America's Foreign Policy Debate

A Commentary by Lee H. Hamilton, President and Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center

Nov 07, 2005

The ongoing debate over Iraq splits two schools of thought about American foreign policy. On one side are the idealists, most prominently neo-conservatives who advocated the invasion; on the other side are the realists, wary of using American power to achieve revolutionary change.

The neo-conservatives come out of an idealistic tradition that sees the United States as having a unique global mission. They take a moralistic view: the world is messy, and the U.S. must clean it up by exporting our values of democracy, human rights and free markets. To that end, we must remain the sole superpower, oppose evil wherever it lurks, and be willing to use force to overthrow brutal regimes. It is an interventionist view that honors ideals over international borders, and action over international consensus building.

In the Cold War, these idealists favored an aggressive posture against the Soviet Union – preferring denunciation of the "evil empire" to détente. With China, they favor a tough line on human rights, and view the Chinese government as a competitor to be confronted. Through the 1990s, neoconservatives allied with idealistic liberals to support humanitarian interventions in the Balkans and elsewhere. After 9/11, they advocated the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as the spearhead of an effort to democratize the Middle East; some now favor action in Syria and Iran, and call for unapologetic confrontation with undemocratic U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Neo-conservatives stress the benefits of action and the costs of inaction. They have a faith in the universality of democracy, human rights and free markets, and believe that U.S. action on behalf of these ideals is inherently benevolent. This translates into an acceptance of high costs – in blood and treasure – to pay any price and bear any burden on behalf of our ideals. If we are on the right side of history, the thinking goes, those costs will be vindicated as Russians, Chinese, Arabs, and others embrace our ideals.

Realists favor a powerful but humble America, taking a limited view of what we can achieve: the world is messy, and foreign policy should be guided by a focus on the national interest, with targeted action on behalf of national and economic security. Realists tend to prize stability and fear chaos, and often view moral concerns – such as the internal behavior of a brutal regime – as beyond America's reach. They are suspicious of foreign entanglements and values-based interventions, preferring to sort out problems through diplomacy and an international system in which we share burdens with allies.

The realist view often clashes with idealistic approaches. Realists thought we needed to deal with Soviet leaders, particularly on arms control. Realists see human rights in China as secondary to our substantial economic interests, and feel we should be partners with this rising power. Realists were more likely to oppose interventions in the Balkans, arguing that few compelling U.S. interests were at stake. And realists were among the Iraq war's opponents, pointing to the success of sanctions in containing Iraq, and consequences of regime change: once Saddam Hussein was ousted, they asked, what would come next?

Realists often stress the costs and consequences of action, instead of ideology or good intentions, and pointed to the massive costs of invading, occupying and rebuilding Iraq. Realists counter calls for intervention by pointing out that the world is full of injustice and repression: it is not possible for the U.S. to go abroad seeking to right every wrong, or to spread democracy to all corners of the world. As flawed as the status quo may be, it is preferable to chaos loosed by intervention: whether in Iraq, or in neighboring Saudi Arabia, where dramatic change could lead to an Islamist state.

The debate has increasingly become a pitched battle, with each side claiming vindication when an international development seems to support their view. But asking Americans to side with one philosophy or the other is a false choice, as most Americans find themselves on one side or the other depending upon the situation. American foreign policy has always worked best when our ideals and interests converge. In the Cold War, we stood up for our ideals while standing against Soviet expansionism, and we stood up for our interests in arms control agreements and international institutions.

We cannot approach foreign policy challenges with a rigid ideological purity, nor pursue a realism stripped of values. Americans are both idealistic and pragmatic. Our foreign policy should identify where we can act on behalf of our values without compromising our interests, and where the costs of action are acceptable in pursuit of clearly defined outcomes.

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