There are different ways of looking at the state of the world. Accordingly when it comes to international affairs, leaders propose differing foreign policies to make and preserve peace for their nations.
The two most common approaches, idealism and realism, and their offspring, neoliberalism and neorealism, are illustrated by two former Harvard professors and leaders in U.S. government, Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara.
As secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, McNamara was in the forefront of America’s involvement in Vietnam. By 1966, however, he was beginning to question America’s role, and in his later years he has repudiated the support he gave to the war effort, believing that the disastrous conflict escalated largely as the result of misperception on both sides. In other words, in his opinion, America need not have intervened in the way that she did. If he could turn back the clock, he would seek peace on different terms. He would not make the costly commitment to bloodshed that occurred on all sides. He would find the opening to promote a moral commitment to end the war quickly.
Today McNamara, having been president of the World Bank in the interim, is devoted to the cause of reducing the risk of conflict, killing and catastrophe in the 21st century. His new book, coauthored with international relations professor James Blight, is titled Wilson’s Ghost in reference to the prescriptions for peace of America’s First World War president. Woodrow Wilson was an idealist who believed that moral issues should dominate in policy making. Essentially it was the president’s efforts at peacemaking that provided the way out for Germany in a peace without victory. Wilson’s subsequent tireless work aimed at establishing the League of Nations inspires McNamara and Blight; in it they see the only way ahead to a peaceful future for a planet still living in the nuclear shadow.
Like Blight, Kissinger also has a background in political science. In the 1960s he was a professor of government at Harvard. Best known for his years as Richard Nixon’s assistant for National Security Affairs and subsequently as secretary of state, he was inevitably also embroiled in the Vietnam War. At first a hard-liner in the prosecution of the war, he went on to win the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize along with North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho (who refused the award) in recognition of the cease-fire agreement they reached. Nevertheless, Kissinger is a realist in the tradition of another U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt.
Pragmatics and Principles
In their efforts to ensure security, realists pursue policy options based on the ebb and flow of power within the international system of nations. In his new book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Kissinger says it’s vitally important that, as the only superpower, America decide on its interests and also on where it should and should not intervene. This is an approach driven by pragmatics first and foremost.
For Kissinger, it's not so much a question of universal moral principles; it is primarily a question of taking care of America's national interests in a world compromised by human nature's inherent pursuit of power.
For Kissinger, it’s not so much a question of universal moral principles; it is primarily a question of taking care of America’s national interests in a world compromised by human nature’s inherent pursuit of power.
Idealism, on the other hand, believes that mutual interest creates a natural harmony between nations. Its proponents support the development of international structures and organizations to limit any nation-state’s irresponsible quest for power. In neoliberal fashion, the idealist McNamara adds that the world is more interdependent than the old European world of independent nation-states. Modern idealists point to the Internet, the mass media, the shared environment, and globalized trade and investment as evidence of a different and more integrated world—a world anxious to promote peace by nonmilitary means.
The power politician acknowledges these contemporary realities but does not believe they are the fundamental keys to peace. For the idealist, on the other hand, it’s not just about national interest and “power-balancing” between nations. McNamara points to the ability of nations to cooperate at times for their mutual benefit. This, he believes, proves that peace can be achieved without war. Only as a last resort does the idealist use force, and even then, in most cases, it is by multilateral agreement in the international sphere.
Causes for Concern
McNamara’s fears of the future arise from the catastrophic loss of life that occurred in the century just past. Wilson’s Ghost calls up the specter of the moralist president in the role of prophet. Following the war in 1919, Wilson said: “Liberalism must be more liberal than ever before, it must even be radical, if civilization is to escape the typhoon. . . . I do not hesitate to say that the war we have just been through, though it was shot through with terror of every kind, is not to be compared with the war we would have to face the next time.”
Wilson’s words were eerily prescient. The succeeding 1939–45 world conflict and its atomic conclusion massively eclipsed the First World War, unfathomable as it was in its carnage. The international wars that followed only served to demonstrate the apparently uncontrollable human capacity for technological development in delivering death.
The threat of nuclear holocaust looms large in McNamara’s 21st-century scenario. Accordingly he believes that two imperatives, moral and multilateral, must guide U.S. foreign and defense policy in this century. The moral imperative requires that the U.S. government establish as a major goal of foreign policy “the avoidance in this century of the carnage—160 million dead—caused by conflict in the 20th century.” The corresponding multilateral imperative requires that the United States recognize that it “must provide leadership to achieve the objective of reduced carnage but, in doing so, it will not apply its economic, political, or military power unilaterally, other than in the unlikely circumstances of a defense of the continental United States, Hawaii, and Alaska.” Further, he believes that foreign policies across the globe should adopt the same moral imperative, as is currently the case in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In the classic idealist-realist debate, neither side normally accords the other much space. In his new analysis, however, Kissinger notes that “in relations between the United States and Western Europe and within the Western Hemisphere, America’s historic ideals have considerable applicability. Here the idealist version of peace based on democracy and economic progress demonstrates its relevance.” He also notes that the current complexity of the international system “renders much of the traditional American debate about the nature of international politics somewhat irrelevant. Whether it is values or power, ideology or raison d’état that are the key determinants of foreign policy, in fact depends on the historical stage in which the international system finds itself.”
Kissinger’s concessions to the idealist side of the argument in one international arena are obviously insufficient to draw the sides together in an overall prescription for peace. And he is quite right to be suspicious of idealistic notions of peace through international morality. The history of the 20th century shows plainly that the League of Nations failed spectacularly in its creator’s desire that the 1914–18 conflict be “the war to end all war.” And while the League’s successor, the United Nations, has had more success in forging international cooperation, it, too, has failed to prevent the half century of wars that have erupted since its inception.
The Central Issue
At the root of the idealist-realist debate is a truth that never goes away and that neither side ignores—they just approach it from different perspectives: Human nature is the fly in the ointment. Realists hold an essentially pessimistic view of human nature. Idealists share a belief in its essential goodness.
Henry Kissinger would say that’s exactly why idealistic notions of peace through morality will fail. You just can’t expect humans, and therefore the nations they represent, to be anything but self-interested.
The idealist Robert McNamara would say that without imposing a moral curb on human nature we will see more people killed in the 21st century than in the overwhelmingly violent 20th, when multiple millions died in war, most of them civilians. So we must pursue prescriptions for peace based on the morality of avoiding such catastrophic wars.
If human nature is the problem, how to deal with it is the issue. The history of humanity’s attempts to do so does not give much cause for hope. We must admit that no method of taming human nature has yet been found. According to one source, in the past 6,000 years humanity has experienced only 300 years of global peace. Albert Einstein famously said that it is easier to denature plutonium than to change human nature.
Could it be that we are seeking an answer that cannot come from the human level? Can human nature be curbed from our own resources? What exactly is human nature, and what is its origin?
The Truth About Us
From the New Testament comes a relevant question: “Do you know where your fights and arguments come from?” The answer in the apostle James’s words: “They come from the selfish desires that war within you. You want things, but you do not have them. So you are ready to kill and are jealous of other people, but you still cannot get what you want. So you argue and fight” (James 4:1–2, New Century Version).
Here human nature is shown to be essentially selfish. Though it is sometimes able to do good for unrelated others, it is identified with the protection, preservation and extension of the self and its immediate world. Whatever is needed to accomplish these ends motivates humans from infancy on. We might say that at birth human beings are in a neutral condition, demonstrating neither good nor evil desires. While the newborn feebly seeks out food to survive, and has some drive to do so, it is ill-equipped to challenge anyone for that food or to share it. The aggressive and possessive impulse comes with time. A growing selfishness develops as we mature. Through socialization we may learn to control this selfishness, but it almost always reappears, given certain circumstances.
The Western world has had the benefit of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which teaches what human nature is and how it can be changed. Jesus of Nazareth had this to say about our basic state of mind: “From within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mark 7:21–23).
The Hebrew prophets of old had also identified the nature of man. There is undeniable truth in Jeremiah’s statement that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Isaiah lays bare the effects of human nature taking its course when he says: “Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths. The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace” (Isaiah 59:7–8).
From the biblical perspective, the achievable ideal is that nations put down their weapons of war while at the same time learning new ways of thinking. This prescription for peace is found in another prophetic passage from the book of Isaiah—words that are carved into the base of the familiar statue outside the UN building in New York: “He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
It is a confirmation of the philosophy of Woodrow Wilson that the successor to his League of Nations accepted the gift of a statue with the biblical prescription for peace. It is an ideal that recognizes the realist’s fears and puts them to rest.
Transform or Conform
The only way through the impasse created by human nature is by means of a change of heart. The change of heart the Bible specifies is a fundamental transformation of mind and attitude set in motion by an outside source.
Previous to his change of heart, the apostle Paul was by his own admission “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man” (1 Timothy 1:13, New International Version). He came to see that even with religious zeal as his motivation, he was of the wrong spirit. It is with the deepest conviction that he writes, “To be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Romans 8:6).
That spiritual mind, he says, comes only from the influence of God at work in humans through His Holy Spirit. It is made available in part for the conquering of human nature’s downward pull. He encourages us: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2). That renewal comes only from the Spirit of God.
Is idealism or realism the pathway to peace? In fact, neither is. Peace will become the way of the nations only when Isaiah’s prophecy of the cessation of weapons manufacture and of war itself comes to pass. In the meantime, lasting peace can come individually from within when the Spirit of God is active within.