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America's Return to Realism

It was already clear that former President Donald Trump repudiated the humanitarian or quasi-humanitarian motives that underpinned US military interventions after the Cold War. But Joe Biden’s forceful renunciation of foreign-policy idealism is somewhat surprising.

CHICAGO – US President Joe Biden’s speech defending the withdrawal from Afghanistan announced a decisive break with a tradition of foreign-policy idealism that began with Woodrow Wilson and reached its apex in the 1990s. While that tradition has often been called “liberal internationalism,” it also was the dominant view on the right by the end of the Cold War. The United States, according to liberal internationalists, should use military force as well as its economic power to compel other countries to embrace liberal democracy and uphold human rights.

Both in conception and in practice, American idealism rejected the Westphalian international system, in which states are forbidden to intervene in others’ internal affairs, and peace results from maintaining a balance of power. Wilson sought to replace this system with universal principles of justice, administered by international institutions. During World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt revived these ideals in the Atlantic Charter of 1941, which declared self-determination, democracy, and human rights to be war goals.

But during the Cold War, the US pursued a resolutely “realist” foreign policy that focused on national interest and propped up or tolerated dictatorships as long as they opposed the Soviet Union. The two rivals had little use for international institutions or universal ideals except for propaganda purposes, instead using regional arrangements to knit together their allies. It was Europe that, in the 1970s, tried to advance human rights and assume a position of moral leadership to distinguish itself from the goliaths to its east and west.