Escaping the Idealism Trap

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The institutional promotion of freedom and democracy by the United States might have had its philosophical and logical justification during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. As the United States enjoyed a historical uni-polar moment, the U.S. foreign policy establishment worked on expanding the principles of freedom and democracy over the ruins of communism, and later worked on replacing the hostility prone dictatorships in the Middle East.[1] Idealism (known also as liberal internationalism) has remained at the heart of U.S. policy toward China and Russia in the past two decades. This policy, especially during the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations, was based on free trade and democratization and aimed at creating a prosperous middle class in both Russia and China that would in turn demand political and human rights, gradually ushering Western style peaceful democracies into these nations.

This scenario seems far-fetched and downright delusional now. Variations of this idealist theory also motivated U.S. foreign policy interventions in Iraq 2003 and Libya 2011. Assuming simple linear causality between free trade and democracy is unrealistic. Believing it would apply in foreign complex societies is a perplexing proposition, as is the notion that regime change will resolve the underlying cultural complexities stifling democratization in these nations. This approach, however, was the constant theme of the National Security Strategies from the Clinton administration through the Obama administration.[2]

There are historical reasons why idealism had persisted among consecutive U.S. administrations since World War II. However, the detrimental consequences of basing U.S. national security on this policy as great power competition transitions the international system back to a multi-polar order cannot be overstated. The harmful consequences of conflating national principles of human rights such as freedom of religion and speech with U.S. national security are at the heart of the idealism versus realism debate, and contending with the limitations of Idealism might be our generation’s biggest challenge.

The emergence and reach of Chinese economic and military power and re-emergence pf Russian military assertiveness have physically manifested outside the Eurasian sphere. From claiming control over the North Pole, infrastructure investments in Eurasia and Africa, joint naval exercises in the Baltic Sea, to their involvement in Afghanistan, both nations are competing with the U.S. within American spheres of influence.[3] China and Russia’s symbiotic and strategic relations emanate from a similar worldview invested in charting an alternative international order not under American influence.[4]

One of the lesser understood consequences of Idealism’s dominance in U.S. foreign policy circles is that it, over many generations, shaped the understanding and perception of foreign policy in non-democratic states. Idealism perceives non-democratic states as perpetually afflicted with internal concerns, assigning to these states a relative inability to influence their near abroad.[5] A thorough review of U.S. published assessments of Russian and Chinese military and economic power between 2007 and 2015 reveals an unmistakable pattern of underestimating China and Russia’s capabilities, and dismissing strategic intent in their foreign policy.[6] This is perhaps surprising, since such power projection strategies have been explicitly stated in Russian and Chinese foreign policy and defense doctrines between 2010 and 2015.[7] The cues of Russian and Chinese intent and capability buildup were evident prior to 2015, but were either systemically dismissed or ignored. As a result, U.S. policy makers were consistently deprived of crucial scenario assessments due to idealism’s monopoly on national security and foreign policy agenda discussions.

Idealism in International Relations: A King Without Clothes?

Idealism still persists despite a series of less than desirable outcomes for U.S. foreign policy interventions in the Middle East and South Asia in the past two decades. Iraq and Afghanistan in 2018 are fragile states at best, and would qualify for failed state status with respect to territorial integrity and government capacity.[8] In Iraq, the consecutive governments, plagued with sectarianism and corruption, are still not able to reconcile national differences to allow effective governance, fend off Iranian meddling, or provide basic public goods such as electricity and access to clean water.[9] The Fragile State Index for 2018 places Iraq and Afghanistan at the high alert level, both scoring a 102.2 and a 106.6 respectively, out of a possible score of 120. (For reference, state with the lowest assessment is South Sudan at 113.4, the U.S. scores 37.7, and the best score is from Finland at 17.9.)[10] Weak central authority in these Iraq and Afghanistan has increased Iranian, Russian, and Chinese influence. Russia, China, and Iran are currently involved in infrastructure, security, and arms sales in Iraq and Afghanistan, citing their own national interests.[11]

Good intentions among idealists who intend to expand freedoms and introduce democracy in other nations cannot justify the persistence of Idealism in U.S. foreign policy if the outcome is consistently incompatible with and downright harmful to U.S. national interests. While realism is gradually regaining ground among foreign policy strategists, the foreign policy establishment in the United States is unsure how to disassociate from its idealist/liberal orientation without losing its distinct and exceptional foreign policy character as a protector of human freedoms.[12]

The United States is without doubt an exceptional republic with a state-of-the-art constitution that will remain the guiding light for nations that seek freedom and liberty. Granted, this is an intellectual and a generational dilemma, but one that should not delay strategic adjustments to U.S. trade and defense policies in the light of an existential competition with determined rising powers. The reorganization of the U.S. State Department that started in 2017 under State Secretary Tillerson and continues under State Secretary Mike Pompeo, included selective foreign aid reductions and revised budgets for civil society projects and asylum procedures. Furthermore, the United States 2018 National Defense Strategy stated clearly that “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity is the reemergence of long-term strategic competition by…revisionist powers.”[13] All of these are signs of institutional readjustment, but is this sufficient without reexamining the underlying school of thought that led to the pattern of past foreign policy outcomes?

Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and current Secretary Mike Pompeo (WILX)

The Russia-China Axis

Russia and China’s cooperation is not confined within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), their emergence as defense exporters, or their collaboration on the Belt and Road Initiative. What Russia and China are proposing through their security agreements; economic zones; transnational infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa, and Europe; joint power projection through military exercises; and strings of military bases is an alternative international system. The goal is a system that aspires to replace U.S. and Western established liberal order with a Russia-China led economic and security ecosystem, reducing the compounding effects of U.S. economic sanctions in the short term.[14]

Traditional U.S. allies, including Germany and Israel, are adjusting to the new power distribution, owning up to their security needs, and charting their own relations with Russia and China.[15] Germany maintained the optics of outrage after the annexation of Crimea and the Ukraine crisis in 2014, but failed to back them up when presented the opportunity.[16] While contributing to joint European Union statements regarding the unacceptable Russian actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and despite calls for military retaliation and economic sanctions imposed by Brussels, German Chancellor Angela Merkel prioritized the interests of German businesses in Russia.[17] The pattern of prioritizing economic interests with Russia has been evident in German foreign policy since the Ukraine crisis in 2014. The uptick in trade relations by 23% in 2017, totaling $50 billion, in addition to the Nord Stream Pipeline 2, are but a few examples of Germany’s increased cooperation with Russia.[18,19]

China and Russia are competing with the United States over traditional U.S. allies not just in Europe, but also in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Extending infrastructure loans to developing nations such as Pakistan and Tanzania, in what some have described as debt traps, is sustaining and increasing Chinese influence. China’s policy has a security and defense component to it as evident in China’s mining, security arrangements, and island lease agreements with the Maldives and Djibouti.[20,21,22] The inroads and gains accomplished by China and Russia in the past decade are indicators a geopolitical shift is underway, and that power politics is back in full force.

Embracing the Challenge with Clarity

Foreign Policy CAN (@CanadaFP) August 3, 2018

The debate over Idealism in foreign policy is also unfolding close to home. Canadians are debating the wisdom of their diplomatic statements in developing nations, especially after official Canadian tweets called out Saudi authority over the incarceration of Samar Badawi, a Saudi activist, and more recently involving the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.[23,24] While officials and the media in the United States, Canada, and Europe are focused on these human rights violations, discussions about economic loss in defense contracts, investment freeze, and suspension of exchange programs brought a new realization regarding the limitation of idealism, and the trade-offs that ensue.[25] It will take multiple serious perceived offenses by Canada, the U.S., and the EU for the Saudis or Egypt to seriously consider the Russia-China option. The upside for developing nations in a multi-polar order, however, is they have options. The Philippines is another example illustrating the flexibility and strategic hedging granted to developing nations during great power competition. The Philippines is cooperating with China on South China Sea oil and gas concerns, while maintaining U.S. relations, all the while being less tolerable of UN and U.S. accusations of human rights abuses.[26,27]

In contrast with Idealism, Realism frames international relations through its foundational building block, power (i.e., military and economic capabilities). Foreign policy in this sense is judged by whether it is making the country safer and richer. Presuming superiority in national character, institutions, and moral standing has a domestic role in boosting national morale, but it should have no bearing on judging a competitor’s abilities and resolve. Many leaders throughout history have reminded us to be mindful of this fact.

We are not schooled in the useless over-intelligence which can make a brilliant verbal attack on the enemies’ plans but fail to match it in consequent action. Rather we are taught to believe that other people’s minds are similar to ours, and that no theory can determine the accidents of chance. It is always our principle to make practical plans on the assumption of an intelligent enemy, and not to let hopes reside in the likelihood of his mistakes, but in the security of our own precautions. We do not need to suppose that men differ greatly one from another, but we can think that the strongest are those brought up in the hardest school
—Archidamus, King of Sparta, Thucydides, 1.84

A Greek Hoplite (

Realism, however, is criticized as lacking a moral dimension in foreign policy, while also minimizing the role of international organizations and other non-state actors. Re-evaluating the tools and processes of U.S. foreign policy must reach into the heart of this debate on how to reconcile universal human rights values, international cooperation, and promoting win-win scenarios only as they are feasible and compatible with U.S. national interests.

Idealism has clearly failed to grant the United States a stronger standing in the world as it failed to accurately assess the scope and consequences of interventionism, and the strategic intent of rising powers. Great power competition and the international system’s inevitable transition to a multi-polar order calls on us to embrace the challenge with clarity. This challenge should motivate an honest reassessment of U.S. foreign policy tools and processes. Adjusting to facts and reevaluating means and methods is a sign of strength and resilience of this nation.

Ghaidaa Hetou. is a researcher and academic focusing on security, foreign policy and political risk in the Middle East and North Africa. She is the author of The Syrian Conflict: The Role of Iran, Russia, and the U.S. in a Global Crisis. Dr. Hetou teaches at Rutgers University and is the founder of iStrategic LLC a political risk consulting company specializing in advising U.S. businesses in the Middle East & North Africa.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Charles Krauthammer, The Unipolar Moment, Foreign Affairs Sep. 1990

[2] U.S. National Security Strategy Archive

[3] China’s Economic Statecraft in Africa, August 2018’s-economic-statecraft-africa; Russia to hold its biggest war games since the Cold War 2018; Turkey Shifts Towards Russia as Sanctions Sour US Relations, August 2018; China and Russia Hold First Joint Naval Drill in the Baltic Sea 2017; US General: Russia Trying to Undercut Progress in Afghanistan, Sep. 2018

[4] Press statement following talks with President of China Xi Jinping September 2018

[5] Buena de Mesquita, Bruce, Alistair Smith, Randolph Silverson, and James Morrow. 2003. The Logic of Political Survival. Massachusetts: The MIT Press; Lawson, Fred H. 2006. Constructing International Relations in the Arab World. Stanford: Stanford University Press; Goode, Robert. 1962 “State Building as a Determinant of Foreign Policy in the New States,” in Neutralism and Non-alignment, ed. Laurence and Martin. New York: Praeger; Calver, Peter. 1988. The Foreign Policy of New Sates. Sussex: Wheatsheaf Books; Phares, Walid. 1992. ‘The Syria-Iran Axis and the Mideast’s Future’ Global Affairs 7 (1992): 28–91; Wolfe, Bertram D. Communist Ideology and Soviet Foreign Policy. Foreign Affairs October 1962

[6] Russia’s New National Security Strategy: Familiar Themes, Gaudy Rhetoric. January 4, 2016. War on the Rocks. (accessed March 2017); Putin Makes His Isolationism Official, January 4, 2016. Bloomberg (accessed March 2017); Russia’s New Military Doctrine: Same as the Old Doctrine, mostly, 2015; Unpacking Russia’s New National Security Strategy, January 7 2016, Center for Strategic and International Studies (accessed March 2017).

[7] China’s Military Strategy White Paper 2014

Russian National Security Strategy, December 2015-Full Text Translation

[8] ISIS claims deadly suicide bombing as Afghan celebrate Taliban ceasefire, June 2018.; Turkey’s Yildrim says that Turkish Forces are 30km Inside Iraq , June 2018

[9] Basra residents reeling from contaminated drinking water, August 2018.

[10] Fragile States Index 2018

[11] Iran Moves Missiles to Iraq in Warning to Enemies, August 2018; Russia Reemerging as Weapons Supplier to Iraq, March 2018; China is helping Afghanistan set up Mountain Brigade to Fight Terrorism, August 2018

[12] The Future of US Foreign Policy: An End to Liberal Internationalism? October, 2017

[13] 2018 United States National Defense Strategy

[14] Sanctions-hit Russia Mulls Payment System Tie-up with China to Cut Reliance on the West, November 2017; Yang Zaiping: China and Russia Embrace Financial Cooperation, September 2018;; EU, Russia and China Agree Special Payment System for Iran, September 2018.

[15] Russia and Germany: From Estranged Partners to Good Neighbors, June 2018; Moscow on the Mediterranean: Russia and Israel’s Relationship, FPRI 2018

[16] Obama and Merkel Warn of Tougher Sanctions Against Russia Over Ukraine, June 2014

[17] German Firms Place New Bets on Russia, WSJ Dec. 2016; German Companies are Increasingly Investing in Russia, 2017; German Business Concerns Take over Russia Sanctions, April 2018

[18] German-Russian Trade Picking Up Sharply, February 2018.

[19] Behind Nord Stream 2: The Russia -to- Germany Gas Pipeline That Fueled Trump’s Anger at NATO meeting, July 2018

[20] The Perils of China’s “Dept Trap Diplomacy” , September 2018.

[21] Chinese Lithium Acquisition Spree Shifts from Chile to Argentina, April 2018.

[22] China’s Djibouti Military Base the First of Many, June 2018.; Is Abdulla Yameen Handing the Maldives to China?, March 2018.

[23] Canada’s Arms Deal with Saudi Arabia is Shrinking, September 2018.; Canada and Saudi Arabia: A Deeply Flawed but Necessary Partnership, July 2016

[24] Isolating Saudi Arabia will be Harder than it Looks, October 2018 WSJ

[25] The Major Trade Implications of the Canada-Saudi Arabia Spat, August 2018.

[26] Philippines, China ‘serious’ on Joint Exploration-Chinese Envoy. September 2018.

[27] Philippines Duerte Tells UN Human Rights Expert: ‘Go to Hell’. June 2018.; Philippines Slams U.S. Human Rights reports Defending anti-Drug War, April, 2018.

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