Brandon Patterson is a graduate student of International Affairs at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  An Assessment of Realism in American Foreign Policy

Date Originally Written:  September 21, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  December 7, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that neither realism nor its traditional opponent, Wilsonianism, can stand on their own, and must be linked for a coherent concept of the national interest, fusing America’s strategic necessities, its power, and its values.

Summary:  The existence of realism as a school of thought is a product of America’s unique sense of security. Realism, emphasizing what in other countries is taken for granted, cannot stand as an independent school of thought; yet, as a component in a comprehensive policy taking into account both power and values, it is vital. Realism absent values tempts constant tests of strength; idealism unmoored from strategy is sterile. The two are likely best when blended.

Text:  The intellectual tradition in American foreign policy is without parallel. Whereas most of the world found itself navigating the international system with narrow margins of survival, the United States, driven by a belief in the universal applicability of its values, conceived the objective of American engagement abroad not as traditional foreign policy, but the vindication of the nation’s founding values to the betterment of mankind. Such high-minded ideals have time and again collided with the contradictions of the international system, creating a friction that tugged at the American psyche throughout the twentieth century and into the present.

Symptomatic of this intellectual blight is the existence of “realism” — a focus on power and the national interest — as an independent school of thought, fabricating a purely theological dialectic in which realism and idealism are presented as opposing perceptions rather than components of a shared existence, just as human agency and material factors merge to conceive history itself. In systems which have developed geopolitical traditions, realism requires no definition. Since Cardinal de Richelieu first filtered foreign policy through the prism of Raison D’état, the requirements of survival were axiomatic, spontaneous even[1]. By contrast, the notion of the national interest in American thought is defined by its self-consciousness. Only in the United States can there be a debate about what precisely the national interest is and only in a system with such an idealistic tradition can “realism” be employed as a label.

Realism poses a number of impediments to a thoughtful and creative foreign policy. For instance, realism as a school of thought is inherently vacuous. Accepting the overriding necessities of geopolitics does not constitute a philosophy any more than accepting the existence of the inherent laws of the natural world constitutes a science. What is more important in both cases is the implications of these realities as they affect human free will. In other words, realism treats factors which can be assumed as given as though it is a worldview subject to debate, which in fact blunts its objective rather than serving it. Hans Morgenthau was not wrong when he noted that the world is “the result of forces inherent in human nature[2].” In fact, Morgenthau was profoundly correct. But he and his ideological adherents capture only part of the reality of international affairs. Such facts are self-evident; their interpretation by statesmen are not.

Despite its hard edges, or perhaps because of them, realism often becomes a subterfuge for avoiding difficult action. For example, the men tasked with upholding the rickety Post-World War I Versailles Order — United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain chief among them — fancied themselves as “realists” in their justification for presiding over the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, when in fact, a more sound geopolitical assessment would have urged rapid action against Germany as it reoccupied the Rhineland, when the threat remained ambiguous. Though Morgenthau and Walt Lippmann, the great thinkers of the American realist tradition, were correct in their critiques of American involvement in Vietnam[3], their advocacy for unilateral withdrawal rebelled against strategic analysis[4].

Realism, moreover, when unmoored from basic values, has a tendency to turn on itself[5]. Witness German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, perhaps the greatest statesmen of his day. Whatever the moderation of his policy or the dexterity of his maneuvers, because he had no moral foundation for his policies — in this case, what purpose a unified Germany would serve in Europe — every move he made became an act of sheer will[6]. No statesman, not even the master, could have sustained such an effort indefinitely. Power, however vital, cannot be conceived as its own justification. A philosophical basis for the outcomes one seeks is imperative.

Inevitably, realism produces a counterpoise in idealism, in this case drawn from the Wilsonian tradition of American foreign policy. Wilsonianism, with its overriding emphasis on self-determination, democracy, and international law, is equally dissolving when unleavened by geopolitics. Each camp emphasizes its own perception at the expense of the other. This perception emphasis is only possible in the academy, as upon entering government, the “idealists” are awakened to geopolitical realities; while “realists” are likely to find that perfect flexibility in policy is an illusion; the range of choice is limited not only by physical but cultural factors — the basic values of the American people.

For instance, during the Suez Crisis, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower refused to face down the strategic challenge posed by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser on the basis of opposition to colonialism[7]; while that same year, Eisenhower was forced to succumb to geopolitical realities as the pro-democracy upheaval in Hungary was brutally suppressed[8]. The supposed distinction between the ideal and the real is not as stark as the adherents of each pretend. Indeed, Chamberlain tolerated German excesses on the basis of self-determination; the absence of such a pretense is what finally brought London to oppose Nazi expansion, never mind the dictates of the balance of power[9]. Morgenthau’s opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam, moreover, placed him in league with the highly ideological peace movement. Thus, even those most dedicated to one school find themselves grappling with the realities of the other.

The solution to this quandary then, is to realize that the choice between the ideal and the real is a chimera. The two are best when blended. The most coherent policy is one that manages the friction between what is physically achievable and what the society will view as legitimate in accordance with its fundamental values. Ideals are absolute; strategy is subject to condition. The factors relevant to making a decision require careful reflection; ideals require no reinterpretation calibrated to circumstance — indeed, they become inconsistent with it. Friction is therefore inherent. Policy makers, and academics can strike this balance, and accept that the relative emphasis of each strain will depend on the specific situation one confronts. The tragedy of American foreign policy is the struggle between a desire for moral perfection and the inherent imperfection which defines the world we inhabit. Tragedy, of course, is in the very nature of statesmanship.


[1] Hill, H.B. (Translator) (1954). The political Testament of Cardinal de The Significant Chapters and Supporting Selections (1st ed). University of Wisconsin Press.

[2] Morgenthau, H (1948, 2006). Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Revised by Kenneth W. Thompson and W. David Clinton (p. 3). New York: McGraw Hill.

[3] Logevall, F. (1995). First Among Critics: Walter Lippmann and the Vietnam War. The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, 4(4), 351-375. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from

[4] Quoted in Podhoretz, N. (1982) Why We Were in Vietnam (p. 100). New York: Simon and Schuster., Bew, J. (2015) Realpolitik: A History (pp.261-62 ). Oxford University Press

[5] Bew, Ibid (pp.259-60 ).

[6] Kennan, G.F. (1979). The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order: Franco-Russian Relations 1875-1890. Princeton University Press

[7] Kissinger, H. (1994). Diplomacy (pp. 540-542). New York: Simon and Schuster.

[8] Ibid (566-67).

[9] Ibid (p. 317).