Realist (or realism) is an international politics term which is used to describe an actor whose foreign policy methods focus on political power, rather than institutions and international law. A realist prefers policies which keep, increase, or demonstrate their power. In a bipolar power organization (only two main world powers), this can lead to a security dilemma.
Realists pay attention to the national security needs of a nation and especially to its economic advantages. Thus, realists called for diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933 because they predicted (incorrectly) it would increase trade and help the US escape the Great Depression.
Realism is opposed to idealism and utopianism, and specifically to Wilsonianism.
According to realist George Kennan, moralism without regard to the realities of power and the national interest is self-defeating and will lead to the erosion of power, to America's detriment.
Conservative foreign policies can include either realism or idealism. Idealism appears in the case of George W. Bush bringing democracy to the Middle East, or Barry Goldwater, calling for a crusade to destroy Communism. Realism appears among opponents of needless "foreign adventures," such as Pat Buchanan, or when Richard Nixon opened the door to China (1971), or Ronald Reagan came to terms with the Soviet Union in 1987.
American foreign policy was realist from 1776 to 1914, then shifted to idealistic or Wilsonian modes. For realists, security is based on the principle of a balance of economic and military power, and control of strategic assets (such as the Panama Canal). Realists say reliance on morality as the main determining factor in statecraft is impractical. According to the Wilsonians, on the other hand, the spread of democracy abroad as a foreign policy is key and morals are universally valid.
During the Clinton and Bush presidencies, American diplomacy reflected the Wilsonian school to such a degree that those in favor of the realist approach likened the policies to "foreign policy social work." U.S. foreign policy shifted again in a realist direction under the presidency of Donald Trump.
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- Bucklin, Steven J. Realism and American Foreign Policy: Wilsonians and the Kennan-Morgenthau Thesis (2000) excerpt and text search
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- Steigerwald, David. Wilsonian Idealism in America (1994) excerpt and text search
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- Weigel, George. Idealism without Illusions: U.S. Foreign Policy in the 1990s. (1994). 253 pp. by a leading conservative