contamination and constraints of power politics, appeared ideally constituted to create a new order in world affairs. The American Revolution, as a triumphant avowal of the principle of free government, seemed an auspicious event in the eternal quest for peace and human rights. "The cause of America," proclaimed Paine, "is in great measure the cause of mankind." He regarded the institution of monarchy the chief cause of human misery and war. "Man is not the enemy of man," he wrote, "but through the medium of a false system of government." How, he wondered, could the monarchies of Europe, unable to satisfy the needs of their citizens, survive the revolutionary pressures being unleashed by events in America? Those moral principles, which allegedly maintained peaceful and just relations among individuals, would, in time, rule the behavior of nations.

Other American contemporaries found Paine's views highly congenial. Benjamin Franklin proclaimed such sentiments when, in April 1782, he said: "Establishing the liberties of America will not only make that people happy, but will have some effect in diminishing the misery of those, who in other parts of the world groan under despotism, by rendering it more circumspect, and inducing it to govern with a lighter hand." Thomas Jefferson elaborated virtually identical views in both his public and private observations. "I have sworn upon the altar of God," he wrote, "eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." For Jefferson, force was evil unless informed by some moral purpose. But whereas Paine harbored visions of an activist, messianic role for the United States in world politics, Jefferson generally held to more modest aspirations. America would best serve the interests of mankind by setting an example of purity and perfection, and by offering an asylum for the wretched and oppressed. "A single good government," he once wrote, "becomes a blessing to the whole earth." James Madison, a contemporary idealist, echoed the sentiment: "Our Country, if it does justice to itself, will be the workshop of liberty to the Civilized World, and do more than any other for the uncivilized."

Contemporary conservatives attacked as utopian Paine's idealist notions regarding the world's future and America's role in its creation. They knew that the United States could not project a successful international crusade beyond the reach of American law. What determined the external behavior of republics, they believed, was not the uniqueness of their political structures or the outlook of their people, but the international environment beyond their control, the demands imposed by their own ambitions, and the countering requirements of other states. James Madison, no less than others, denied that the foreign policies of republics differed essentially from those of monarchies. Hard experience had taught the revolutionary generation that nations dealt with others solely on the bases of interests and the capacity to render them effective.

Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist (1788), questioned the assumption that commerce softened the manners of men and extinguished "those inflammable humors which have so often kindled into wars." He observed that nations responded more readily to immediate interests than to general or humane considerations of policy. He asked: "Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies?Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities?Has commerce hitherto done any thing more than change the objects of war?" Hamilton suggested that Americans look to experience for answers to such questions. Carthage, a commercial republic, was the aggressor in the very war that terminated its existence. Holland, another trading republic, played a conspicuous role in the wars of modern Europeas did Britain, markedly addicted to commerce. Hamilton concluded: "The cries of the nation and the importunities of their representatives have, upon various occasions, dragged their monarchs into war, or continued them in it, contrary to their inclinations, and sometimes contrary to the real interests of the state."

Hamilton dwelled on the dangers that the real world of power politics posed for the United States. Some Americans, he warned, had been amused too long by theories that promised them "an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape." It would be better for the country to assume, as did all other nations, that the happy empire of wisdom and virtue did not exist. "To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties," he wrote in The Federalist No. 6, "would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of [the] ages." Because constant disputes could lead to war, he concluded that national safety required a strong central government, with a capacity to wage war and advance common interests in a potentially hostile world. For him, defense against the nation's external challenges lay in the powers granted by the new U.S. Constitution.


Not surprisingly, the French Revolution, and the subsequent war between revolutionary France and England after 1792, kindled the burgeoning rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton, members of President George Washington's cabinet as, respectively, secretary of state and secretary of the Treasury. Earlier, such idealists as Paine and Jefferson had abhorred power politics and war; Hamilton, the realist, had preached preparedness with its warlike implications. The idealism generated by the French Revolution compelled a reversal of positions. Paine, supported by Jefferson, roused public clamors for support of the French Revolution and its principles. Idealists demanded that the United States support France's war effort. Hamilton, with Washington, inclined to peaceful neutrality, with the effect, if not the intention, of serving the British cause. The idealists argued from principle, the realists from prudence and experience. Hamilton's view prevailed when Washington issued his Neutrality Proclamation of 1793.

In Jefferson's subsequent debate with Hamilton over the wisdom and morality of Washington's proclamation, he based his advocacy of U.S. support for revolutionary France on the grounds that the United States must be faithful to its obligations under the Franco-American alliance of 1778, demonstrate gratitude for French assistance during the war against Britain, and reveal its affinity for republican institutions in a monarchical world. Jefferson's three arguments rested on sentiment, not interests. Hamilton attacked these propositions head-on in a series of long public letters. In "Pacificus" of 6 July 1793, he argued that a country's first obligation was to itself. The United States, he noted, had no power to aid France in its European war. No country, he concluded, could be obligated to do what it could not do. Next, Hamilton attacked Jefferson's notion of gratitude to France for past favors, noting simply that France had aided the United States to serve its own interests in England's defeat, not those of the United States. Governments, he argued, could not operate as individuals. Individuals could engage in actions of generosity or benevolence at the expense of their own interests, but a government, he said, could rarely be justified in pursuing such a course. It was responsible for the welfare of all of its citizens and for all time. In his "Americanus" papers of 1794, Hamilton denied, thirdly, that the cause of revolutionary France, with all of its excesses, was the cause of liberty, or that the failure of French revolutionary principles would undermine the security of the United States.

Hamilton read the nation another series of lectures on the fundamentals of a realist foreign policy in his "Camillus" essays of 1795. He published these papers in defense of Jay's Treaty, negotiated with Britain and signed in November 1794. Hamilton made little effort to defend the treaty's specific provisions or omissions, but lauded the settlement's role in preventing war. In no way, he declared, were the negotiations dishonorable, the terms disgraceful. He counseled moderation: "Nations ought to calculate as well as individuals, to compare evils, and to prefer the lesser to the greater; to act otherwise, is to act unreasonably; those who advocate it are imposters and madmen." Hamilton admonished Americans to recall that the United States, no less than the powers of Europe, were bound by the established modes of international behavior. "In national controversies," Hamilton averred, "it is of real importance to conciliate the good opinion of mankind, and it is even useful to preserve or gain that of our enemy. The latter facilitates accommodation and peacethe former attracts good offices, friendly interventions, sometimes direct support, from others." Against such appeals to tradition and common sense, Jefferson stood helpless. He confessed to Madison that Hamilton was "really a colossus. In truth, when he comes forward, there is no one but yourself who can meet him." "For God's sake," he pleaded, "take up your pen, and give a fundamental reply toCamillus." Madison declined the challenge.

Washington's Farewell Address of 17 September 1796 was the culminating statement of Federalist thought on matters of external policy. It reflected the views of Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay, the three authors of The Federalist. Hamilton, in revising it, made it largely his own. Washington's valedictory was a message for the times, but it was far more. He admonished the country to behave in accordance with established eighteenth-century principles as they applied to international affairs. Throughout his second term, Washington had been troubled by the dangerous attachments of too many Americans to the European belligerents. In October 1795 he had stressed the necessity of greater independence in a letter to Patrick Henry: "My ardent desire isto see that [the United States] may be independent of all, and under the influence of none. In a word, I want an American character, that the powers of Europe may be convinced we act for ourselves and not for others. " In his Farewell Address, Washington explained why foreign attachments endangered the country's well-being: "The Nation, which indulges toward another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest." Sympathy for favored countries or governments, he warned, assumed common interests that seldom existed and enmeshed a people in the enmities of others without justification. For Washington, there was no room in the country's external relations for crusades against evil.

Hamilton's voluminous writings during Washington's two administrations comprised a single, massive plea that the United States weigh its interests carefully before venturing abroad. Still, the persistent upheavals on the European continent, and their extension onto the Atlantic, touched American interests and sentiments sufficiently to keep alive the tensions between realists and idealists as they sought to influence national reactions to events abroad. The Napoleonic wars, especially as they ventured onto the Atlantic in one gigantic commercial conflict between the British navy and Napoleon's continental system, challenged the profits of America's neutral trade with Europe's belligerents. President Jefferson demanded both British and French recognition of American neutral rights and responded to his failure to obtain either with his embargo on American trade in late 1807. Under President Madison, after 1809 the country's frustration and animosity began to center on Britain because its infringements on the principle of freedom of the seas were more apparent than those of France.

As anti-British sentiment pushed the country toward war, it separated idealist sentiment, which focused on British immorality and the need to defend the principle of neutral trade, from realist arguments that war with Britain would be needless and futile. What those known as the War Hawks in Congress required was a rationale that would justify a declaration of war; the Republican Party, generally cohesive, would readily fall into line. That rationale lay in the supposition that Britain sought less the defense of belligerent rights than the ruination of the United States itself. Henry Clay of Kentucky claimed proof that Britain "will do everything to destroy us." Peter B. Porter of New York added that if the United States continued to submit to British indignities, it "might safely calculate to be kicked and cuffed for the whole of the remainder of [its] life." For some War Hawks, Britain desired no less than the recolonization of America. John A. Harper of New Hampshire charged that British conduct "bespeaks a determination to rule us, and can only be answered by the appeal to the God of Battles." Similarly, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina warned Congress that Britain was determined to reduce the United States to a colonial status.

Realists in Congress contested the march toward war. John Randolph, Virginia's noted conservative, questioned the assumption that American honor and security required a British-American conflict. In December 1811, he reminded Congress that the United States had no interest in contributing to Napoleon's success. Why, he wondered, should the country regard Britain as its special enemy? Every consideration of blood, language, religion, and interest, he observed, should incline the American people toward England. Randolph reminded Congress that the United States had no power to defeat England in war. Similarly, John Quincy Adams, U.S. minister in St. Petersburg, recalled from the Gospel of Saint Luke (14:31): "Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand." The conditions confronting the United States, Adams reminded his wife, Abigail, on 1 January 1812, were even less favorable than that. When Congress, without preparation, declared war on 19 June 1812, Obadiah German of New York condemned the action. "After the war is once commenced," he warned, "I presume gentlemen will find something more forcible than empty war speeches will be necessary." It was his purpose, said German, "to check the precipitate step of plunging [the] country prematurely into a war, without any of the means of making the war terrible to the enemy; and with the certainty that it will be terrible to ourselves." Having declared war, the country would have peace only with the enemy's consent.


In 1815 the United States emerged from the War of 1812 amid a burst of nationalism and a sense of deep satisfaction from having faced England. On the one hand, the war experience encouraged a pervading interest in the future of the North American continent and a pride of distinctness and separation from Europe's international politics. On the other hand, it perpetuated a popular sensitivity to events abroad that repeatedly reopened the realist-idealist debate in the United States. The immediate postwar challenge to U.S. sentiment was Latin America's struggle for independence from Spain. Determined to sever Europe's ties to the New World in what they believed would be a triumph for humanity, editors led by William Duane of Philadelphia's Aurora demanded U.S. guardianship of Latin American independence. In Congress, the powerful Henry Clay denounced the administration of James Monroe, with John Quincy Adams as secretary of state, for neglecting U.S. interests and the cause of liberty in Latin America. Adams was appalled at the widespread defiance of the official U.S. policy of neutrality. "There seems to me," he complained in June 1816, "too much of the warlike humor in the debates of Congresspropositions even to take up the cause of the South Americans, as if they were talking of the expense of building a light house."

As the public pressure for involvement continued, Adams, in December 1817, reminded his father, John Adams, that Latin America had replaced the French Revolution as the great source of discord in the United States. "The republican spirit of our countrysympathizes with people struggling in a cause. And now, as at the early stage of the French Revolution, we have ardent spirits who are for rushing into the conflict, without looking to the consequences." Monroe and Adams, against mounting public and congressional pressures, sustained the country's official neutrality until, in 1821, the striking victories of the revolutionary forces all but destroyed Spain's remaining authority in South America. In a special message to Congress on 8 March 1822, Monroe recognized the independence of Argentina, Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico.

Already, a similar debate over the future of Greece had divided the Monroe administration as well as much of the country. The Greek revolution had gathered momentum until, by 1821, it posed an immediate threat to Turkey's Ottoman rule. Turkish sultan Mahmud II retaliated against the Greek revolutionaries with such violence that he aroused anti-Turkish sentiment throughout western Europe and the United States. American idealists took up the cause of the repressed Greeks even as Adams expressed his total disapproval of foreign crusades. In his famed speech of 4 July 1821, Adams declared that the United States "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." Monroe expressed regret over Turkey's despotic rule in his annual message of December 1822. Then, in 1823, Edward Everett, professor of Greek at Harvard, championed Greece's independence in a long essay that appeared in the North American Review, a journal that he edited. Adams was not impressed and argued strongly against any U.S. meddling in the affairs of Greece and Turkey, especially since the country was not prepared financially or militarily to intervene.

In January 1824, Adams's allies in Congress disposed of the Greek issue. Among Everett's converts was Daniel Webster, then a U.S. representative from Massachusetts. In December 1823, Webster introduced a resolution into the House that provided for defraying the expense of an agent or commissioner to Greece, whenever the president might deem such an appointment expedient. On 19 January 1824, while discussing this apparently noncommittal text, Webster launched into an eloquent appeal to American humanitarian sentiment. The Greeks, he said, look to "the great Republic of the earthand they ask us by our common faith, whether we can forget that they are struggling, as we once struggled, for what we now so happily enjoy?" He asked nothing of Congress. Previously, he acknowledged, "there was no making an impression on a nation but by bayonets, and subsidies, by fleets and armies; butthere is a force in public opinion which, in the long run, will outweigh all the physical force that can be brought to oppose it. Let us direct the force, the vast moral force of this engine, to the aid of others."

In his reply on 24 January, Randolph challenged Webster's effort to commit the country abroad to what it could not accomplish, except at enormous cost to its own interests. How, Randolph wondered, would the United States operate effectively in a country as distant as Greece? "Do gentlemen seriously reflect," he asked, "on the work they have cut out for us? Why, sir, these projects of ambition surpass those of Bonaparte himself." Finally, Randolph attacked the resolution itself:

We are absolutely combatting shadows. The gentleman would have us to believe his resolution is all but nothing; yet again it is to prove omnipotent, and fills the whole globe with its influence. Either it is nothing, or it is something. If it is nothing, let us lay it on the table, and have done with it at once; but, if it is that something which it has been on the other hand represented to be, let us beware how we touch it. For my part, I would sooner put the shirt of Nessus on my back, than sanction these doctrines.

Such argumentation, much to Adams's delight, eliminated the issue of Greek independence from the nation's consideration.


Although scarcely a subject of controversy, the Monroe Doctrine, after its promulgation in 1823, remained vulnerable to disagreement over its meaning. For realists, the Monroe Doctrine represented a fundamental interest in preserving the nation's unique position as the predominant force in the hemisphere. As such, it was a policy rendered effective by the realities of power and interest in the Atlantic world. So realistic, indeed, was American purpose in preventing the establishment of rival power in the Western Hemisphere that the United States required neither war nor the threat of war to protect this essential interest. British leaders tended to accept the Monroe Doctrine as a statement of policy and nothing more.

Idealists viewed the Monroe Doctrine as a broad declaration of liberal principles. For them, the United States, in defying the Holy Alliance, had promoted less the nation's interests than the liberty of Latin America. Because the doctrine appeared to attach American purpose to a universal democratic ideal, many European masters of Realpolitik viewed it as purely utopian. They condemned it because, as a body of abstract principle, it would overreach actual U.S. economic and security interests, as well as seek to diminish European influence in Latin American affairs, solely on claims to superior political virtue. For Prince Metternich of Austria, such suppositions were nothing less than sheer arrogance. "The United States of America," he complained, "have cast blame and scorn on the institutions of Europe most worthy of respect. In permitting themselves these unprovoked attacks, in fostering revolutions wherever they show themselves, in regretting those which have failed, in extending a helping hand to those which seem to prosper, they lend new strength to the apostles of sedition and reanimate the courage of every conspirator." In practice, every administration from Monroe to John Tyler recognized the Monroe Doctrine as policy, not principle. They accepted changes in the region, such as the British seizure of the Falkland Islands in 1833, because they did not endanger U.S. economic or security interests.

In 1845, President James K. Polk provided John C. Calhoun, at the time one of the nation's stellar realists, an opportunity to read the country a lesson on the Monroe Doctrine. During the summer of 1845, the president received reports of British designs on California. In June, François Guizot, in a speech before the French Chamber of Deputies, claimed a European interest in preserving "the balance of the Great Powers among which America is divided." In his December message to Congress, Polk, under pressure from American expansionists, repeated Monroe's declaration on noncolonization. On 14 January 1846, Senator William Allen of Ohio, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, introduced a resolution designed to commit Congress to the principles of the Monroe Doctrine as repeated by the president. Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan led the enthusiastic response of Democratic expansionists.

Calhoun challenged the resolution as a dangerous commitment; it seemed to invoke U.S. guardianship for all New World states against foreign aggression. If this be settled policy that was intended to have meaning, Calhoun warned, the country must concentrate its energies to carry out the policy. For Calhoun, policy required that the ends of policy be determined not by rhetoric, but by the means that the country intended to use. For him, the country had no intention of acting. Thus, Calhoun advised the Senate that it was

the part of wisdom to select wise ends in a wise manner. No wise man, with a full understanding of the subject, would pledge himself, by declaration, to do that which was beyond the power of execution, and without mature reflection as to the consequences. There would be no dignity in it. True dignity consists in making no declaration which we are not prepared to maintain. If we make the declaration, we ought to be prepared to carry it into effect against all opposition.

Cass, in another exchange with Calhoun, argued that the United States could enunciate principles without assuming any obligation to act on them. "Will mere vaporing bravado," Calhoun replied, "have any practical effect?" Effective policy, if resistance seemed proper, Calhoun asserted, required armies, navies, powerful revenues, and a determination to act. Declarations of principle would achieve nothing except to needlessly antagonize countries normally well disposed to the United States. The Senate returned the Allen resolution to committeefrom which it never reemerged.

In April 1848, President Polk inaugurated the most searching examination of the Monroe Doctrine and its relevance to U.S. foreign policy in the nation's history. That month an agent of the Yucatán government, Don Justo Sierra, appealed to Polk for military aid against the rebellious Indians of the Mexican interior who threatened to drive the whites into the sea. He offered the United States, in return for its support, "dominion and sovereignty" over the state of Yucatán, adding that the same appeal had been extended to England and Spain. On 19 April, Polk, in his message to Congress, repeated his earlier sweeping assertion that it was the settled policy of the United States "that no future European colony or dominion shallbe planted or established on any part of the American continent." Polk anchored his appeal for U.S. involvement in Yucatán on both the moral obligation to rescue its white inhabitants and to prevent the possible reduction of the region to the status of a European colony. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations quickly reported a bill to provide for an American military occupation of Yucatán. Democratic nationalists rushed to the defense of the president's request.

Again it was left for Calhoun, in a major speech of his long career, to dispose of the president's appeal to the Monroe Doctrine by demonstrating historically that the doctrine had no relevance to the Yucatán question. As a member of Monroe's cabinet in 1823, Calhoun reminded the Senate that Monroe's message was directed at one specific threat to Latin American independencethe Holy Alliance. That alliance's disintegration rendered the doctrine meaningless. Then Calhoun turned to the Monroe Doctrine as policy. In response to the president's insistence that Monroe's declarations were the settled policy of the United States, Calhoun retorted: "Declarations are not policy and cannot become settled policy." Then he asked, "Has there been one instance in which these declarations have been carried into effect? If there be, let it be pointed out." Control of Yucatán, declared Calhoun, would add nothing to the protection of Cuba or U.S. commerce in the Gulf of Mexico. For Mexico, U.S. intervention in Yucatán would be a breach of faith. Mere occupancy would resolve nothing, and without some resolution, would either collapse or become permanent. Fortunately, a sudden, unanticipated agreement between the Yucatán contestants terminated the question of U.S. intervention.


America's seldom expressed but widely shared antagonism toward Europe's monarchical governments broke loose at the first news of the revolutions that, beginning in France during February 1848, swept rapidly across Germany and the whole continent. The U.S. minister in Paris recognized France's provisional government. Senator Edward Hannegan of Indiana reported a joint resolution from the Committee on Foreign Relations that offered the country's congratulations to the people of France. The absence of any obligations to France assured the resolution's overwhelming approval.

By 1849, the spontaneous uprising of one European people after another diverted attention from France to Hungary, where the Magyar patriots were engaged in a heroic struggle against Austrian rule. That summer, while the American people applauded the successive Hungarian triumphs, Secretary of State John M. Clayton dispatched Ambrose Dudley Mann as a special agent to report on the progress of the revolution and offer the nation's encouragement. After winning momentary success under their eloquent leader, Lajos Kossuth, the Hungarians suffered disaster at the hands of Russian troops brought to the aid of the Austrian emperor. Early in 1850 Cass proposed a resolution demanding that the administration sever diplomatic relations with Austria. Clay, a realist since his stint as secretary of state under John Quincy Adams, turned his ridicule on Cass's proposal. There was, he told the Senate on 7 January, no relationship between the Michigan senator's premises and his conclusions. His resolution offered nothing to the Hungarians. Why, Clay asked, single out Austria? Hungary lost its independence struggle to Russian, not Austrian, forces. The country's very greatness, Clay cautioned, "draws after it great responsibilitiesto avoid unnecessary wars, maintaining our own rights with firmness, but invading the rights of no others." The Senate tabled Cass's resolution.

Meanwhile, the exiled Kossuth languished under detention in Turkey. But in September 1851, Webster, now secretary of state, with the cooperation of U.S. minister George Perkins Marsh, secured the release of Kossuth and fifty of his Magyar associates. Congress passed a resolution inviting Kossuth to visit the United States, while the president dispatched the USS Mississippi, already in the Mediterranean, to carry him to England. After a triumphal stop in England, he proceeded to the United States. Upon his arrival in New York City on 5 December, announced by the booming of cannon, Kossuth received the city's greatest ovation since the visit of Lafayette a quarter century earlier. New York experienced a Magyar-mania epidemic. Soon the Kossuth craze spread from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. American orators used the occasion of his presence to express sympathy for the oppressed of Europe. Whigslargely realistswere not amused; they resented both the cleverness of Kossuth's appeal to the country's idealist sentiment, as well as the approval his words apparently received. What troubled Kossuth's realist critics especially was his open quest for diplomatic, economic, and even military assistance to rekindle the Hungarian independence movement. For them, such appeals exceeded the bounds of acceptable international behavior.

Congress voted to invite Kossuth to Washington, D.C. The Hungarian accepted with alacrity; the success of his mission in America hinged on his acceptance by an administration that was determined to offer him nothing. On 23 December, Webster acknowledged privately the need for caution in dealing with Kossuth: "We shall treat him with respect, but shall give him no encouragement that the established policy of the country will be in any degree departed from." Two days later, Webster admitted that Kossuth's presence in Washington would be embarrassing. Upon Kossuth's arrival, Webster privately outlined his course of action: "I shall treat him with all personal and individual respect, but if he should speak to me of the policy of 'intervention,' I shall 'have ears more deaf than adders.'" At the White House on 31 December, Kossuth, despite Webster's request, could not resist the temptation to make a lengthy plea for American aid. President Millard Fillmore reminded the Hungarian leader that U.S. policy on intervention had been uniform since the Republic's founding. At subsequent dinners hosted by the Websters and the president, Kossuth's scarcely concealed anger embarrassed all who attended.

At a congressional banquet in Kossuth's honor, Webster expressed his hope to see the American model established upon the Lower Danube. He toasted Hungarian independence but refused to offer what Kossuth needed: something tangible for the Hungarian cause. On 9 January 1852, Clay received Kossuth in his chamber. Clay assured the Hungarian leader that the United States could not transport men and arms to eastern Europe in sufficient quantity to be effective against Russia and Austria. Such an attempt, he added, would depart from the country's historic policy of nonintervention. "Far better is it for ourselves, for Hungary, and for the cause of liberty," Clay concluded, "that, adhering to our wise, pacific system, we should keep our lamp burning brightly on this western shore as a light to all nations, than to hazard its utter extinction amid the ruins of fallen and falling republics in Europe." Kossuth soon returned to Europe, suffering the disillusionment of those who expect too much of sentiment.


During the generations of general peace between 18l5 and 1898, American idealism and realism remained compartmentalized, the former residing in the realm of opinion, ideas, and moral posturing, the latter existing in the realm of policy and action. On occasion, the levers of policy were put at the disposal of moral purposes, but not in a manner that would deflect the basic guidelines of American external policy. But in 1898 the compartments began to break down; the surge of popular passion on behalf of other peoples, against which realists such as Hamilton had warned, erupted on behalf of moral crusades in defense of Cuba, the Philippines, and China.

Following the outbreak of the Cuban revolt in February 1895, the Cuban junta, with headquarters in New York, supported by the Cuban League, its American counterpart with branches in all large cities, launched a campaign to involve the United States in this renewal of the Cuban struggle for independence. Cuban rebels understood the peculiar appeal of humanitarian causes to nineteenth-century Americans. The Spanish government, by employing measures of extreme repression, played into their hands. The Madrid government damaged its image almost beyond recall when, in 1896, it dispatched General Valeriano Weyler to Cuba, where he proceeded to herd civilians suspected of rebel leanings into concentration camps. President Grover Cleveland resented the Cuban assault on American emotions and held to a policy of neutrality against the rising tide of pro-Cuban sentiment. The Spanish government offered Cuba autonomy, but President William McKinley's decision of 1897 to oppose any arrangement unacceptable to the revolutionaries, whose minimum goal was indepen-dence, eliminated every possibility of a peaceful Cuban settlement. Washington gave Spain the choice of capitulation or war. The sinking of the battleship Maine on 15 February 1898, along with other unfortunate incidents, aroused a congressional demand for war, a responsibility that McKinley accepted to protect the principle of executive leadership in external affairs. On 21 April the United States broke diplomatic relations with Spain and embarked on a war for Cuban independence.

Few Americans attempted to justify the war except in humanitarian terms. Such motives were not strange to American liberal thought, but before 1898 they had never governed action. Whether it was a people's war, forced on a reluctant administration, or one reflecting a slow, steady evolution of presidential policy, it did not result from any deliberate weighing of interests and responsibilities. The president asked for war in the name of humanity and civilization as well as endangered American interests. "Our own direct interests [in Cuba] were great," observed Theodore Roosevelt in his An Autobiography (1913), "but even greater were our interests from the standpoint of humanity. Cuba was at our very doors. It was dreadful things for us to sit supinely and watch her death agony." Similarly, Senator George F. Hoar acknowledged that the American people could not "look idly on while hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings, women and children and old men, die of hunger close to our doors." Had Cuba not lain off the coast of the United States, there would have been no war of liberation in 1898. Previous generations of Americans had sought new deals for Greeks and Hungarians in vain. In 1898 sentiment mattered because it was directed at oppression by a weak power in an adjacent region where the United States held the clear strategic advantage.

Commodore George Dewey's destruction of the Spanish fleet in Manila harbor on 1 May did not presage an annexationist movement in the Pacific. But almost immediately a number of expansionists, both inside and outside the administration, clamored for the occupation and annexation of the Philippinesislands in the western Pacific where other nations possessed greater naval power than did the United States. Succumbing to expansionist pressure, the administration, in its instructions to the peace commission dated 16 September, announced its intention to acquire the Philippines. McKinley rationalized the decision by citing the country's obligation to humanity. This theme dominated his speeches during his midwestern tour in October 1898. Always he dwelt on the accidental nature of the country's de facto possession of the Philippines and its special responsibility to the Filipinos that, he insisted, flowed from that possession. He declared at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that "we accepted war for humanity. We can accept no terms of peace which shall not be in the interests of humanity." He repeated that appeal in Omaha: "The war was no more invited by us than were the questions which are laid at our door by its results. Now as then we will do our duty." Later, in Boston, he declared that "our concern was not for territory or trade or empire, but for the people whose interests and destiny, without our willing, had been put into our hands." Thucydides, the Greek historian, wrote many centuries earlier: "You cannot decline the burdens of empire and still expect to share its honours." McKinley, however, failed to dwell on the burdens of empire at all. It was not strange that the American people, given the simple choice between humanity and irresponsibility, assured him of their overwhelming support.

Realists charged that the acquisition of the Philippines was a serious departure from the country's traditional conservatism in foreign affairs. They noted that the annexation of distant territories would entail financial and military burdens with few rewards. The United States, wrote Andrew Carnegie, lacked not only the naval power to protect the Philippines but also the will to create it. The former U.S. Senator Carl Schurz feared that Philippine annexation would so completely over commit the nation that it would reduce the United States to complete reliance on the British fleet. Such reliance would demand a heavy price. "If we do take the Philippines," he predicted, "and thus entangle ourselves in the rivalries of Asiatic affairs, the future will beone of wars and rumors of wars, and the time will be forever past when we could look down with condescending pity on the nations of the old world groaning under militarism and is burdens." Senator Augustus O. Bacon of Georgia foresaw "peace at evening, perhaps, with no certainty but that the morrow will find us participants in a world's war." Against such arguments Senate approval of the annexation treaty came hard. The final vote was fifty-seven to twenty-seven, one more than necessary to gain the required two-thirds.


Events in China drew the United States ever deeper into the politics of the western Pacific, largely as the consequence of another moral crusade. After 1897, China's political and military weakness exposed it to foreign encroachments that threatened to reduce it to colonial status. The McKinley administration, through Secretary of State John Hay's Open Door Notes of 1899 and 1900, saved China from further disintegration. In the process, however, the United States assumed an immense, if informal, obligation to defend the commercial and administrative integrity of China. For its adherents, these apparently cost-free obligations comprised not a burden, but a remarkable triumph for American humanitarian principles. Some observers hailed Hay's achievement equal to those of the country's greatest nineteenth-century diplomats. Senator Shelby M. Cullom of Illinois offered a characteristic eulogy: "The magnitude of the man [Hay] will only appear in the magnitude of his work when it reaches its colossal proportions in the proper perspective of the past." Much of the press lauded the secretary for his momentous success. The New York Journal of Commerce called the Open Door episode "one of the most important diplomatic negotiations of our time." The Nation praised the Open Door policy as a great national triumph. "Our intervention in China," ran its conclusion, "has given the world a transcendent exhibition of American leadership in the world of ideas and the world of action. We have proved that we are guided by a diplomacy unsurpassedin its patient moderation, its firmness, its moral impulse."

Others explained why Hay's apparent achievements on behalf of China carried the seeds of disaster. Like the acquisition of the Philippines, Hay's easy successes confirmed the illusion that the United States could have its way in Asia at little or no cost to itself. Realistic observers noted, however, that Hay's diplomacy either had committed the United States to the use of force in a distant, disorganized region of the Far East, or it had achieved nothing; no nation would have compromised its essential interests in China merely at Hay's request. "Diplomacy has done nothing to change the situation," warned the Springfield Republican, "while the Government has gone far toward placing itself in a position where, to be consistent, it must guarantee by military force the territorial integrity of China, or share in its possible partition." Similarly, Alfred Thayer Mahan observed in November 1900 that the United States could not "count on respect for the territory of China unless we are ready to throw not only our moral influence but, if necessity arise, our physical weight into the conflict." Mahan noted that both Russia and Japan, the two dominant powers in the Far East, had far greater interests in China than did the United States. The Open Door policy, by establishing a powerful and exaggerated American concern for the commercial and territorial integrity of China, rendered any country that might interfere in Chinese affairs the potential enemy of the United States.


This repeated willingness of the United States to permit its burgeoning obligations, especially in the Pacific, to be driven by moral considerations culminated in Woodrow Wilson's crusade in Europe. The outbreak of war in the summer of 1914 thoroughly conjoined the realist and idealist elements in U.S. foreign policy. While realists and idealists differed in their judgments of the causes and meaning of the war, they agreed on the necessity of the struggle. Theodore Roosevelt, like other realists, feared that a German victory would endanger U.S. interests by undermining the historic European balance of powera balance that had provided the United States almost perfect security through much of its history. Wilson, however, quickly turned the war into another moral crusade. For him, the breakdown of the peace revealed serious flaws in the international system that required correction. Determined to exert a powerful voice in world affairs at the war's end, he favored a policy of strict neutrality to hold America above the fray. When German submarine warfare brought the United States into the war, Wilson would seek to reform the world through his dominant voice in erecting the postwar peace structure.

Wilson's program for avoiding another catastrophic crisis, such as that of 1914, required both changes in the quality of national behavior and an international mechanism for settling international disputes peacefully. To that end, he believed it essential that the world relieve itself of the traditional accoutrements of power politics: the balance of power and the pursuit of national interests. His solution lay in the principle of collective security, in which all peace-loving nations would pledge themselves to joint action in behalf of peace. The necessary multilateral institutions, through which the protectors of the peace would function, took the form of the League of Nations and the World Court, both enforcing the rule of law. Wilson found additional hope for a peaceful future in the expansion of world commerce, operating under a body of most-favored-nation treaties that would assure equal access to world markets. The result would be both a more prosperous and a more peaceful international system. For Wilson, finally, the new world order would require the active leadership of the United States.

Wilson's vision of enduring peace required, as well, a democratic foundation that would assure the necessary fusion of policy and moral purpose. In his war message to Congress in April 1917, Wilson declared:

A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants. It must be a league of honor, a partnership of opinion. Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their honor steady to a common end and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own.

Wilson's faith in a concert of democracies to maintain the peace presumed a common interest that would eliminate conflict and war. In his advocacy of a world of law and order, Wilson identified the interests of humanity with the interests of the United States and other democratic, status quo powers. This vision of universal peace acquired its special appeal from Wilson's insistence that peace required not the wielding of superior power by advocates of the status quo, but the limitation of change to general agreement and the rule of law. In a world governed by law, based on a common interest in peace, neither the United States nor any other country had the right to bargain with aggressors over changes in established treaties. Peaceful change alone was a morally acceptable burden of diplomacy.

Unfortunately, the essential assumption of a common interest in peace ignored the reality that, while all nations favored peace, some favored the status quo and some did not. E. H. Carr addressed this dilemma in The Twenty Years' Crisis (1939): "The utopian assumption that there is a world interest in peace which is identifiable with the interest of each individual nation helped politicians and political writers everywhere to evade the unpalatable fact of a fundamental divergence of interest between nations desirous of maintaining the status quo and nations desiring to change it." Nowhere in the Wilsonian approach to international affairs was there any recognition of the persistence of conflict that defied easy solution or the need to define the interests of the United States in a still troubled world and prepare a strategy for their defense. It was not strange that wishful thinking and generalization soon prevailed over analysis of the ongoing realities of international life. The end of lasting and universal peace overwhelmed the problem of means. Wilson once quieted the doubts of his adversaries who questioned the effectiveness of the League of Nations by assuring them that "if it won't work, it must be made to work." Schemes for rendering the league effective did not require explanations of how they would work; the consequences of failure were too disastrous to contemplate.


In proclaiming goals whose achievements always eluded the possibilities of his prescriptions, Wilson laid the foundation for a pervading postwar isolationism. For countless Americans, nothing in the country's recent experience dictated the necessity of a permanent, continuous American involvement in European politics.

For other Americans, often intellectuals and academicians, Wilson's vision of a new world order, free of all reliance on force, was too essential for the world's welfare to be discarded in deference to isolationism. Inasmuch as both groups were antagonistic to the conservative tradition of American diplomacy, there was little to separate idealists from realists in the national debate. Isolationism insisted that the nation had no external interests that merited the use of force, that events outside the hemisphere were inconsequential.

In apparent contrast, internationalism declared that U.S. interests existed wherever governments challenged peace or human rights. It insisted not only that they mattered but also that the universal acceptance of democratically inspired principles of peaceful change would control them. Every program fostered by American internationalists during the two postwar decadesmembership in the League of Nations and the World Court, the employment of arbitration conventions, the resort to consultation in the event of crises, collective security, naval disarmament, or the outlawry of wardenied the need of any precise definition of ends and means in American foreign policy. The burgeoning fields of diplomatic history and international law rested on Wilsonian principles. Under the presumptions of a controlling public opinion and a common interest in peace, international lawyers joined national leaders in rationalizing inaction in the face of growing threats. Notions of collective security served as a device of the status quo powers to prevent change in the international system. The Western preference for the status quo, in the absence of any program to change it peacefully, never recommended the means for preserving it beyond the acceptance of war.

Whatever remained of the realist-idealist cleavage in American thought and action was again clouded by the almost universal national acceptance of U.S. involvement in World War II. Realists presumed that the war, like the Great War of 1914, would, with the defeat of the Axis, reaffirm Europe's traditional balance of power and reestablish the essential elements of the Versailles settlement of 1919. To that end, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the Atlantic Charter of August 1941, advocated the return of East-Central Europe to its prewar status. American idealism, however, assigned the war a deeper, largely humanitarian purpose. In his lend-lease proposal of January 1941, Roosevelt adopted the goal of the Four Freedomsfreedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fearin his crusade against the Axis powers. In his book Price of a Free World (1942), Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace proposed, as the war's true purpose, not only the elimination of fascism from the world, but also the establishment of freedom for all peoples, the final triumph of democracy, and the elimination of poverty and hunger everywhere. At the Casablanca Conference of January 1943, Roosevelt announced his goal of unconditional surrender to eliminate any German, Italian, or Japanese influence from the postwar treaty-making processessential for the construction of the perfect peace. Unfortunately, such idealist presumptions failed to anticipate the Soviet Union's overwhelming contribution to the allied victory and the demands that the Kremlin would make on any postwar settlement.


It required no more than the postwar Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, in defiance of the Western principle of self-determination, to create doubts regarding the Kremlin's ultimate intentions. As early as 1946, anti-Soviet officials and members of Congress predicted further Soviet expansion into war torn Europe and elsewhere. Clark Clifford's September 1946 report to President Truman, reflecting the views of top U.S. officials, described a deeply threatened world. When suspected Soviet ambitions, in early 1947, seemed to focus on Greece and Turkey, the Truman administration framed the Truman Doctrine, with its corresponding rhetorical predictions of falling dominoes across Europe, Africa, or Asia, should Greece fall to the country's communist-led guerrillas. Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan accepted the administration's dire predictions uncritically. "Greece," he wrote on 12 March, "must be helped or Greece sinks permanently into the communist order. Turkey inevitably follows. Then comes the chain reaction which might sweep from the Dardanelles to the China Seas." Never before, critics noted, had U.S. leaders described external dangers in such limitless, imprecise terms. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Soviet expert George Kennan, and columnist Walter Lippmann objected to the language. Lippmann accused the administration of launching a crusade, not defining a policy.

Even as the West triumphed in all of its anti-Soviet policies during the next two years, including the creation of West Germany and the formation of NATO, U.S. fears of the Soviet Union continued to mount. The National Security Council's study NCS 7, dated 30 March 1948, defined the Kremlin's challenge in global terms. "The ultimate objective of Soviet-directed world communism," the document averred, "is the domination of the world." NCS 68, of April 1950, comprised the final and most elaborate attempt of the Truman Cold War elite to arrive at a definition of the burgeoning Soviet threat. It concluded that the Soviet Union, "unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world." What underwrote such fears was not the prospect of Soviet military expansionism; Soviet armed forces were not prepared to march anywhere. Rather, it was the fear that the Kremlin, with its alleged control of international communism, could expand endlessly, without force, merely by inciting communist revolutions. Actually, by mid-century, Europe was stabilized with a vengeance. The United States and its allies would not risk war to change the status quo on the European continent; the Soviets had no power to do so. Europe was divided, but incredibly stable.

Events in East Asia, where the United States faced two unwanted, powerfully led communist revolutions in China and Indochina, seemed to confirm the fears of Soviet expansionism. The reason is clear. Washington officials presumed, logically, that both revolutions were under Soviet control. The State Department's China experts, in a memorandum of October 1948, concluded that the Soviets had established control of China as firmly "as in the satellite countries behind the Iron Curtain." The Soviet Union, apparently, had taken over China without one conquering or occupying soldier. Dean Acheson claimed no less. "The communist leaders," he declared, "have foresworn their Chinese heritage and have publicly announced their subservience to a foreign power, Russia." Following the Chinese communist victory in late 1949, NSC 48/1 declared: "The USSR is now an Asiatic power of the first magnitude with expanding influence and interests extending throughout continental Asia and into the Pacific."

By the 1960s, much of America's predominant realism had become soft, emphasizing less the requirements of security and defense than the need of accommodation with the realities of coexistence. Convinced that previous administrations had exaggerated the Soviet threat, President Jimmy Carter set out in 1977 to establish a more relaxed, flexible, nonideological relationship with the Soviet Union and China. With the U.S. failure in Vietnam, the country could no longer maintain the illusion of global power. Carter recognized that reality by lessening the strategic importance of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Nationalism, he believed, limited Soviet as well as American influence in the Third World. In dismissing the Cold War commitment to global containment, the Carter administration accepted Soviet activity in the Afro-Asian world with profound indifference. It expected the Soviets to respond by showing strategic restraint in exploiting opportunities for adventurism created by the new burst of revolutionary turmoil across the Third World. By the mid-1970s, former Democratic liberals launched, as neoconservatives, an anticommunist crusade to reassert America's role as defender of the free world against the renewed Soviet danger. The neoconservatives found themselves aligned with the traditional Right, characterized by Republican columnists William Buckley, George Will, William Safire, and Patrick Buchanan.

Already facing open challenges to its alleged loss of will, the Carter administration reacted to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in late December 1979, with bewilderment and rage. National security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski warned the country that the Soviet Union now threatened American interests from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan. On 4 January, the president revealed his fears to the nation. "A Soviet-occupied Afghanistan," he declared, "threatens both Iran and Pakistan and is a stepping stone to possible control over much of the world's oil supplies. If the Sovietsmaintain their dominance over Afghanistan and then extend their control to adjacent countries, the stable, strategic and peaceful balance of the entire world will be changed."

The widespread assumptions that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan exposed south and Southwest Asia to further Soviet encroachment pushed American hawkishness to a new high. For many journalists and public officials, the Soviet invasion sounded the inauguration of another cold war. Polls as well as the reports of newspaper correspondents around the country revealed the return of an assertive, Cold War mentality.

Ronald Reagan caught the country's post-Afghan alarms at full tide, embellished them, and rode them to victory in the presidential campaign of 1980. He and the Republican Party pilloried the Carter administration for leading the country into the posture of "weakness, inconsistency, vacillation, and bluff" that enabled the Soviet Union to surpass the United States in military power. Under Reagan, the Committee on the Present Danger gained the influence that Carter had denied it; fifty-one of its members secured positions in the Reagan administration. The Reagan team determined to counter the global Soviet threat by aiding Nicaragua and El Salvador, thereby preventing the rhetorical dominoes from falling across both South America and North America.

Despite the new administration's tough rhetoric and massive expansion of the military budget, it maintained the same defense posture of previous administrations, much to the disgust of those who took the Reagan rhetoric of rollback seriously. The Reagan administration made no effort to recover the alleged losses of the Carter years in Africa and the Middle East. It accepted the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, but held the established containment lines. Indeed, what perpetuated the decades of laudable superpower coexistence was the decision of successive administrations to abjure the dictates of ideology and pursue the limited goals of containment.

The process of Soviet disintegration culminated in the collapse of the Soviet satellite empire in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the demise of the Cold War during the following year. Reagan supporters attributed the Soviet collapse to the rhetorical toughness and military buildup of the Reagan years. For Soviet experts, the communist regime's crash flowed naturally from its internal flaws, its political erosion, and its ideological rejection.


With the termination of the Cold War and collapse of the USSR in 19901991, the United States quickly emerged as the world's lone superpower. Under the leadership of President Bill Clinton, the realization of the country's superpower status inaugurated another massive disagreement over the country's proper role in world affairs. Not since classic Rome had a single state towered so completely over its potential rivals. Behind the debate over American global responsibility was President George H. W. Bush's refusal, in 1992, to confront the well-publicized genocide in Bosnia and his tardy, reluctant involvement in feeding the starving people of Somalia. For his critics, the end of the Cold War presented the United States, with all its power, an unprecedented opportunity to embrace the country's historic mission to humanity. The risk-avoiding approaches of the Bush years seemed to assure only the loss of national self-respect and the denial of America's proper role in world affairs. The country, some argued, had the obligation to exercise its exceptional power aggressively in its own and the world's deepest interests.

Undaunted by the doubtful relevance of America's self-assigned obligations to humanity, President Clinton promised that, after January 1993, U.S. foreign policy would focus on the goal of expanding democracy and humane values. In his inaugural address, he pledged U.S. action whenever "the will and conscience of the international community is defied." There would be interventions, he promised, not only to defend national interests, but also to satisfy the national conscience. On becoming U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in February 1993, Madeleine Albright acknowledged: "If there is one overriding principle that will guide me in this job, it will be the inescapable responsibilityto build a peaceful world and to terminate the abominable injustices and conditions that still plague civilization." Clinton elucidated his agenda before the UN General Assembly on 27 September 1993. "During the Cold War," he said, "we sought to contain a threat to [the] survival of free institutions. Now we seek to enlarge the circle of nations that live under those free institutions." For the first time in history, he added, "we have the chance to expand the reach of democracy and economic progress across the whole of Europe and to the far reaches of the world." From the outset, Clinton faced a powerful realist critique of the necessity and feasibility of his burgeoning campaign, much of it based on the admonitions of Hamilton, Washington, and John Quincy Adams against foreign crusading.

For the Clinton administration, three countries seemed to require immediate attentionSomalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. It launched immediate interventions in all three, with doubtful results. In none of the three did Washington achieve its stated objectives. Haiti remained a basket case, economically and politically; the death of American soldiers in Somalia late in 1993 prompted Clinton to withdrew those that remained. In Bosnia, the three goals of U.S. involvementthe return of the refugees, the creation of a multiethnic state, and the arrest and trial of Serb war criminalsremained unfulfilled. In 1999, Kosovo emerged as the defining issue in Clinton's crusade for human rights by scolding and chastising foreign transgressors. On 24 March he unleashed a NATO-backed air war against Serbia, both to protect the Kosovars and to bring Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president, to justice. Clinton's Kosovo intervention was the first resort to force for purely humanitarian objectives in the nation's history. The seventy-eight days of bombing brought a Serb capitulation without creating the desired peaceful, multi-ethnic regime in Kosovo. NATO leaders, meeting in Washington during April 1999, accepted membership in Clinton's global crusade for human rights. They proclaimed human rights, not national sovereignty, as the guiding principle in international affairs. It mattered little. U.S. critics of both the ends and the means of the Kosovo war predicted that the experiment would not be repeated.

Clinton's idealist crusade to improve the human condition turned out to be Euro centric; in the Atlantic world, at least, massive repression had become unacceptable, especially if it occurred in a small, defenseless region. The Serbian experience was no measure of the West's response to ubiquitous challenges to Western values elsewhere. Neither Washington nor the European capitals responded to the pervading horrors of Africa and Asia, beginning in Rwanda in 1994 and continuing through central Africa to Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Continued global suffering illustrated the magnitude and tenacity of the world's political and societal disabilities, as well as the absence of external power and will to confront them.

Through two centuries of its history, the United States experienced a persistent debate over approaches to foreign policy. It was a controversy absent in nations whose political philosophy derived from different assumptions about humanity and the state. In general, the American debate embraced a realist-idealist contest, although at times the issues produced shifting positions and clouded the fundamental clash between realist and idealist goals and assumptions. But the continued debate, with neither side acknowledging defeat, attested to the abiding fundamentals of both positions. Realists argued that the country's external policies be guided by national interests and the simple desire to maximize stability and minimize harm. They asked that the United States exert its leverage in pursuit of humane objectives only where assured successes were commensurate with costs and effort. For them, no policy choice would achieve utopia. Idealist proposals comprised largely sentimental and rhetorical responses to meliorist visions of a malleable world, supposedly subject to the reforming influences of American political and economic institutions. It was an approach dominated by seductive ends, with little concern for means.

America's vibrant civilization enhanced the attractiveness of the American model, while the uniqueness of the country's traditions and environment limited the expansive power of its example. The country's long pursuit of meliorist dreams demonstrated its limited knowledge and authority to institute democracy and a humane order in other lands. Still, the meliorist vision never faltered and always remained subject to arousal by the trials of other lands. In practice, however, realism defined the fundamental formulations of all U.S. foreign policy, except the moral crusading in Cuba and East Asia at the turn of the nineteenth century, as well as the Wilson-dominated responses to the challenges of the interwar decades. The country's long experience in foreign affairs demonstrated that objectives that ignored or transcended the nation's interests could not long endure.


Acheson, Dean. Power and Diplomacy. New York, 1958. Provides a former secretary of state's reflections on morality and power.

Beard, Charles Austin. The Republic: Conversations on Fundamentals. New York, 1943. Seeks to test the validity of current conceptions of foreign policy against the wisdom of the Founders.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Genius of American Politics. Chicago, 1953. Argues that the uniqueness of America's experiences as a nation makes its political principles inapplicable to the problems of other nations.

Gilbert, Felix. To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., 1961. Traces the intellectual origins of Washington's departing advice to his countrymen, finding his ideas about the nature of international politics in the views of early eighteenth-century English thinkers.

Graebner, Norman A., ed. Ideas and Diplomacy: Readings in the Intellectual Tradition of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1964. Presents countering arguments in all the major realist-idealist debates in American history.

Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and James Madison. The Federalist Papers. New York, 1961. Written originally as tracts supporting the proposed U.S. Constitution, includes coherent realist arguments in favor of strong centralized control of foreign affairs and national defense.

Kennan, George F. American Diplomacy, 19001950. Chicago, 1951. An ex-American diplomat's denunciation of utopianism in foreign affairs and advocacy of an elitist conduct of statecraft.

Kristol, Irving. On the Democratic Idea in America. New York, 1972. The chapter "American Intellectuals and Foreign Policy" attacks the validity of the notion that concrete foreign policy decisions can be judged according to abstract principles.

Morgenthau, Hans Joachim. In Defense of the National Interest: A Critical Examination of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1951. A leading American realist's arguments in favor of judging international events according to the realities of interest and power.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. New York, 1952. Argues that America's pre-1941 experiences as a nation provide poor groundwork for purposeful existence in a world of competing rival nations.

Osgood, Robert Endicott. Ideals and Self-Interest in America's Foreign Relations: The Great Transformation of the Twentieth Century. Chicago, 1953. Offers a historical account of the enduring dispute among America's realists and idealists, particularly useful for its treatment of concrete episodes of controversy.

Perkins, Dexter The American Approach to Foreign Policy. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass., 1962. A forceful defense of the vitality of democratic principles in the conduct of foreign relations.

See also Doctrines; Exceptionalism; Internationalism; The National Interest; Open Door Policy; Power Politics; Self-Determination; Wilsonianism .


The economist and social scientist William Graham Sumner (18741910) was a prolific publicist of social Darwinism. Through public addresses and periodical essays, he carried on a warfare against economic and political evils, treating practically every social question of his day in an unsentimental and critical fashion. In 1903 he published his observations on the role of doctrines as a guide to foreign policy:

"If you want war, nourish a doctrine. Doctrines are the most frightful tyrants to which men ever are subject, because doctrines get inside a man's own reason and betray him against himself. Civilized men have done their fiercest fighting for doctrines. What are they all? Noth ing but rhetoric and phantasms. Doctrines are always vague; it would ruin a doctrine to define it, because then it could be analyzed, tested, criticised, and verified; but nothing ought to be tolerated which cannot be so tested. Somebody asks you with astonishment and horror whether you do not believe in the Monroe Doctrine. You do not know whether you do or not, because you do not know what it is; but you do not dare to say that you do not, because you understand that it is one of the things which every good American is bound to believe in. Now when any doctrine arrives at that degree of authority, the name of it is a club which any demagogue may wing over you at any time and apropos of anything. A doctrine is an abstract principle; it is necessarily absolute in its scope and abstruse in its terms; it is a metaphysical assertion. It is never true, because it is absolute, and the affairs of men are all conditioned and relative.

"The process by which such catchwords grow is the old popular mythologizing. Your Monroe Doctrine becomes an entity, a being, a lesser kind of divinity, entitled to reverence and possessed of prestige, so that it allows of no discussion or deliberation. The President of the United States talks about the Monroe Doctrine and he tells us solemnly that it is true and sacred, whatever it is. He even undertakes to give some definition of what he means by it; but the definition which he gives binds nobody, either now or in the future, any more than what Monroe and Adams meant by it binds anybody now not to mean anything else. He says that, on account of the doctrine, whatever it may be, we must have a big navy. In this, at least, he is plainly in the right; if we have the doctrine, we shall need a big navy.

"What has just been said suggests a consideration of the popular saying, 'In time of peace prepare for war.' If you prepare a big army and navy and are all ready for war, it will be easy to go to war; the military and naval men will have a lot of new machines and they will be eager to see what they can do with them. There is no such thing nowadays as a state of readiness for war. It is a chimera, and the nations which pursue it are falling into an abyss of wasted energy and wealth. When the army is supplied with the latest and best rifles, someone invents a new field gun; then the artillery must be provided with that before we are ready. A wiser rule would be to make up your mind soberly what you want, peace or war, and then to get ready for what you want; for what we prepare for is what we shall get."

From "War." In Albert Galloway Keller
and Maurice R. Davie, eds.
Essays of William
Graham Sumner (1934)