Realist Idealism: The Foreign Policy Doctrine of the Emerging Century

Prof. Dr. Tarık OĞUZLU
27 September 2015
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Conventionally speaking foreign policies of countries are informed by two main streams, one is realism and the other is idealism. The latter is also called as liberalism. Realists and idealists differ from each other in terms of their fundamental assumptions concerning the key actors in decision making process, the underlying motivating factors of national interests, the kind of instruments employed to achieve those national interests and finally the way how interests and policies are justified.


This short essay does not delve into an in-depth analysis of such factors but argue that recent years have witnessed many events demonstrating the difficulty of adopting either a purely realist or idealist foreign policy approach in the age of globalization and emerging world order. It is not only the great powers that suffer from striking the right balance between these two alternative schools of thought in constructing foreign policies. Middle and small powers also fall short of combining these two streams into a coherent roadmap. Given that the emerging foreign and security policy challenges as well as the new dynamics of global politics make it difficult, if not impossible, to offer a credible a theoretical guidance to decision makers across the globe, this essay contends that realist idealism appears to be a sound alternative, among others, in foreign policy. It combines the key tenets of realism and idealism into a coherent body and help decision makers find their ways in the uncharted waters of emerging global politics.


What sets realist idealism apart from a purely realist or idealist approach are the following. First, like idealism, realist idealism puts the domestic values and identity at the center of foreign policy. There is nothing wrong with the idea that all states aspire to contribute to the formation of friendly environments abroad. Transformation of actors lying in their vicinity and the constitution of friendly environments at regional and systemic levels in the image of their internal norms and values would contribute to peace, stability and welfare in many states. In this sense, pursuing transformational foreign policies are not only legitimate but also serve national interests. Who we are determines what we want and this in turn affects how we behave abroad. Living in an environment composed of friendly actors who also share our values and norms would greatly enhance our security. This is what Turkey has tried to do in the Middle East through the so-called ‘zero problems with neighbors policy’, what China has been aiming at in East and Southeast Asia through the ‘peaceful development/rise’ policy and what the European Union members are seeking to achieve in their near-abroad through the enlargement and neighborhood policies. This was also what the George W. Bush administration aimed to achieve in the Middle East by invading Iraq and adopting democracy promotion as a security strategy. Looking from this perspective, it would not be wrong to blame Turkish decision makers for adopting an order-instituting role in the Middle East during the so-called Arab Spring process. The goal was after all to help midwife a Turkey-friendly environment in the region by steering the course of developments on the ground. What was wrong was to deny any pragmatic readjustment in policy means when faced with stiff resistance and when the gap between Turkey’s expectations and capabilities widened. All states, irrespective of their power differences are normative actors in the sense that they want to see their norms and values simultaneously shared by others. This transformational and normative foreign policy understanding is what is missing in the realist understanding.    


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