Idealpolitik vs. Realpolitik: Idealism or ‘realism with a moral face’?


How to temper idealism with the demands of responsible statecraft—without abandoning our commitment to democracy and human rights? is the question posed by Ivan Krastev, the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress, and Leonard Benardo, vice president of Open Society Foundations.

Max Weber contrasted the “ethic of conviction” with an “ethic of responsibility”—the idea that politicians should be judged not on the motives that pushed them to undertake certain actions but on the consequences of their actions. This concept holds the key to the major—if inadvertent—lesson of Samantha Power’s book, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir: Idealism is effective only when it understands how power operates—particularly when it recognizes the limits of American power, they write for The American Interest.

The “realism with a moral face” that informs William J. Burns’s book, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal, is a necessary corrective to a foreign policy predicated on conviction and moral rectitude, they suggest:

Unlike Power, Burns* received his political education in the last years of the Cold War, and a quiet determination to apprehend the constraints of others is the focus of his diplomacy. Burns admires George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker, for his capacity to resist triumphalism at the Cold War’s end, and to recognize that less powerful nations always have legitimate interests. In Burns’s world, diplomacy seldom resolves problems, but it could be instrumental in managing them. ….. For Burns, getting the other side right is no less important than the noble drive to be on the right side of history. His realism is the antipode of cynicism or inaction.

“How to marry Samantha Power’s understanding that to govern is to capture the imagination of the public with Burns’s view that the task of diplomacy is not simply winning but facilitating an order accepted by others?” Krastev and Benardo ask. “This, in our estimation, is the debate that must happen for the future of American foreign policy,” RTWT

*A board member of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

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