The ideological divide between idealists and realists stems from two sets of assumptions about human nature and reality. Realists are wary of men’s real intentions, while idealists rely on human goodwill: the state of nature is heaven to Rousseau and hell to Hobbes because the former believes that man is naturally good and socially perverted, while the latter assumes that man is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Realists and idealists also see reality from two different viewpoints: to the realist, reality is a given to which man needs to submit and adapt his will; to the idealist, reality is man-made and can therefore be subjugated to man’s will. Machiavelli teaches the Prince how to adapt to reality, while Kant implores him to change and adapt it to his ideals.
These two different sets of assumptions – Is man good or bad? Is reality stronger than human will or the other way round? – are at the core of the ideological divide between Right and Left in open societies, and this debate applies to foreign policy.
This debate is ideological precisely because one cannot prove scientifically whether man is intrinsically good or bad, and whether reality is amendable to human will. History, however, provides a useful list of examples that can help make a reasonable guess. So does the gauging of failed and successful policies. In that regard, President Obama has made a remarkable contribution (albeit inadvertently) to an age-old philosophical inquiry.
In his Cairo speech (June 2009), Barack Obama tried to sweet-talk the Muslim world into abandoning its animosity toward America. A year-and-a-half later, it would be an understatement to say that his overtures have been rebuffed. Turkey, once a close ally of the US and Israel, has become Iran’s foremost apologist. Iran continues to defy the United States by pursuing its nuclear program and by progressively overtaking Iraq and Lebanon. The Talibans are as determined as ever in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. Syria keeps deepening its ties with Iran and Hezbollah despite (or because of) America’s gestures (such as resending a US Ambassador to Damascus). And now, the pro-Western and anti-Islamist regime of Ben-Ali has been overthrown in Tunsia, while Hezbollah is about to effectively run Lebanon’s next government.
It would be admittedly unfair to focus on President’s Obama’s failure. For his confidence that Islamists would be tamed with a good speech is hardly different from Woodrow Wilson’s assumption that the League of Nations would keep German militarism in check, or from Jimmy Carter’s belief that Khomeini was a human rights activist.
Wilson, Carter and Obama crashed down to reality because they failed to recognize that some ideologies are based on the need for a sworn enemy. As Professor Emmanuel Sivan explains in his book The Clash within Islam, jihad creates a dichotomy “between Muslim and all external, heretical groups, which are fundamentally evil … Thus coexistence over time is certainly not a plausible political option.” Indeed, no amount of goodwill or elevated rhetoric can appease ideologies that make the eternal struggle against “The Enemy” a divine commend or the founding principle of collective identity.
Naïveté has a price –a price that America has been able to afford thanks to its power and geography. Israel, by contrast, has no strategic tolerance for silliness (though it certainly has a political attraction to it). A popular Israeli joke offers the ultimate answer to the realism vs. idealism debate in foreign policy: Isaiah prophesizes that one day the sheep will lie down peacefully next to the wolf; yet even when the dream comes true it will be safer to be the wolf. Especially, the joke could have added, if the sheep is being watched by the village’s idiot.