How do you distinguish a foreign policy “idealist” from a “realist,” an optimist from a pessimist? Ask one question: Do you believe in the arrow of history?
Or to put it another way, do you think history is cyclical or directional? Are we condemned to do the same thing over and over, generation after generation – or is there hope for some enduring progress in the world order?
For realists, generally conservative, history is an endless cycle of clashing power politics. The best we can do in our own time is to defend ourselves, managing instability and avoiding catastrophe. But expect nothing permanent, no essential alteration in the course of human affairs.
The idealists believe otherwise. They believe that the international system can eventually evolve into something more humane and hopeful. What is usually overlooked is that this hopefulness comes in two flavors – one liberal, one conservative.
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The liberal variety (as practiced, for example, by the Bill Clinton administration) believes that the creation of a dense web of treaties, agreements, transnational institutions and international organizations (like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization) can give substance to a cohesive community of nations that would, in time, ensure order and stability.
The conservative view (often called neoconservative and dominant in the George W. Bush years) is that the better way to ensure order and stability is through the spread of democracy. Because, in the end, democracies are inherently more inclined to live in peace.
Liberal internationalists count on globalization and neoconservatives on democratization to get us to the sunny uplands of international harmony. But what unites them is the belief that such uplands exist and are achievable.
For realists, this is a comforting delusion that gives high purpose to international exertions where none exists. Sovereign nations remain in incessant pursuit of power and self-interest. The pursuit can be carried out more or less wisely. But nothing fundamentally changes.
Barack Obama is a classic case study in foreign policy idealism. Indeed, one of his favorite quotations is about the arrow of history: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He has spent nearly eight years trying to advance that arc of justice.
Unfortunately, with “justice” did not come peace. The policies that followed – appeasing Vladimir Putin, the Iranian mullahs, the butchers of Tiananmen Square and lately the Castros – have advanced neither justice nor peace. The consequent withdrawal of American power has yielded nothing but geopolitical chaos and immense human suffering. (See Syria.)
But now an interesting twist. On his Vietnam trip this week, Obama accepted the reality of an abusive dictatorship while announcing a warming of relations and the lifting of the U.S. arms embargo, thereby enlisting Vietnam as a full partner in the containment of China.
This follows the partial return of the U.S. military to the Philippines, another element of the containment strategy. Indeed, the Trans-Pacific Partnership itself is less about economics than geopolitics, creating a Pacific Rim cordon around China.
There’s no idealism in containment. It is raw, soulless realpolitik.
I don’t know – no one knows – if history has an arrow. Which is why a dose of coldhearted realism is always welcome. Especially from Obama.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.