President Barack Obama's Afghanistan speech and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech have generated considerable discussion about the old dispute between realists and idealists in foreign policy. The president has been criticized for being a narrow realist in the first speech and praised for finding a middle ground between realism and idealism in the second speech.
But one thing that has emerged in the aftermath of his two speeches is the supreme importance of ethics - whether it is the president's ethical responsibility to protect us, as he said in the Afghanistan speech, or his effort to show that the surge is a legitimate case of a "just war," as he did in his Oslo speech.
In the discussions of ethics - of justice, of responsibility, of good vs. evil - the question arises as to whether the old realist/idealist dispute provides a useful framework for analysis. Many people claim the categories are simplistic, and indeed there are many leaders and thinkers who embrace either complex versions of one of the two approaches or complex combinations of them.
What has not been pointed out is that the distinction between ethical vs. power cuts across the distinction between self-interest and other-regarding interests, or, interest in your own country vs. interest in other countries or indeed the whole world.
It is more or less assumed that if one adopts an idealist approach to foreign policy - if one is a Wilsonian - that one is necessarily adopting a foreign policy that concerns other countries, typically promoting democratic values in other countries if not the whole world. To be an idealist in foreign policy is then to adopt the view that one's foreign policy must promote ethical norms of justice, freedom, and equality throughout the world.
Likewise, it is more or less assumed that if one is a realist in foreign policy that one is essentially focused on protecting the interests of your own country and using one's power to navigate relationships with other countries to ensure that your own country's interests are promoted.
So idealism is equated with promoting ethical values throughout the world, and realism is equated with protecting your own interests with the tools of power.
This point of view, though, is confused, because one can adopt a foreign policy that is based on ethical values like justice but is not focused on promoting these values in other countries; likewise, one can adopt a foreign policy that is not based on ethical values but which is based on influencing the entire world, namely by dominating other countries.
From this it follows that the distinction between ethics vs. power and self-interest vs. other-regarding interest cut across each other: You can have a foreign policy that is ethically based, which is either focused solely on your own country or on the entire world, and you can have a foreign policy that is power-based, which is either focused solely on your own country or on the entire world.
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