Idealism In Foreign Policy: Cure For A Better World Or A Recipe For Disaster

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Bill Moyers said, “Ideas are great arrows, but there has to be a bow. And politics is the bow of idealism.” Idealists believe in the abolition of war and violent means to an end. They disapprove of the use of aggression and hostility between nations as a way to solve disputes, and they view unconditional sovereignty as a deterrent from peace. Idealists advocate for human rights, liberties, and security for all people in all nations using international organizations like the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. Idealism also proves to be the superior ideologies between idealism and realism. Realists think that humans are selfish by nature and must use intimidation and threats of force in order to achieve their goals. This is a dangerous and impractical way of viewing international politics and can only cause more conflict. Idealism in foreign policy is the better option for lasting peace and a better world.

International Laws and Peace between States

Political Idealism is a sanguine way of viewing the international realm of politics. Idealism manifests in different ways through politic. Some views gravitate towards utopianism, however, they are all rooted in the notion that humans are fundamentally good. Because Idealists think humankind is generally good they suggest this means there is an opportunity for shared ideologies within international relations. Realists tend to consider war a ‘natural state of affair’, while idealists belief is that conflict is an “as a consequence that can be attributed to historical circumstances, evil leaders, flawed sociopolitical systems, or inadequate international understanding and education.” (Holsti, “Theories,” in Explaining the History, p. 54.) Thus it is avoidable.

Idealists believe that international law and international organizations ought to play a crucial part in the formation of foreign policies. The best example in modern idealist philosophy is the democratic peace theory. This theory suggests that states that are similar democracies do not go to war with each other. This is because in a democracy you have politicians who can be held liable for the state’s actions. And so they are more motivated to form diplomatic institutions that aid in the defusing of tension among states. Democratic countries are also less likely to view similar countries as enemies.

28th President of the United States Woodrow Wilson was the epitome of American idealism in foreign policy. According to him the United States should act as an inspiration to the world and should offer an alternative to the previously standard balance of power in politics that governed the world. He believed America should help the world endeavor for a world command founded on universal doctrines of democracy and righteousness. Idealists concentrate on the formation of international institutions, international laws, and multinational corporations to solve conflicts and maintain peace (something realist oppose). Idealists place less of prominence on military leverage and more of an emphasis on international norms, international diplomacy, and less violent forms of resolution. Because of this idealists tend to think more abstractly when it comes to solutions for problems in the international arena.

Jonathan Schell said, “plan of the liberal democratic state, is based on a formula that seems to beg for application in the international sphere. Might not nations enter into a social contract just as individuals supposedly once did? Why should domestic governments alone be founded on nonviolent principles? Why stop at national borders? Shouldn’t a system of cooperative power, the key to resolving disputes without violence, be extended to the limits of the earth? Thought glides smoothly and easily to this conclusion.” (Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, 2003)

There will never be lasting peace through the realist school of thought. The achievements of one nation at the sacrifice of another will never allow for international stability. Realist concepts that promote nationalism or class supremacy are doomed to always end in more conflict than peace. However, progressing to ethical behavior and diplomacy through peaceful channels causes growth internationally.

The belief that states are reasonable and able to bring about peace and security and negotiation rather than turning to war and threats of violence as a means of conflict resolution is fundamental to idealist doctrine. That’s why the United Nations and its International Court were created. To offer states the tools they need to come to peaceful remediation. The risks of using military authority often outweigh the rewards according to idealists. So using international networks like the United Nations to solve conflicts can help cultivate collaboration and reliance between nations, as well as allowing them all the opportunity to flourish together.

Moral Values and Human Rights

Deception, dishonesty, and violence shouldn’t be permissible according to Idealists. They reason that conduct that is unethical on an individual level should also be considered unethical on a national level in foreign politics. Idealists emphasis the necessity for states to achieve ethical objectives acceptably. Qualities like liberal democracy, limited government, the rule of law, and a constitution are all considered fundamental to idealists. So are principles like consent of the governed, equal rights, individual rights, and freedom of religion. These are all pillars for idealism. After World War I idealism has been primarily correlated with the Democratic Party.

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Idealists infer that most individuals cherish the same things, including individual freedoms, the ability to self-govern, the opportunity to thrive, homeland security. And since most persons desire these things then there is no need for disagreement because everyone shares the same aspirations. Idealists believe that conflicts don’t come from an egocentric human disposition, instead, it comes from how the states are structured forcing them to concede to power politics in foreign policy. However, idealists believe humankind can transcend the current political arena and move towards nonviolent diplomatic international relations. They can do this with organizations like the United Nations and the International Court of Justice.

Wilsonianism is a school of thought within idealism named after former President Woodrow Wilson. It’s often seen as a mix between liberal internationalism (the ability for liberal states to violate other nations' sovereignty to promote democratic ideologies) and humanitarian intervention internationally. Its goals are to attain mutual security, open diplomacy, and capitalism. Being a Wilsonian means advocating for a foreign policy that takes other nations into consideration, and allows for the endorsing of democratic principles like righteousness, liberty, and equality worldwide. Once idealists know what they wish to promote internationally, they may policies and international organizations to achieve what they think is imperative. They can advocate for a spectrum of basic human rights to be met internationally. These organizations and regulations are strides towards a better, more peaceful world.

While realists focused on national interests, idealist concern themselves with the safety and prosperity of all of humankind. They wish to establish universal norms, laws, and principles to protect people and afford them basic human rights. Because of idealist attitudes, non-governmental and international organizations for the promotion of human rights have been established. Organizations like Anti-Slavery International working to end slavery everywhere, Breakthrough (human rights) an organization for ending violence towards women and girls, and the Global Rights which was founded in Washington DC as an international human rights organization.

Idealists also used the United Nations to set up comprehensible international human rights laws that all members must follow. It includes conventions like the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Woman (CEDAW), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) to name a few. The United Nations also created treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) as part of its international human rights law system. (

The United Nations embodies the ideology of idealists in the Universal Delectation of Human Rights. Specifically when it says, “All human beings are born with equal and inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms … In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations has stated in clear and simple terms the rights which belong equally to every person. These rights belong to you. They are your rights. Familiarize yourself with them. Help to promote and defend them for yourself as well as for your fellow human beings.” This is a perfect summary of the beliefs of idealism on the international frontier.

The Alternative to Idealism: Realism

The basis for political realism relies on the postulation that people and by extension nations are selfish. Realists believe that the relationships between nations are in a perpetual circumstance that always leads to war between nations to solve problems. These circumstances for violence, according to Realists, are because states fundamentally exist in a state of “anarchy”. Anarchy on the international stage means that all states are on their own to figure out how to coexist. No United Nations to help with squabbles or to set guidelines, just an ‘every man for himself’ mentality. Realism also suggests the lack of any form of central, like the U.N., to resolve disagreements. This causes what is called the state security dilemma.

John H. Herz, a German scholar first mentions this term in his book Political Realism and Political Idealism writing, is 'A structural notion in which the self-help attempts of states to look after their security needs tend, regardless of intention, to lead to rising insecurity for others as each interprets its own measures as defensive and measures of others as potentially threatening.' It means in a world of anarchy if a state attempts to make itself more secure via military strength and the accumulation of weapons, other states will see this as a direct threat and will counter by also strengthening its ability to use force. This will cause mounting tension eventually resulting in direct conflict even if neither nation indented it.

Realists see a balance of authority scenario as the maximum scope to which states can interact with each other on an international level. In contrast, idealists envision more broad opportunities for states to work together and solve differences without the use of force. Idealists do not think states need to give up their sovereignty to agree to work together in creating international institutions like the United Nations to solve their conflicts.

“States act in their national interests” is accurate in both Realist and Idealist regarding foreign policy. Realists believe nations express their national interests in terms of force and dominance over other nations or else be surpassed themselves. Idealism, however, allows for a more hopeful interpretation of humanity and also a more global approach for achieving national interests without resorting to a security dilemma or war. A nation's current abilities and level of power are it’s determining factors for its national interests and how it will behave in the international arrangement. Idealists believe that the world isn’t anarchic, and we operate in a more moderate international system. Rather than assuming a predisposition based on a state’s level of power, Idealists consider precisely how a state's national interests are cultivated. Idealists propose that national interests are based on the civilization and culture of the state and not on its amount of power. “Idealists foresaw benign possibilities as nations became increasingly interdependent; realists saw in such a tendency the source of further friction since rival [national] interests could collide more frequently.” (Seabury, “Realism and Idealism,” in Encyclopedia, pp. 856-857.)


Realists claim that a constant struggle for dominance in the national arena is natural. They claim that absolute sovereignty and the ability to use any means to achieve national interest is rational and admissible. They suppose humankind to be power-hungry and selfish by default, and they presume states will forever battle for supremacy. In contrast, idealists regard people as able to work together for the greater good. They believe that all states benefit from human wellbeing and global progression, while war and shows of power dominance only add to the troubles. According to idealists, all states have the capability of working together to create organizations like the United Nations that work to eradicate the circumstances that contribute to war. Idealists wish to maintain peace while also advocating for the ethical treatment of all of humankind. They believe that if everyone is afforded certain rights then the need for war will become minute.

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