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The Return of American Realism

NEW YORK – There are many recurring debates in American foreign policy – for example, isolationism versus internationalism, and unilateralism versus multilateralism. But no debate is more persistent than that between those who believe that American foreign policy’s principal purpose should be to influence the external behavior of other states and those who hold that it should be to shape their internal nature.

This debate between “realists” and “idealists” is intense and long-standing. During the Cold War, there were those who argued that the United States should try to “roll back” the Soviet Union, bring down the communist system, and replace it with democratic capitalism. Others deemed this to be too dangerous in an era defined by nuclear weapons, and the US opted instead for a policy of containment, working to limit the reach of Soviet power and influence. As it turned out, after 40 years of containment, the Soviet Union and its empire unraveled, though this outcome was a byproduct of US policy, not its principal purpose.

George W. Bush was the most recent “idealist” proponent of making democracy promotion the main priority for US foreign policy. Bush embraced the so-called “democratic peace” theory, which holds that democracies not only treat their own citizens better, but also act better toward their neighbors and others.

It was, of course, his father, George H.W. Bush, who was a strong representative of the alternative, “realist” approach to American foreign policy.