U.S. Foreign Policy: What's the Purpose? - The Objective Standard
American Soldier and Daughter

What is the proper foreign policy for America?

There are essentially three schools of thought on the matter. One is widely known as “idealism,” because it is driven by alleged ideals;1 another as “realism,” because it is driven by an alleged focus on reality;2 and the third does not yet have a popular name but needs one. Because this third alternative is driven by the principles of egoism, it may be called “egoism.”3

Foreign policy is a complex matter involving many derivative elements, but the fundamental aspect of the concern—the standard by reference to which all other aspects are evaluated—is the purpose of such a policy: the ultimate end to which all other aspects are means. If we need a foreign policy, then grasping why we need one is essential to grasping what the policy and its various elements should be. (If we don’t need a foreign policy, then there’s no point in pondering the matter.)

The purpose of this essay is not to survey all the premises, elements, and implications of idealism, realism, and egoism; rather, the purpose is to identify, differentiate, and evaluate these schools’ positions regarding the ultimate aim of foreign policy. Such a highly delimited discussion is no substitute for a survey of the derivative issues. But, because purpose is primary, this is where any rational discussion of foreign policy must begin and remain anchored. One cannot coherently evaluate other aspects of the subject—whether alliances, armaments, budgets, diplomacy, embargoes, sanctions, treaties, containment, drone strikes, nuclear strikes, rules of engagement, or anything else—unless one knows and bears in mind the ultimate end toward which all such aspects are (possible) means.

A final preliminary note: Although this essay presents the three basic positions in pure, unmixed form, few people embrace any one of them in pure form. Most who take a position on foreign policy embrace a mixture of some sort. But this fact does not diminish the value of isolating and clarifying the pure forms of these schools; on the contrary, it highlights the value of doing so, as one can understand the mixtures only to the extent that one understands the basic elements thereof.


Idealism holds that the proper purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to uphold American “ideals”—meaning, certain moral principles—and, thereby, to spread freedom and democracy to foreigners who lack these values. . . .


1. Idealism is also called “liberalism,” “interventionism,” “internationalism,” “Wilsonianism,” or combinations thereof (e.g., “liberal internationalism”). Some analysts draw distinctions between these labels, but the ultimate goal of each is the same, and that goal is our concern in this essay. Some analysts also make distinctions within the distinctions (e.g., “hard Wilsonianism” and “soft Wilsonianism”) and permutations of the distinctions (e.g., “neoliberalism”). But, again, the ultimate goal of each is the same; the differences pertain only to the means of achieving that end.

2. Like idealism, realism goes by several other names as well, including “realpolitik,” “power politics,” “pragmatism,” and combinations thereof (e.g., “pragmatic realism”), and permutations thereof (e.g., neorealism); and although some analysts draw distinctions between these labels, the ultimate aim or purpose of each is the same, and that is our concern here.

3. Although each of these terms—idealism, realism, and egoism—has deeper philosophic meaning, unless otherwise noted I use the terms throughout this essay specifically to identify the respective schools of foreign policy. As we will see, the terms “idealism” and “realism” are gross misnomers; neither school is morally ideal or reality based. But because these terms are entrenched in the language of the field, and because “egoism” is a perfectly good and descriptive term for the morally correct and actually realistic foreign policy, I use the terms “idealism” and “realism” as they are used in common parlance.

4. President George W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2005, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4460172.

5. President George W. Bush, State of the Union address, January 29, 2002, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html.

6. Bush and a few others quoted in this section are often classified as “neoconservative,” and that classification is valid. But neoconservative foreign policy is a form of idealism. Although at first blush it appears to be a mixture of idealism and realism, in that it calls for Americans to self-sacrificially spread freedom and democracy abroad (idealism) in order to protect America’s so-called “national interest” (realism)—on examination, neoconservative foreign policy is a hyper-sacrificial form of idealism: The “national interest” it calls for is the “national greatness” of being committed to sacrificing for foreigners. For more on this hybrid, see Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein, “Neoconservative Foreign Policy: An Autopsy,” The Objective Standard, Summer 2007, vol. 2, no. 2, https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2007-summer/neoconservative-foreign-policy/.

7. Max Boot, “America’s Destiny Is to Police the World,” Financial Times, February 19, 2003, http://www.cfr.org/united-states/americas-destiny-police-world/p5559.

8. Brian Montopoli, “John McCain’s 100 Years In Iraq,” CBS News, April 1, 2008, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/john-mccains-100-years-in-iraq/.

9. Auguste Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion, translated by Richard Congreve (London: John Chapman, 1852), pp. 309, 313.

10. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme, part 1” (1875), http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm.

11. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Mary Gregor (London: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 13–14. Strictly speaking Kant is not an advocate of altruism, which demands self-sacrifice for the sake of others; rather, he is an advocate of self-sacrifice for the sake of self-sacrifice.

12. Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace,” in Kant’s Principles of Politics, edited and translated by W. Hastie, B.D. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1891), p. 98.

13. Immanuel Kant, “On the Common Saying: ‘This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice,’” in Kant: Political Writings, edited by H. S. Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 64 (emphasis removed).

14. Kant, “Perpetual Peace,” in Kant’s Principles of Politics, pp. 119–137.

15. Kant, “Perpetual Peace,” in Kant’s Principles of Politics, p. 137. See also Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Mary Gregor (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 16. Although some of Kant’s statements about foreign relations seem to contradict these fundamental aspects of his view, the fundamentals remain, and they are the elements that drive the school of idealism. I do not vouch for Kant’s consistency.

16. Mark Gerson, The Neoconservative Vision: From the Cold War to the Culture Wars (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1997), p. 181.

17. Mark Avery, “Sharing Stage, Obama and McCain Split on Abortion,” August 17, 2008, USAToday.com; Marsha Ginsburg, “McCain Asks Voters to Send a Message,” March 6, 2000, SFGate.com.

18. Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. 350.

19. John Quincy Adams, Speech on Independence Day, United States House of Representatives, July 4, 1821, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/speech-on-independence-day/.

20. William Kristol and Robert Kagan, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 1996, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1996-07-01/toward-neo-reaganite-foreign-policy.

21. Woodrow Wilson, “Memorial Day Address,” May 30, 1917, in Selected Literary and Political Papers and Addresses of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 2 (New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, 1926), pp. 248–250.

22. Woodrow Wilson, Address of the President of the United States, Delivered at a Joint Session of the Two Houses of Congress, April 2, 1917 (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1917).

23. William McKinley, Affairs in Cuba: Message of the President of the United States on the Relations of the United States to Spain (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1898), p. 11.

24. Quoted in Donna Urschel, “Pragmatic Foreign Policy: James Baker Offers Annual Kissinger Lecture,” Library of Congress Information Bulletin, March 2007, http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0703/baker.html.

25. Hans J. Morgenthau, In Defense of the National Interest: A Critical Examination of American Foreign Policy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951), p. 4.

26. Morgenthau, In Defense of the National Interest, p. 123.

27. Robert D. Kaplan, “The Realist Creed,” Stratfor Global Intelligence, November 19, 2014, https://www.stratfor.com/weekly/realist-creed (emphasis added).

28. Kaplan, “The Realist Creed.”

29. Quoted in Alex J. Bellamy, Massacres and Morality: Mass Atrocities in an Age of Civilian Immunity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 270–71. Kissinger’s conversation with Chatichai is available in full via George Washington University’s National Security Archive, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB193/HAK-11-26-75.pdf.

30. Regarding Saudi support of terrorism against America, see my article “The Jihad Against America and How to End It,” TOS Blog, September 10, 2014, https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/2014/09/jihad-america-end/.

31. See Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2012, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2012-06-15/why-iran-should-get-bomb.

32. Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate (New Yoro: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), p. 223. See also Waltz’s interview with Zachary Keck, The Diplomat, July 08, 2012, http://thediplomat.com/2012/07/kenneth-waltz-on-why-iran-should-get-the-bomb/.

33. Waltz’s interview with Zachary Keck.

34. See W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz, “Political Realism in International Relations,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/realism-intl-relations/. See also Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.”

35. Kenneth Waltz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better,” Adelphi Papers, no. 171 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1981), http://polsci.colorado.edu/sites/default/files/10B_Waltz.pdf.

36. Waltz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” p. 224. See also Waltz’s interview with Zachary Keck.

37. Waltz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” p. 181.

38. Waltz’s interview with Zachary Keck.

39. Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.”

40. This “deal” is still in the works, and the best source for information on the history of the negotiations along with the latest information appears to be Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comprehensive_agreement_on_the_Iranian_nuclear_program.

41. Fred Kaplan, “The Realist: Barack Obama’s a Cold Warrior Indeed,” Politico, February 27, 2014, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/02/barack-obama-realist-foreign-policy-103861.html.

42. Waltz’s interview with Zachary Keck. It is worth noting that some analysts regard Obama’s foreign policy as a mixture of realism and idealism, and others see in it elements of neoconservativism. Jonathan Chait, for instance, writes that, in regard to Libya, “the United States had no ‘interest’ in preventing Muammar Gaddafi from slaughtering civilians, let alone in toppling his regime,” and “yet [Obama] chose to intervene. . . . A true realist would have been happy to let Gaddafi crush his domestic foes.” Chait concludes that Obama falls “somewhere on the continuum between Bushian crusading moralism and Nixonian ruthlessness.” See “What Is Obama’s Foreign Policy Ideology?,” NYMag.com, March 6, 2014, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/03/what-is-obamas-foreign-policy-ideology.html. Richard M. Salsman (a contributing editor of TOS) detects a definite neoconservative element in Obama’s foreign policy; see Salsman’s “Libya Exposes Obama as Our Latest Neocon President,” Forbes.com, March 23, 2011, http://www.forbes.com/sites/richardsalsman/2011/03/23/libya-exposes-obama-as-our-latest-neocon-president/. As for my view, I regard Obama’s foreign policy not as an instance of realism or idealism or any mixture thereof, but as an instance of nihilism—an intentional effort to destroy America. But that’s a subject for another day.

43. Thomas P. M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004), pp. 81–82.

44. Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992), pp. 13, 5.

45. Credit to Senator Tom Cotton for the apt phrase “apocalyptic cult of ayatollahs.” See Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Cotton, “Tom Cotton: Obama’s Iran Deal May Lead to Nuclear War,” The Atlantic, April 13, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/04/tom-cotton-obama-iran-deal-may-lead-to-nuclear-war/390327/.

46. For a fuller treatment, see Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1962); or Craig Biddle, Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond, VA: Glen Allen Press, 2002).

47. George Washington, Proclamation 4, Neutrality of the United States in the War Involving Austria, Prussia, Sardinia, Great Britain, and the United Netherlands Against France, April 22, 1793, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=65475.

48. George Washington’s Farewell Address 1796, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp.

49. Thomas Jefferson, letter to Elbridge Gerry, January 26, 1799, http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/757.

50. James Madison, “War Message to Congress, June 1, 1812,” http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/historicspeeches/madison/warmessage.html.

51. Daniel Webster, “Speech at Harrisburg, PA, April 1, 1851,” in The Writings and Speeches of Daniel Webster, vol. 13 (Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1903), p. 403.

52. For a discussion of how a rights-protecting government can be voluntarily and sufficiently funded, see my essay “How Would Government Be Funded in a Free Society?” (TOS, Summer 2012).

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