The 'Realists,' the 'Idealists' and Clinton

May 02, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- The death of Richard Nixon has brought renewed argument over the oldest disagreement in the American foreign-policy debate, that of ''realism'' versus international idealism.

Mr. Nixon is celebrated as the realist who put American national interest first. His Democratic successors are idealists and moralists, emphasizing human rights during the Carter administration, and in today's Clinton administration espousing ''multilateralism,'' described as the delegation of responsibility for American policy to the United Nations or to the views held by a consensus of the ''international community.''

There is some truth in both judgments. Richard Nixon was certainly a believer in national interest as the basis for policy, and he was entirely expedient in what he did to advance what he considered the national interest.

However, how realistic this actually proved to be is a question few are asking. Was it in the long-term American national interest to end the Bretton Woods monetary system and float the dollar?

Was it realism to have continued the Vietnam war after having been elected to end it, thereby adding five years to it and more than doubling the eventual American casualty total -- not to speak of other victims? Was invading Cambodia realism, when it accomplished nothing decisive for the Vietnam campaigns and pushed Cambodia deeper into the civil struggle that was to end in Khmer Rouge genocide?

Realism by definition is accommodation to reality, the search for pragmatic solutions. Had Mr. Nixon ended the Vietnam war the year he took office, he could have avoided the humiliation of Americans scrambling onto helicopters from the Saigon embassy rooftop in 1975 and won a better outcome for America's South Vietnamese allies than the rout they eventually experienced. He lacked the vision to see this -- or the courage, as displayed by General DeGaulle in liquidating the Algerian war, France's equivalent of Vietnam.

Mr. Nixon was certainly a realist to end the absurd American non-recognition of Communist China. He was a realist in looking for detente and arms-control agreements with Russia. In other respects he was expedient in action but lacked vision. Nonetheless he was a student of international relations, more so than any other recent president, or secretary of state.

It is a habit in the United States to make amateurs secretary of state (or president), in the belief that no particular experience or intellectual qualifications are necessary to the job. A friend of Warren Christopher's said to me last week that Mr. Christopher's performance should not be criticized too harshly, since the end of the Cold War has brought novel problems.

But if Mr. Christopher had not thought about these new problems, and had no convictions about what should be done, why did he agree to become secretary of state? He should have remained a Hollywood lawyer, or taken another Cabinet post in which he knew what he was doing.

Mr. Christopher is no worse in this respect than many of his predecessors. But the problem with amateurs is that they ordinarily do not know either history or the fundamental policy debates, and therefore become the prisoners of slogans or of the ideas of the moment.

Have either Mr. Christopher or President Clinton seriously considered this question of realism versus idealism? Democrats are inclined to associate realism with policy amorality, and international idealism with virtue. They are inclined toward the Wilsonian tradition, which says that American foreign policy should aim to make a better and more moral world by way of economic and political pressures and international institutional reform.

This was Jimmy Carter's position, and it seems to be that of Bill Clinton. George Bush also belongs to this tradition, as does Ronald Reagan, both of whom conceptual ized world affairs in the abstract terms of a moral struggle by the United States against forces of evil.

However, as the political scholar Hans Morgenthau argued four decades ago, policy idealism risks producing immoral results when it jeopardizes the security or good order of national communities by pursuing unachievable international goals. The ''moral dignity'' of a policy of realism and national interest lies in its respect for and defense of the only communities capable of realizing and protecting truly moral society, the nation-states.

This is an important debate. The whole argument over Bosnia turns on the question of whether intervention there represents an ''idealistic'' attempt to solve insoluble problems or is a realistic defense of the moral claims of the national community. It is necessary that those who conduct policy understand the debate and justify their decisions in terms of it. This has not been the case in Mr. Clinton's Washington.

Mr. Nixon will have done Bill Clinton a posthumous service if he compels this administration to examine what it believes.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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