Ethics & Public Policy Center

Idealism Without Illusions


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Shortly before they were married, or so the story goes, Jacqueline Bouvier asked Senator John F. Kennedy how he would define himself. “An idealist without illusions,” replied the future president.

True or apocryphal, it was, in its way, a quintessentially American response. We think of ourselves as a pragmatic people, given to doing rather than contemplating, more gifted in invention than in philosophical speculation, wary of buying a pig in a poke—even if (perhaps especially if) the seller in question is an intellectual. On the other hand, Americans carry on a political experiment explicitly founded on an idea, one that is also a universal moral claim: that all men are created equal. Jefferson’s ringing phrase in the Declaration of Independence captures in microcosm the idealistic side of the national character; Madison’s arrangements for ordered liberty tempered Jeffersonian optimism, so that the experiment might be idealistic without being delusional.

This dialectic between idealism and pragmatism, between the national purpose and the national interest if you will, has had its effects on America’s role in world affairs. The arguments between Wilsonian idealists and the realist school defined by Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the early George Kennan are familiar enough, and need not detain us now. We may note only that this is a perennial argument in American public life, and that the open-ended, dialectical argument over purpose and interest is sure to continue; the relevant question is not whether the argument can be resolved, but whether it leads to wisdom or confusion in the conduct of American foreign policy. James H. Billington, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, entered the lists of this classic debate in a recent Foreign Affairs essay. Several of his points are worth pondering, particularly in light of the events of the past six months and the questions they raise about the capacity of the United States to act purposefully in the world.

Dr. Billington assumes that isolationism, in either its traditional or post-Vietnam forms, is no option for the United States: “[W]e cannot either go back or stay home. We are in the world psychologically and ethnically as well as economically and ecologically.” America will act, indeed must act, in world politics. And being America, we will act, at least in some measure, according to our ideals. But is that possible in a world as extraordinarily plural as this one seems to be? How might the United States “redefine the liberal democratic ideal for a broader audience” in the modern world?

Any attempt to answer that question must face squarely the “relativist’s skepticism that any single society today has much to say to any other.” Dr. Billington is not such a relativist; he believes that four features of the modern world point to “unanticipated… convergences” between American ideals and world realities.

First, history and hard human experience have debunked the notion that revolutionary action is the appropriate means of social change and the source of political legitimacy. The “age of revolution” has gone from cliché to anachronism. Revolutionary élan has been displaced by the less romantic, but more empirically impressive, realities of evolutionary development. “The real dynamism in social, economic and political development in recent years has lain in constructive evolution toward democracy rather than in destructive revolution leading to dictatorships,” Billington argues. What has led to dynamic and needed social change in Western Europe, southern Europe, South America, Japan, and India? Evolutionary democracy, rather than “totalistic revolution,” has been the key.

No doubt the revolutionary embers still burn in some parts of the Third World. “But French (and other European) intellectuals, who originally lit and long tended the flame of revolution, have decisively turned away from their historical Marxism in one of the most dramatic intellectual developments of recent years. As historians everywhere inventory the horrors perpetuated in the name of authoritarian revolutionary ideologies, humanity seems increasingly inclined to look to evolution rather than revolution for fresh beginnings.” And thus, the American experiment, an evolutionary exercise par excellence, takes on fresh relevance in world-historical terms.

The new importance of education, and the influence of intellectual elites in world affairs, mark the second point at which American experience and the world situation converge. The education explosion may be even more important than the population explosion, Billington suggests. For “the life of the mind has a vested interest in liberty, and liberal learning produces an inherent bias toward free societies.” Here is one challenge we pose to the Soviet Union, perhaps now more than ever, this being the age of glasnost: “Spreading the taste for the unlimited pursuit of truth powerfully challenges systems such as that of the USSR, which claims in the very name of its newspaper, Pravda, already to encapsulate truth in state policy.” Moreover, Billington argues, this challenge is one key to dealing with the Gordian knot of U.S./ Soviet, and indeed global, security concerns: “More fundamentally, the pursuit of truth tends to keep us from the pursuit of each other. It is ultimately non-competitive, and in an age when rising populations face finite resources, it may be that only in the expanding pursuit of truth can the horizons remain truly infinite for our cherished ideal of freedom.”

The religious renaissance underway throughout the world today—”the return of the sacred,” as Dr. Billington terms it—is the third point of linkage between the American experiment and the dynamics of contemporary world politics. Religion has not only been a force behind “the most unforeseen new developments of the last decade in the communist and Third Worlds (respectively, the rise of Solidarity in Poland and of Khomeini in Iran)”; it has also shaped conservative politics in the United States and radical politics in Latin America.

The United States is, as Dr. Billington understands, an incorrigibly religious country. This, too, is an advantage, rather than a debit, in the contest of models between the United States and the USSR, since “our individual commitments to faith enable Americans to identify with an entire dimension of human experience that communists, committed as they still are to atheism, can relate to only in insincere and manipulative ways.” Moreover, the recovery of the sacred has yet to run its course, and its impacts on even the Soviet Union cannot be simplistically pre-judged (and usually dismissed). This is surely worth keeping in mind over the next year in particular, since 1988 marks the millennium of Christianity in what is now the Soviet Union.

Finally, the fourth way in which “an American ideal is becoming a global necessity” is in our abiding commitment to plurality. “The rise of new religious passions alongside old ideological ones creates an urgent need for the world to better accommodate variety in the crowded global conditions that lie ahead.” The American experiment, which constitutionally protects a host of beliefs and ethnicities, thus provides a more appropriate model for the future than those societies in which “a monistic secularism finds all beliefs equally irrelevant.” Civic unity amidst luxuriant plurality is now a world-historical problem of immense proportions. America, which has “been a proving ground for bringing some measure of amity out of diversity,” could thus turn out to be “something of an experimental laboratory for the broader global community.”

And thus, paradoxically or providentially, one finds a kind of empirical “fit” between some of the world’s most pressing needs, and the peculiar experience and ideals of the United States.

It sounds almost too good to be true and, of course, in some ways it is. There is no metaphysical guarantee that our democracy will be able to operate in the dialectic between interest and purpose, between realism and idealism, with prudence and wisdom. Recent experience suggests almost precisely the opposite. We tend to swing, in great and rapid pendular strokes, between “the conservative realism of Nixon-Kissinger” and the “overextended globalism and potentially tragic hubris of Kennedy-Johnson,” as Billington defines two of the reigning temptations. The Iran/hostages/Nicaragua imbroglio may lead to a new/old temptation: to “pull in our horns and go back to Eisenhower, or to even earlier forms of withdrawal that might satisfy both the isolationism of our people and the relativism of our intellectuals.” Already one sees signs of this in the early maneuverings of the 1988 presidential campaign.

Of the two, the relativism of the intellectuals may be the more difficult problem to overcome. James Billington is surely right when he argues that “one can build bridges out to other cultures only if one has begun with casements deeply embedded in one’s own native soil. We cannot relate to others if we do not know who we are ourselves.” Or if we think we know ourselves as a deeply flawed experiment that is best kept far away from too close an encounter with the forces of change in the world. This latter intuition, now widespread in the teaching centers of American political culture, may be the real obstacle to the wise exploration of Dr. Billington’s four “convergences,” especially since the generation of the 1960s has now achieved tenure, vice-presidencies, and TV-news anchor chairs.

It would be a tragedy indeed if American democracy, precisely at the world-historical moment when its experiences and ideals were of maximum relevance to central problems in the pursuit of international community, were to turn in upon itself—yet again— and indulge in another round of self-flagellation. The world is too dangerous and, just perhaps, too hopeful a place for us to ignore all that went wrong these past six months. It is also too dangerous and, just perhaps, too hopeful a place in which to make Iran/hostages/ Nicaragua the only prism for thinking through our world responsibilities. James Billington’s sobered optimism and his sense of historical convergences point, to borrow from St. Paul, to a more excellent way.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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