Political theory in the area of the conduct of foreign policy by modern states has included the drawing of a distinction between a theory of Political Realism and a theory of Political Idealism. The basic ground for this distinction is that within a theory of political realism, the foreign policy of any state places primacy upon the protection and defense of the national security interest of the sovereign State while within a theory of political idealism, the foreign policy of any state would assert the primacy of the protection and the furtherance of its values and ideals in the world.
Apart from its appeal to the historical practice of ancient empires and states, as well as its reference to classical literature including the text of Thucydides, the modern theory of Political Realism can trace its roots to the doctrines asserted in Machiavelli’s “Prince” of the sixteenth century and to an interpretation of the system of Westphalia of the following century. The theory of Political Idealism can trace its roots to inspirational texts that include Biblical eschatological prophecies on world peace and classical literary expressions of the human aspiration for a peaceful and just world, as well as to modern policies aimed at establishing international organizations that will serve as forums for conflict resolution among nation states and to introduce the rule of law in international relations.
The distinction between a theory of Political Realism and a theory of Political Idealism in foreign policy has not been an exclusive distinction. Whether declaring itself to be a legitimate, or a just, or a civilized, or a Christian, or a Democratic, or a Socialist, or a Marxist-Leninist state, virtually every modern state has affirmed support in its foreign policy for the furtherance of its ideals and values in the world alongside the effort to protect and defend its national security interests. The recognition of this fusion between the theories Political Realism and Political Idealism does not negate the significance of the distinction between Political Realism and Political Idealism, however, but points to the relevance in the understanding of foreign policy of the clarification of the difference in priority or primacy between support for protection of security interests that is proposed in a theory of Political Realism in contrast with support for furtherance of values and ideals that is proposed in a theory of Political Idealism.
The recognition that a theory of Political Realism, with its noninterventionist approach to the internal affairs of other societies, is a moral theory is confirmed by an examination of the change introduced by the adoption of the Westphalian system in international relations. Whatever be the historical record of the complexities of the treaties of Westphalia in 1648, there subsequently developed an interpretation of the Westphalian system as demonstrating the transition to political Realism among the European states. One outcome of the emergence of the Westphalia system appears to be a lessening of the importance or the virtual end of the applicability of the theoretical doctrine of a “just war.”
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Cite as: David Sidorsky, Political Realism & Political Idealism in Foreign Policy: Six Interpretations, 1 Jour. of Pol. Th. & Philo. 23-58(2017).