Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Realists and Idealists

As everyone knows, words mean different things in different contexts. In philosophy, if one is a "realist" she believes that some entity under consideration - e.g. the physical world, moral values, numbers - has objective existence independently of us. The entity exists whether we perceive it, or believe it, or not. There are those, however, who believe that the physical world, for example, is a construct of a mind, that it has no objective reality. These folks are called "idealists." The color, flavor, odor, texture, and coolness of an apple are all ideas in the mind, and since the apple is simply the sum of these ideas the apple, too, is an idea in the mind of the one who is experiencing it. In other words, for idealists the world is like pain in the sense that it's reality is subjective.

In politics, though, the words "realism" and "idealism" take on a somewhat different meaning. A friend and colleague sent me an interesting article from the UK Telegraph which explains the distinction between realists and idealists in a foreign policy context:
How do you distinguish a foreign policy "idealist" from a "realist," an optimist from a pessimist? Ask one question: Do you believe in the arrow of history? Or to put it another way, do you think history is cyclical or directional? Are we condemned to do the same damn thing over and over, generation after generation -- or is there hope for some enduring progress in the world order?
This is one of the defining distinctions between liberals and conservatives. Liberals tend to see mankind as potentially perfectable and progressing toward a quasi-utopian historical Omega point. Conservatives tend to see mankind as quasi-incorrigible and thus caught in a kind of Nietzschean eternal recurrence:
For realists, generally conservative, history is an endless cycle of clashing power politics. The same patterns repeat. Only the names and places change. The best we can do in our own time is to defend ourselves, managing instability and avoiding catastrophe. But expect nothing permanent, no essential alteration in the course of human affairs.

The idealists believe otherwise. They believe that the international system can eventually evolve out of its Hobbesian state of nature into something more humane and hopeful. What is usually overlooked is that this hopefulness for achieving a higher plane of global comity comes in two flavors -- one liberal, one conservative.
Not all idealists are liberals or progressives. Some are "neo-conservative." These believe that man's nature, though bent toward evil, can be moderated by the imposition of liberty and democracy. Here's how the Telegraph puts the distinction:
The liberal variety (as practiced, for example, by the Bill Clinton administration) believes that the creation of a dense web of treaties, agreements, transnational institutions and international organizations (like the U.N., NGOs, the World Trade Organization) can give substance to a cohesive community of nations that would, in time, ensure order and stability.

The conservative view (often called neoconservative and dominant in the George W. Bush years) is that the better way to ensure order and stability is not through international institutions, which are flimsy and generally powerless, but through the spread of democracy. Because, in the end, democracies are inherently more inclined to live in peace.

Liberal internationalists count on globalization, neoconservatives on democratization to get us to the sunny uplands of international harmony. But what unites them is the belief that such uplands exist and are achievable. Both believe in the perfectibility, if not of man, then of the international system. Both believe in the arrow of history.
So what's the realist view?
For realists, this is a comforting delusion that gives high purpose to international exertions where none exists. Sovereign nations remain in incessant pursuit of power and self-interest. The pursuit can be carried out more or less wisely. But nothing fundamentally changes.
The Telegraph article goes on to give examples - most pertinently, President Obama:
Barack Obama is a classic case study in foreign policy idealism. Indeed, one of his favorite quotations is about the arrow of history: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." He has spent nearly eight years trying to advance that arc of justice. Hence his initial "apology tour," that burst of confessional soul-searching abroad about America and its sins, from slavery to the loss of our moral compass after 9/11. Friday's trip to Hiroshima completes the arc.

Unfortunately, with "justice" did not come peace. The policies that followed -- appeasing Vladimir Putin, the Iranian mullahs, the butchers of Tiananmen Square and lately the Castros -- have advanced neither justice nor peace. On the contrary. The consequent withdrawal of American power, that agent of injustice or at least arrogant overreach, has yielded nothing but geopolitical chaos and immense human suffering. (See Syria.)
The article concludes by noting that Mr. Obama seems to have been at least somewhat disabused of his idealism by his encounters with the intransigent and incorrigible leaders in Syria and China who don't seem to share his progressive view of things.

Be that all as it may, the liberal version of idealism seems so divorced from our historical experience and so contrary to human nature as to be literally incredible. The neo-conservative version of idealism that holds that people yearn to be free and would enthusiastically embrace democracy if only given the opportunity seems in the aftermath of the Iraq war to be almost equally at odds with the way the world is.

By way of personal confession I acknowledge that prior to the Iraq war I agreed with the neo-con view but have since accepted the bitter fact that democracy and freedom aren't as highly prized by Muslim Middle-Easterners as they are by Christian and secular Westerners. Some soils just don't seem suitable for the germination of democratic institutions based on individual freedom.

Thus, despite the promptings of our heart to embrace the optimism and hope of the idealist, reason urges us to shun the naivete that idealism requires and look at human beings as the realist sees them - flawed, fallen, often irrational and even more often prone to disappoint our most romantic, idealistic hopes.