An Assessment of Realism in American Foreign Policy

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).

Assessment Papers Brandon Patterson International Relations Theories United States

An Assessment of the American National Interest in Sino-American Competition

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Brandon Patterson is a graduate student at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego, whose area of focus is China.  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 the American National Interest in Sino-American Competition

Date Originally Written:  July 21, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  November 2, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes the United States, in order to maintain a sense of proportion in dealing with China, must find criteria over which in must resist Beijing.  Additionally, wherever the U.S. makes practical accommodations, in order to transcend Cold War-like conditions, and to create a basic American approach to relations with China that can be passed from one administration to the next with a high degree of continuity, it should do so.

Summary:  As tensions rise between the United States and China, Washington requires a concept of the national interest to serve as a guide in navigating this new dynamic. Wearing ideological blinders nearly tore the American psyche apart at key moments during the Cold War. As competition with China develops, America can prevent itself from falling into the Cold War era Manichaeism that shook domestic consensus on the nature of its task.

Text:  In light of deteriorating relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, emphasis on so-called great power competition enters the American lexicon[1]. Competition implies a victor; yet great power relations are a process with no terminal point. Complicating matters is the fact that the relationship between Washington and Beijing has acquired ideological contours, which serve as a blight on the minds of American policymakers who tend to lose a sense of proportion when facing ideological opponents[2]. Under these conditions, competition becomes an end in itself as foreign policy becomes a struggle between good and evil rather than the threading together of various issues into a relationship neither entirely friendly nor wholly adversarial. A clear set of objectives on the American side of this competition, and how they are enmeshed in a grand strategy aimed at a concept of world order is necessary. In other words, before Washington acts, American policy makers ask themselves:

  • What is this supposed competition about and how should one define success?
  • What threat does China pose to international order?
  • What changes must the United States resist by forceful means?

Though unexceptional, these questions are uniquely crucial for a country lacking a geopolitical tradition. The United States can look beyond the aspects of China’s domestic structure which the U.S. rejects in order to retain a clear conception of how the United States may accommodate China without turning the world over to it. This is the space America is obliged to navigate. The national interest, still so vaguely defined in American strategic thought, will fail unless clearly articulated in order to provide criteria by which America’s relationship with China can be assessed and altered. The emphasis on “competition below the threshold of armed conflict” requires examination. To abjure from the use of force — or to define precisely where one is unwilling to go to war — is to define a limit to the national interest.

The United States is the ultimate guarantor of the global balance of power. In order for there to be stability in the world, equilibrium must prevail. This equilibrium is America’s most vital interest, its primary responsibility to international order, and is thus the limiting condition of its foreign policy. The United States cannot permit any power, or any grouping of powers, to attain hegemony over Eurasia, or any of its constituent sub-regions[3]. The People’s Republic of China, whatever its intentions, by the nature of its power, poses the greatest threat to global equilibrium. Tensions are therefore inherent.

It is equally true, however, that the United States and China are likely to be the twin pillars of world order, and that the peace and progress of mankind will likely depend on their conceiving order as a shared enterprise rather than a Cold War in which one perception emerges dominant. Of course, Beijing retains a vote, and if a Cold War becomes unavoidable, Washington requires a clear conception of its necessities to prevent the wild oscillations between overcommitment and over-withdrawal to which it is prone.

American foreign policy can reflect this Janus-like dynamic. This is when the national interest becomes imperative. The United States and China can convey to one another what interests they consider vital, the violation of which will result in conflict. For America, such a threat is more difficult to determine now than during even the Cold War. The Belt and Road initiative is the most awe inspiring example. This initiative represents a Chinese attempt to restructure Eurasia such that China reemerges as the Middle Kingdom[4]. America for its part cannot permit any single country to achieve hegemony over Eurasia; yet Belt and Road is not a military enterprise, and so the threat it poses remains ambiguous, and the best means of countering it is far from self-evident. It thus becomes imperative that American administrations establish what they consider to be a threat to equilibrium and find means of conveying this to the Chinese.

Keeping this competition below the threshold of armed conflict rests upon the ability of Washington to drive home to Beijing precisely what is likely to lead to war while such threats remain ambiguous, and thus manageable. This also implies an early response to Chinese probing actions — such as in the South China Sea — lest they acquire a false sense of security, prompting more reckless actions down the road.

Calculations of power become more complex for the United States than for China however, as America is steeped in a tradition of idealism for which no corresponding impulse can be found in China. The United States is an historic champion of human rights, spending blood and treasure in its defense on multiple occasions since the end of the Second World War. In order to be true to itself, the United States stands for its basic values — it too is a duty to the world. This finds expression in America’s support for the cause of Hong Kong’s protests[5], for the victims of China’s excesses in Xinjiang[6], and for political prisoners[7].

The question is not whether America should stand for these values, but rather the extent to which it does so, and at what cost. The United States cannot directly influence the internal evolution of an historic culture like China’s, and that attempting to do so will manufacturer tensions over issues with no resolution, which in turn renders practical issues within the realm of foreign policy less soluble, combining the worst of every course of action.

A wise course for American policy makers then, is to use the national interest as a compass in navigating what will be a journey without a clear historical precedent. Equilibrium is the obvious limiting condition and starting point for such an effort. Moral purpose guides pragmatic actions just as pragmatism makes idealism sustainable. Such an approach is not an abrogation of American values, rather it is the best means of vindicating them over a prolonged period. For, in Sino-American relations, there will be no ultimate victory nor final reconciliation.


[1] Jones, B. (February 2020). China and the Return of Great Power Strategic Competition. Retrieved July 1, 2020, from

[2] Debate Over Detente. (1973, November 17). Retrieved July 1, 2020, from

[3] Spykman, N. J. (2007). America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (1st ed., pp. 194-199). Routledge.

[4] Kaplan, R.D. (March 6, 2018). The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century. (pp.). New York: Random House.

[5] Edmundson, C. (2020, July 2). Senate Sends Trump a Bill to Punish Chinese Officials Over Hong Kong. Retrieved July 3, from

[6] Pranshu, V. & Wong, E. (2020, July 9). U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Chinese Officials Over Mass Detention of Muslims. Retrieved July 10, from

[7] Puddington, A. (2018, July 26). China: The Global Leader in Political Prisoners. Retrieved July 10, from

2020 - Contest: PRC Below Threshold Writing Contest Assessment Papers Brandon Patterson China (People's Republic of China) Competition Policy and Strategy United States