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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Counselor of the Department > Releases > Remarks

Practical Idealism: Present Policy in Historical Perspective

Philip Zelikow, Counselor of the Department
Stanford University Institute for International Studies
Stanford, California
May 6, 2005

The foreign policies of the present Bush administration are ambitious. They are also motivated in good part by ideals that transcend narrow conceptions of material self-interest. Such ambition, with such idealism, has produced extraordinary policies and extraordinary debate.

When confronted with a novel phenomenon, people often try to situate it against some past experience. This debate has summoned many analogies to the past. Bush’s policies, for instance, are commonly described as "Wilsonian." Or they are seen as imperial. Usually these analogies are employed to make a point about naive idealism or imperial hubris, and history gets pretty badly mangled. So, as a sometime historian and present public official, I will talk about the past, pointing out a few highlights along the way, en route to discussing some of the government’s current policies.

The first great spasm of American action well beyond North America came a little more than a hundred years ago, as the country became conscious of its scale, wealth, and potential power. The United States came late to the imperial table at which the other great powers were already dining, and it left early. In this country, "imperialism" was a kind of fever that rose and receded, especially during the 1890s. It was brought on by a combination of factors. Some talked about supposed advantages in the projection of military power. Some talked about access to markets. Others felt America was simply entitled to assert itself as others had, seeking its share of national power and glory. But also, in America, religious idealism was a major force. For a time all these streams converged. But it passed. Then and now, most Americans do not want to rule foreign peoples. The imperialist fever broke quickly. Even by the time of the election of 1900, both parties were renouncing any desire to extend America’s domain.

Theodore Roosevelt had been one of the more avid imperialists. But his ascent to the presidency, the insurrection in the Philippines, and the British experience in the Boer War all helped cool his ardor. By temperament, Roosevelt was a fighter all his life. He exulted in martial virtues. But, in practice, he applied ideals to action with careful deliberation. He practiced a strong idealism about the purposes of American power, which Roosevelt often summarized with terms like "justice" and "righteousness."

Among those who thought about the outside world a hundred years ago, a great contest of ideas had emerged, one that continues today.

Now, we are fond of dualities, and teaching and writing about international relations has drilled a duality into practically everyone’s heads – realism versus idealism. George Kennan was especially responsible for this with writings that fit so well into his deeply conservative (that’s conservative with a small c) and even anti-democratic worldview. A deservedly eminent Stanford historian recently even cast the protagonists as ultra realism on the one hand, with Theodore Roosevelt as its exemplar, and democratic idealism on the other, represented by Woodrow Wilson. The Bush administration was thus seen as the latter day incarnation of the Wilsonian approach.

This is not right. In part it is not right because it separates purpose from practice, ideals from action.

Return again to the first decade of the 20th century. The contestants in this great emerging battle of ideas fell into four camps.

First there were the Social Darwinists. They saw the world as a ruthless struggle for power, mainly in military or territorial terms. Some added that, within their domains, the great power should claim exclusive access to raw materials and markets. This camp was strong in all of the older European empires, and in Japan’s new one. In the twentieth century, in the United States, this school of thought became, and remained, a distinctly minority view. The heirs of these Social Darwinists regard themselves as realists, because they believe they face up to the world as it is and see international politics as the adjustment of competing self-interest.

Second were those who, while recognizing the importance of power, thought that the civilized nations (people used terms like that back then) had a positive, moral duty to use their power to promote the just settlement of international disputes and prevent aggression. Members of this group also think of themselves as realists. They count moral altruism as a form of self-interest. They emphasize the practical value of virtue, the enlightened self-interest in freedom, accountablility, and lawful conduct. Their readiness to use power in a calculated way to support these ideals marks them out as practical idealists. Theodore Roosevelt was very much an idealist of this sort.

Roosevelt actively supported the movement to develop enforceable international law to regulate disputes. He proposed a "League of Peace" that he hoped could be led and enforced by the great powers. At the Hague conference of 1907 his administration endorsed compulsory arbitration for most international disputes. His secretary of state, Elihu Root, was the first president of the American Society of International Law. But Roosevelt did not see international law or arbitration as ends in themselves. Neither did he see peace as necessarily an end in itself. Accepting a Nobel Peace Prize that he had earned through mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese war and helping settle a crisis over Morocco, Roosevelt warned that "peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness; and it becomes a very evil thing if it serves merely as a mask for cowardice and sloth, or as an instrument to further the ends of anarchy."

A third group also gathered strength a hundred years ago. They were men and women who did see peace as an end justifying almost any means for its attainment. We can call them "pacific idealists." They saw the world already moving into a phase when states and nationalism would decline. Stanford’s president, David Starr Jordan, wrote in 1899 that: "The day of nations is passing. National hopes, national ambitions, national aggrandizement – all these become public nuisances." Peace was their supreme goal. It was to be achieved by conciliation and consensus among people everywhere, promoted by international organization. They too saw themselves as realists, exponents of a higher realism that subordinated national ambition to the freedom of humanity. These views were expounded by the leading academics of the day, like the president of Stanford and the president of Harvard, joined by great philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie. Jordan equated the progress of democratic ideas with the progress of peace, but he expected this to happen in the fullness of time, not because the United States took risks to help it happen.

Another prominent academic who shared some of these views was the president of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson, who soon became President of the United States. Wilson’s first secretary of state was the country’s leading pacifist, William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan actually held views more representative of a fourth camp, one that was especially strong in the United States. We might now call them "isolationists." Generally skeptical of entangling international ventures, these men and women saw themselves as the true, hard-headed realists. They thought that foreign threats, or opportunities, were usually exaggerated. The isolationists were found, politically, on both the left and the right, where they argued that these exaggerations diverted attention from necessary domestic reform or, alternatively, served interests or emotions that were "un-American"

As World War I began in Europe, many Americans endorsed the isolationist view, seeing any danger as very remote or abstract. And the war divided the practical idealists from the pacific idealists.

Theodore Roosevelt favored American intervention in the war. His main motives had less to do with the balance of power, per se, than with the nature of the German government and the character of its aggression. There was much Roosevelt admired about Germany. But by the end of his presidency he had concluded that Prussian militarism was dangerous and that the Kaiser was an unstable leader. He thought the German invasion of neutral Belgium was manifestly unjust; he was appalled by reports of German atrocities; and he thought this at least obliged Americans to sympathize openly with the Allies. "There is such a thing," Roosevelt wrote, "as international morality. I take this position as an American … who endeavors loyally to serve the interests of his own country, but who also endeavors to do what he can for justice and decency as regards mankind at large, and who therefore feels obliged to judge all other nations by their conduct on any given occasion."

Four months after writing those words, the 1915 German sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania tipped Roosevelt into publicly advocating American entry into the war.

Most Americans did not agree with him. Wilson did demand that the Germans not sink passenger liners, but he rejected the recommendation of his second secretary of state, Robert Lansing, to declare the war a battle between "autocracy and democracy."

After Wilson’s reelection in 1916, the Germans commenced unrestricted submarine attacks on American shipping, assuming that war would result. Wilson then slowly and reluctantly brought the country into war.

We cannot replay history. We cannot know whether an earlier American intervention in the war might have shortened its course or mitigated its catastrophic effects on world order, including the horrors that enveloped Russia. But once in the war, Wilson set high aims for it, as a war to save democracy.

The ensuing problems arose less from Wilson’s ideals than from the way he sought to attain them. When Wilson put forward his landmark Fourteen Points as war aims, including a peace based on self-determination, most Republican internationalists agreed. Where they differed was in Wilson’s call for a peace "just to victors and vanquished alike." The Republicans, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, proposed instead that the United States should seek Germany’s unconditional surrender. Wilson refused.

When the war ended, a great domestic battle began over the terms of peace and the building of a League of Nations, Wilson lost the support of the isolationists. But he could have won over the Republican internationalists. Though they despised Wilson, Lodge and his allies, using ideas developed by Elihu Root, sought a League that could work, one more akin to Roosevelt’s original League of Peace. Lodge told the Senate:

"If, however, there is to be a league of nations in order to enforce peace, one thing is clear. It must be either a mere assemblage of words, an exposition of vague ideals and encouraging hopes, or it must be a practical system. If such a league is to be practical and effective, it can not possibly be either unless it has authority to issue decrees and force to sustain them. It is at this point that the questions of great moment arise."

Wilson refused the Lodge reservations. The League, and Wilson’s crusade, went down to humiliating public defeat.

With acrimonious disappointment in practically every quarter, save perhaps among the isolationists, international idealism had suffered a heavy blow, though it was still pursued in a diluted form by the Republican internationalists who dominated foreign policy between 1921 and 1933. By the 1930s, the old acrimony had deepened and spread into a general belief that the entire cause of American intervention into the Great War had been a bloody mistake. There was a hunt for scapegoats. Laws were passed to insure such foreign adventures would not happen again. Isolationism reached its zenith. And meanwhile the world began facing the greatest dangers that modern civilization has ever faced.

Franklin Roosevelt liked Wilson’s reform agenda at home. He also shared Wilson’s faith in human freedom as a liberating and pacifying force. But in translating those ideals into practice, FDR was a militant and practical idealist.

In his first administration, FDR had neglected foreign policy and had made the world economic crisis even worse by precipitously withdrawing the United States from support of the international economic system. But as the years passed, Roosevelt was not neutral about who was right and who was wrong as he continued to observe the behavior of Germany, Japan, and Italy. As early as 1937 he spoke of a "quarantine" of the aggressor nations, but retreated as he saw the congressional lineup against him. When France fell in 1940, Roosevelt promptly asked for a vast military buildup. He told the country that America could not survive as a lone island in a sea of tyranny.

Even while preparing America for war, FDR had to maneuver against a public opinion where, even on the eve of Pearl Harbor, only 24% of the population was willing to intervene forcibly in the war.

Once in the war, FDR followed Lodge’s course rather than Wilson’s. FDR called for the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers, knowing full well that this would require the destruction of their governments and occupation of their countries.

In August 1941, in a secret meeting on an American cruiser off the shore of Newfoundland, FDR and Winston Churchill worked on a common statement of global aims that came to be called the Atlantic Charter. This historic declaration put freedom at the top of Allied war aims. In looking toward how to secure freedom, Churchill proposed that the statement say the powers would secure the peace "by effective international organization."

One of those present recalled what happened next. FDR "said he himself would not be in favor of the creation of a new Assembly of the League of Nations, at least until after a period of time had passed and during which an international police force composed of the United States and Great Britain had had an opportunity of functioning. Mr. Churchill said … [this position] would create a great deal of opposition from the extreme internationalists. The President replied that he realized that, but that he felt the time had come to be realistic and that in his judgment the main factor … was complete realism. Mr. Churchill then remarked that he … shared the President’s view."

What became the United Nations included a Security Council designed to enable the great powers to play the policing role that FDR had envisioned. FDR effectively made the Republican internationalist position of a generation earlier into Democratic party orthodoxy. The more pacific idealists became a minority within that party, and then – briefly – a third party movement headed by Henry Wallace in the election of 1948.

After World War II, however, the hope of great power collaboration in actively solving international problems quickly faded. The division of the world between democratic and totalitarian ideals remained after the war ended. But the Soviet Union, soon joined by revolutionary China, led a rival bloc of states and revolutionary movements. The idealistic objectives of the 1940s seemed increasingly remote.

The application of those ideals into action not only seemed remote, but even perilous. Now any actions had to be contemplated beneath the terrible shadow of nuclear weapons. In the thermonuclear age, war itself again seemed to be the greatest danger to humankind. Generations of statesmen conditioned themselves to seeking nothing better than a world half slave and half free.

By the late 1980s, the modus vivendi had become an end in itself. It was even seen as a positive good. The division of Germany was praised as a stable solution to the old "German question" in international politics. Some of the best experts on East Germany considered it the stablest country in the Eastern bloc, the one that they thought enjoyed the most support from its people. In 1988 leading American and European statesmen regarded the Cold War as over, with both sides having settled into seemingly permanent trenchlines along the divide of two different social systems.

In this environment, international cooperation often required the consent of both blocs. Common work was easier if one side wasn’t too judgmental about the way others governed their people. International institutions maintained a detached neutrality to preserve a friendly consensus, choosing courtesy over candor.

In other words, the decades of Cold War, the disappointments of conflicts like that in Vietnam, greatly strengthened the persuasive force in the world of ideas of Social Darwinists, who disavowed dangerous moral goals, while also rebuilding the legitimacy and appeal of pacific idealists. Both schools of thought could thrive in a world that sought peace through the mutual assurance of destruction.

And then, in 1989 and 1990, many of the Cold War’s assumptions about stability, peace, and the role of ideals were overthrown, along with so much else. Some American and European leaders rediscovered the power of practical idealism. In 1991 the Soviet Union passed into history.

A new era of world politics was coming into being. The attacks on September 11, 2001 did not create the new era, but they were a catalytic moment in America’s, and the world’s, recognition that it had arrived.

  • The greatest dangers are now as much transnational as they are international. They are defined more by the fault-lines within societies than by the territorial borders between them. The decisive clashes may not be between civilizations, but within them.
  • In the 20th century the geography of national security focused on industrial heartlands. In the 21st century we instead study virtual maps of centers of knowledge and innovation, or – instead of defending industrial centers, we look to the world’s ill-governed peripheries. In these places, our capacity to influence events is understandably strained.
  • The Westphalian order that placed state sovereignty above all has significantly eroded. But we should not return to the dualism of a hundred years ago, when the choice was portrayed placing states and wicked nationalism on one side, and globalization and pacific internationalism on the other. What is emerging instead, and what this government favors, is a more interesting hybrid between those extremes. States remain the essential building blocks in common edifices of public order and opportunity. The way states are governed may now be wide open to peer review. And the world is no longer so neutral in judging between freedom and tyranny. Nations will still make the fundamental choices, and they will be increasingly accountable for them.
  • The structure of world politics, once focused on blocs of rival powers, has also changed. The United States, for example, can now form active agendas of cooperation with every major center of global power, founded on uneven yet growing degrees of agreement about the underlying principles that should govern the organization of society.

The purposes of this government are idealistic. But they are wedded to an understanding of how those ideals will have to be translated into action, creating – as President Bush has put it – a "balance of power that favors freedom."

Those ideals of freedom and human dignity are profoundly suited to the modern age. In a world of constant change, greater personal and economic freedom is the perpetual safety valve, the source of adaptation. Personal and economic freedom can thus provide more structural resilience so different societies can find the forms of organization that will work for them.

In the President’s second inaugural address, he emphasized that the United States deliberately accepts the calculated risk that goes with self-determination. Countries of the world should find freedom in forms they will choose: their voice, their freedom, their way.

In thinking about means, Theodore Roosevelt’s standard was that, "in striving for a lofty ideal we must use practical methods; and if we cannot attain all at one leap, we must advance towards it step by step, reasonably content so long as we do actually make some progress in the right direction."

In choosing to invade Afghanistan, the United States and its allies concluded that only such a bold step would actually deal with the enemy that had long used that country as a base for killing Americans.

In choosing to invade Iraq, the United States and its allies believed there was no other way to deal, at last, with one of the worst tyrannies in the world. Yes, the coalition believed the tyrant was building up an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. And, yes, those weapons were not found. But what the investigators found was not so reassuring. They concluded that the tyrant had preserved his program to build those weapons once the sanctions regime had collapsed. And they found that Iraq had created a clandestine economy that was, indeed, gradually breaking up the sanctions regime. And they found that the tyrant would not reveal the true state of his weapons programs, not even at the point of invasion, because it was more important to him that others believe he could wield terrifying power.

And they did believe it. For a number of years, American leaders in both parties sensed that the situation of Saddam’s Iraq was dangerously unstable. Some reckoning had to come, sooner or later. The question was when. And it was whether -- whether, if that time came, the United States would find the will to take on such a difficult task. That question has been answered.

In practice the United States does not, and cannot, dictate to every society. There is no American empire. Real imperial power is sovereign. Sovereigns rule. They monopolize the use of force; they control the administration of justice and define what justice means; they can control what is bought and sold to the limits of the ruler’s capacities.

So when people refer to an American empire, they use the word "empire" as a metaphor. They may reach for such a metaphor because they find it hard to describe the nature of American primacy. But the metaphor is misleading.

A recent essay describes the way American soldiers exert influence in the country of Niger, by sending trainers for its soldiers. To invoke the imperial metaphor, the author called them "America’s African Rifles." But, unlike the old King’s African Rifles to which he alludes, the United States does not direct the army of Niger. It does make Niger stronger to do what Niger chooses to do. America does seek to build up the capability of others. The article describes the kind of social bonding that occurs from people helping each other. And what power is this? Take it to its essence. It is the power of friendship.

The United States crafts different solutions for different problems. Pakistan’s president is not elected. During the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan’s history with terrorist movements and weapons of mass destruction was problematic, to say the least. After 9/11, the United States, treating Pakistan as a friend, asked – in effect – very directly: What do you wish your country to become? Coming to terms with a difficult legacy, President Musharraf has answered that question, constructively, in words and deeds, and at the risk of his life. Therefore, as Pakistan prepares for the elections it has committed to hold in 2007, the United States thinks about what Pakistan can become. It designs practical policies to raise the odds for a Pakistan that feels secure, is at peace with its neighbors, is on a promising economic path, and is a nation where the high tide of anti-Americanism and sympathy for extremism has visibly begun to recede.

Friendship is not just a military undertaking. With Pakistan, the United States has developed a $3 billion package of assistance, concerned with the future of public education, economic development, and fostering the rule of law.

And such efforts must go far beyond Pakistan. The United States has doubled the amount of its overseas development assistance in the Bush administration. Measured in constant dollars, the Bush administration has raised government aid levels to the highest point since the administration of Lyndon Johnson. And this figure does not include the reconstruction assistance that is being given to Iraq.

American power is certainly not sufficient to address every problem. But America can also help others to solve problems. Look at recent events in Sudan. To address the Darfur crisis, UN authority was needed to lay down a foundation for further action. So the United States recently helped lead the passage of three resolutions that laid such a foundation. Peacekeeping forces are needed. So the United States has supported the African Union’s acceptance of the task. But the African Union needs help with planning and logistics for such a large-scale effort. So the United States encouraged the involvement of NATO to provide that support, and the AU has now formally requested that assistance. The European Union is now also indicating its willingness to help. So this is an enterprise that may involve at least four different international organizations, working together in novel ways. Americans will not play the primary role. Africans, not Americans, will keep the peace. But the United States is helping to make it happen.

Admittedly, the present worldwide challenges are formidable. The United States government does not yet have all of the capability it needs if it is to build up the capabilities of others. But this administration has shown it is prepared to take on tough challenges, whether they are overseas or they are in transforming the institutions of government at home.

Transformational diplomacy does not just mean more communiqués being drafted by more diplomats gathered around green tables. Transformational diplomacy also means more hands-on engagement of diplomats in the field, in some of the world’s most difficult places, offering a helping hand.

They are the hands of people like Fern Holland, who went to Iraq as an employee of the United States Agency for International Development and organized human rights groups, including six centers for women in south Baghdad. She was murdered by gunmen near Hillah in March 2004. Two months earlier, in an email to a friend, she wrote that, "I love the work and if I die, know that I’m doing precisely what I want to be doing."

And transformational diplomacy was the work of Jim Mollen, a diplomat serving as the U.S. adviser to Iraq’s new Ministry of Higher Education and its 45,000 employees. Mollen was murdered by gunmen in Baghdad last November, as he was driving around to say goodbye to his Iraqi colleagues.

Headlines every day remind us how much more difficult it is to build than it is to destroy. But we can draw some comfort from the words of another wartime President, words that Franklin Roosevelt penned in the midst of World War II:

"I am everlastingly angry only at those who assert vociferously that the four freedoms and the Atlantic Charter are nonsense because they are unattainable. If those people had lived a century and a half ago they would have sneered and said that the Declaration of Independence was utter piffle. If they had lived nearly a thousand years ago they would have laughed uproariously at the ideals of Magna Charta. And if they had lived several thousand years ago they would have derided Moses when he came from the Mountain with the Ten Commandments.

We concede that these great teachings are not perfectly lived up to today, but I would rather be a builder than a wrecker, hoping always that the structure of life is growing – not dying."

Released on May 9, 2005

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