Realism and Idealism

Norman A. Graebner

Philosophically, realism and idealism comprise opposing approaches to the definition and pursuit of national objectives abroad. Realists tend to accept conditions as they are and to define the ends and means of policy by the measures of anticipated gains, costs, necessities, and chances of success. Idealists tend to define goals in ideal, often visionary, forms, and presume that the means for their achievement lie less in measured policies, relying on diplomacy or force, than in the attractiveness of the goals themselves.


Acheson, Dean. Power and Diplomacy. New York, 1958. Provides a former secretary of state's reflections on morality and power.

Beard, Charles Austin. The Republic: Conversations on Fundamentals. New York, 1943. Seeks to test the validity of current conceptions of foreign policy against the wisdom of the Founders.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Genius of American Politics . Chicago, 1953. Argues that the uniqueness of America's experiences as a nation makes its political principles inapplicable to the problems of other nations.

Gilbert, Felix. To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., 1961. Traces the intellectual origins of Washington's departing advice to his countrymen, finding his ideas about the nature of international politics in the views of early eighteenth-century English thinkers.

Graebner, Norman A., ed. Ideas and Diplomacy: Readings in the Intellectual Tradition of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1964. Presents countering arguments in all the major realist-idealist debates in American history.

Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and James Madison. The Federalist Papers. New York, 1961. Written originally as tracts supporting the proposed U.S. Constitution, includes coherent realist arguments in favor of strong centralized control of foreign affairs and national defense.

Kennan, George F. American Diplomacy, 1900–1950. Chicago, 1951. An ex-American diplomat's denunciation of utopianism in foreign affairs and advocacy of an elitist conduct of statecraft.

Kristol, Irving. On the Democratic Idea in America. New York, 1972. The chapter "American Intellectuals and Foreign Policy" attacks the validity of the notion that concrete foreign policy decisions can be judged according to abstract principles.

Morgenthau, Hans Joachim. In Defense of the National Interest: A Critical Examination of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1951. A leading American realist's arguments in favor of judging international events according to the realities of interest and power.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. New York, 1952. Argues that America's pre-1941 experiences as a nation provide poor groundwork for purposeful existence in a world of competing rival nations.

Osgood, Robert Endicott. Ideals and Self-Interest in America's Foreign Relations: The Great Transformation of the Twentieth Century. Chicago, 1953. Offers a historical account of the enduring dispute among America's realists and idealists, particularly useful for its treatment of concrete episodes of controversy.

Perkins, Dexter The American Approach to Foreign Policy. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass., 1962. A forceful defense of the vitality of democratic principles in the conduct of foreign relations.

See also Doctrines ; Exceptionalism ; Internationalism ; The National Interest ; Open Door Policy ; Power Politics ; Self-Determination ; Wilsonianism .

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: