President Richard Nixon vising Communist-led China in 1972.

Imagine for a moment that you’re president of the United States. One morning, you receive troubling news of government oppression in a foreign country that happens to be a close U.S. economic and security partner. 

How do you respond?

Two advisors present you with options. One of them recommends that you punish the foreign government, arguing that the United States should prioritize supporting those who are fighting for human rights and freedom around the world. The other encourages you not to intervene, arguing that it is more important to preserve your relationship with the foreign government, which encompasses billions of dollars in trade and a security partnership that has helped maintain regional stability for years.

This difficult decision reflects two schools of thought in foreign policy: idealism and realism.

Idealism contends that a country’s foreign policy should reflect its internal values. In other words, if a government attempts to reduce poverty, defend human rights, or promote religious freedom at home because it believes those positions to be just or moral, then it should strive to do the same abroad. To idealists, this would lead in the long run to a more peaceful world, as they believe democracies do not fight each other.

Realism, on the other hand, focuses less on another country’s domestic policy and more on its foreign policy. In practice, this means that realists prioritize their own core interests like security and prosperity in their relationships with foreign countries and focus less on what those governments do within their borders.

Neither approach is inherently right or wrong. Similarly, neither approach belongs exclusively to one political party. Some administrations trend more toward idealism and others more toward realism. All foreign policy combines elements of both realism and idealism; the real debate is over the degree to which a country emphasizes each approach.

Idealists believe in actively participating in global affairs to spread the values they hold dear and attempting to shape countries so they embrace those values. This approach can entail cooperating with others or going it alone to address what idealists see as the world’s problems. Notably, idealism is not the same as pacifism. Idealists can forcefully spread their beliefs around the world, pressuring or even invading other countries.

Realists, meanwhile, don’t necessarily deny the importance of human rights or democratic governance; they just believe that the way to achieve peace and prosperity is by influencing how other countries interact with the world instead of prioritizing their internal affairs. Rather than focusing on every humanitarian crisis, realists build power and influence to shape the world in their vision by forming strong alliances, developing military capabilities, or attempting to weaken rivals. For realists, spreading one’s values abroad often has unintended consequences that can end up destabilizing countries and regions.

Both approaches have their drawbacks.

Idealists only have so much power to influence other governments’ actions. Even if the United States wishes to see democracy flourish in China or Russia, it can do little to achieve that goal. Additionally, strictly prioritizing values can distract from other core interests. For instance, to compete with China and balance its power, the United States works with non-democracies in Asia such as Vietnam. The United States must also work with non-democracies to address various global issues including climate change, refugee crises, and pandemics. What’s more, too much idealism—even with the best intentions—can yield disastrous results. For example, the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, in part because it believed it could change the country into a democracy and that would catalyze other democratic change in the Middle East. The result, however, was a costly and deadly war that destabilized Iraq and much of the region and led to significant human suffering.

Meanwhile, idealists would contend that realists shirk a moral obligation to alleviate suffering around the world by narrowly focusing on economic and security interests. Strict realists, for instance, may not have implemented President George W. Bush’s global health program that saved millions of lives in Africa by pouring money and resources into HIV/AIDS treatment.

Which approach would you choose?

Let’s now take a look at a few real-world debates over whether to pursue idealism or realism in foreign policy. Follow along to understand both sides of the argument, and decide which approach you would favor as a policymaker.

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