Wednesday, September 05, 2007

James A. Baker on "Pragmatic Idealism"

The former Secretary of State's 10 maxims to guide American foreign policy have been published in The National Interest:
What I suggest might be called “pragmatic idealism.” While firmly grounded in values, it appreciates the complexity of the real world—a world of hard choices and painful trade-offs. This is the real world in which we must live, decide and act.

It is a world that Ronald Reagan understood. He was, famously, a man of deeply held conviction. But he was also pragmatic. When I was his chief of staff, he often told me, “Jim, I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than to go over the cliff with my flag flying.” The Gipper, of course, was right.

I am not proposing a dogmatic list that must be checked off for each foreign- policy challenge we confront. On the contrary, these maxims embody a mindset marked by a realistic assessment of events and a practical response to them. They represent anything but elements of a rigid ideology that forces events into preconceived notions and creates “either/or” choices that are both false and dangerous. This approach embodies one of our most distinctive national characteristics: We Americans are a practical people less interested in ideological purity than in solving problems. Our pragmatism should inform our foreign policy.

Such a balanced approach can help us avoid both the cynicism of “realism” and the impracticality of “idealism.” It is based on an optimistic view of man but is tempered by our knowledge of human imperfection. It promises no easy answers or quick fixes. But neither did the containment policy pursued by U.S. administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, during the Cold War. Yet that policy ultimately triumphed. It was based, much like the approach I have sketched, on a unique melding of idealism and realism. It eschewed the temptations of both isolationism on the one hand, and rollback of communism through direct conflict with the Soviet Union on the other. And it reflected, at an important level, a confidence about the future that we need to recapture.

Such an approach does, I am convinced, offer our surest guide and best hope for navigating our great country safely though this precarious period of unparalleled opportunity and risk in world affairs.