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Ideals and reality

 


Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin are at opposite poles. One comes from a long tradition of idealism, speaking about great values, and usually ending up a long way from what was promised. The other represents the essence of realpolitik, or “if I can take it, it’s mine.”

Woodrow Wilson was an extremist of the American type, fighting a war to end all wars, demanding open diplomacy, and working to create a world parliament and free nations from their colonial masters.

Wilson couldn’t convince his own Congress to join the League of Nations. He collapsed and ceased to function as chief executive while on a campaign to convince the nation to follow his lead. Historians write that he broke because he would not bend to accept deals he could have achieved with his American opponents.

Countries he helped to free from the Hapsburg Empire were enslaved even more cruelly by the Nazis, and later fell into the Soviet Empire.

James Monroe was an earlier American idealist. He created a doctrine that his piddling new country could not hope to enforce, opposing European colonial aspirations in the Western Hemisphere. 

The Gettysburg address was Lincoln’s contribution to American idealism, but it also was part of a presidency that was at least as much pragmatic as idealistic. Freeing the slaves was a lower priority of Lincoln than keeping the Union together and winning the war. His early death keeps us from seeing how he would have maneuvered between human rights for the freed slaves, the political power of Southern States after Reconstruction, and Jim Crow.

John Kennedy was another president where early death gets in the way of seeing how he would juggle his idealized opposition to Communism against the realities of Vietnam. His complicity in the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem defines a limit to the ideals he claimed to pursue.

It’s hard to find a worse example of misplaced idealism than George W. Bush’s announced expectations for Iraq. As in the cases of Kennedy, Wilson, Lincoln, and even Monroe, one can find elements of pragmatism in the actions of GW Bush. One can also wonder how important was his aspiration for democracy in what he intended for Iraq. Yet speaking about democracy in the context of Iraq is enough to put GWB with the most extreme of the dreamers. His detachment from reality was stark, in seeking to apply western democratic ideals (that were a long time in coming from the predominantly Christian tradition) in an Islamic context where individual freedom is as far as imaginable from both doctrine and practice.

Barack Obama presents a confusing combination of idealism and pragmatism. His Cairo speech compares with the wildest and most dangerous of GW Bush, demanding freedom, equality, and democracy on the wrong side of the world. His speech about Syrian use of chemical weapons provided a caricature of idealism and pragmatism, i.e., damning Syria’s use of poison gas, and saying that he wouldn’t do anything about it. His repeated aversion to “American boots on the ground” can be read as an expressing the ideal of isolationism, or the pragmatism of a national leader whose people are tired of international involvement and failure.

If Vladimir Putin expresses anything like the idealism of American leaders, the message has been lost in translation. Realpolitik is prominent in his annexation of Crimea, hardly masked involvement with Russian Ukrainians to gain autonomy/independence/affiliation with Russia at the expense of Ukraine, and his standing against the U.S., Western Europe, and much of the Middle East in supporting the Assad regime in Syria, with a clear interest in maintaining bases for the Russian navy and air force. 

Idealism is not absent from Russian culture. Several Russian-speaking friends express shrill criticism of the government they experienced, as well as the imperfections of Israel, but they also absorbed ideals of how a government should operate. Their belief in Communism appears to have been as strong as their ridicule of how it was implemented.

The contrast between expressed ideals and pragmatic practice may appear in every regime. We can wonder if we should express anything more than whimsy at the idealistic blather of American politicians, without taking account of the casualties that came along with what was actually done. And if we should appreciate what may be the greater honesty of Putin’s pursuit of his own interests and his view of national interest, while also reckoning with the dead, maimed, and homeless created as a result.

As is attributed to Alfred E. Neuman—“What, Me Worry?” 

Comments welcome

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus), Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, irashark@gmai.com.

 

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