Reed Magazine February
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2003

Why Bush Fails imageFailing Grade title

To be “Wilsonian” — which I believe describes the Bush administration — is to want to reconstruct the international world order in terms of universal moral and legal norms, and to frame one’s foreign policy on those principles, rather than on nuanced and discriminating judgments, based on the power configurations of the relevant international players. Thus a Wilsonian approach would insist on treating Iraqi and North Korean threats to international order in the same way. A “realist” approach has no problem in distinguishing the very different military and geopolitical circumstances that easily justify different approaches (which is what the Bush Administration is doing — only it cannot admit that it is being “realist” in doing so). Nor is Wilsonianism necessarily only liberal — notwithstanding Woodrow Wilson’s own record as a Democrat and a Progressive, and his many liberal descendants. It is very easy to imagine a conservative Wilsonianism — witness John Foster Dulles, Ronald Reagan, and likewise this Bush administration.


Following a policy of Realpolitik does not necessarily mean being narrowly self-interested. An enlightened Realpolitik can equally mean the cultivation of a sense of an international community, where the inevitably divergent and often conflicting interests, values, and aspirations of the participants need to be integrated by a skillful, sensitive, and nuanced diplomacy, so as to achieve some kind of stable and balanced international order with its own sense of limits and mutual restraint.

Wilsonian government often means trying to fit the refractory variety of the international system into a procrustean bed of narrow moral values — the missionary impulse of American “exceptionalism” — which its upholders see as universal and absolute, but which historians see as provincial and contingent. To be properly “realist” means to accept the world’s variety and complexity as real factors, however distasteful at times, with which one has to deal on some kind of common ground. That is one reason why profes-sional diplomats have such a bad reputation among moralisers on both left and right — because they insist that one has to do business with those whom ideologues prefer to banish outside their respective moral pale.

Following a policy of Realpolitik does not necessarily mean being narrowly self-interested. An enlightened Realpolitik can equally mean the cultivation of a sense of an international community, where the inevitably divergent and often conflicting interests, values, and aspirations of the participants need to be integrated by a skillful, sensitive, and nuanced diplomacy, so as to achieve some kind of stable and balanced international order with its own sense of limits and mutual restraint.

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Reed Magazine February

2003