Published Humanitas, Volume XXXIII, Nos. 1 & 2, 2020

Theories of American foreign policy are somewhat arbitrarily divided into two opposing camps: idealism and realism. Idealism involves constructing a world we hope would exist, such as freedom and democracy sweeping the globe, and then recommending foreign policy prescriptions based on this imaginary world. While realism is more firmly grounded in the world as it actually exists, it can suffer from a form of nihilism, sometimes positing that foreign policy is exclusively found in the domain of power politics and does not involve morality.

The great Harvard professor Irving Babbitt refused to concede that these two lenses were the only way to view world affairs. As a fierce critic of the Romantic movement, Babbitt was particularly alarmed by the tendency of Western leaders to offer policies that were based on chimeras conjured up in their idealistic imaginations. Babbitt refused to accept an amoral realism, however, because he believed that sound statesmanship was determined by the character of statesmen and that the choices they made would not simply be matters of prudence but also a matter of character. Power may be the operative principle…

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