Sunday, March 15, 2015

Realism & Idealism in U.S. Foreign Policy

In my last post, I discussed how to conceptualize U.S. foreign policy to help students understand U.S. thought on the subject up to about 1890. Beginning around 1890, U.S. foreign policy undergoes a shift that coincides with rapid industrialization and growth, imperialism in Europe, the closing of the frontier, the defeat of the Sioux at Wounded Knee, and a doubling of the population, due partly to an increase in immigration of peoples from non-Protestant, Anglo-Saxon backgrounds.

As Henry Kissinger writes, "once a country has reached the level of power of post-Civil War America, it will not forever resist the temptation of translating it into a position of importance in the international arena."

In 1890, Alfred T. Mahan published the most influential book on naval power, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1600-1783, which argued for an expansion of American trade, backed by protection from American naval bases established in the Atlantic and Pacific. The book struck a chord with many influential politicians, most notably, Theodore Roosevelt who would become the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897, just before the Spanish American War.

So how to explain all this to students?

At this point in the school year, I like to introduce the concept of REALISM and IDEALISM to students as a way to think about the basis for intervention.

I have only done this with high school students, but my experience last spring teaching 8th grade U.S. history suggests to me that it is absolutely possible to do it with middle school students, too. I tried it out on my own 7th grade daughter and she seemed to get the main idea in the ten minutes she was patient enough to humor me. 

The way I did it with 11th graders was to go through the info on the chart below. (Click here if you'd like a copy you can print for yourself or students.) I would explain each in some detail, providing examples. I think for middle schoolers, I'd just do the first 3 rows. For more background on this concept, check out the websites listed at the end of the post.

Then I would go through some these quotations and ask them to apply what they learned about the two concepts by reading each quotation and deciding if it represented a more "realist" perspective or one of "idealism."

The quotations can be really HARD for some students. I like to go back and forth between idealist ones and realist ones and let students figure out for themselves which quotes are which. I remember many of my 11th graders struggling with them. I tried them on my 7th grader with some success, but I think for middle schoolers my new approach would be to use actual scenarios. This would probably make more sense than the quotations for high schoolers, too. Check them out here. And maybe you could use just a few of the quotes.

But the key thing that makes the quotations useful is to demonstrate some of the subtlety about the ideas. I think our more "idealistic" students are likely to jump to the conclusion that realism is "bad," and "idealism" is good. And the John F. Kennedy quotation--if you use it-- will confirm that for them. But then when they see the last two quotations representing idealism, you have the opportunity to explain that--at least in the past, but quite possibly very much in the present--there can be a racist, ethnocentric tinge to idealism. Assuming that America is the best--that the U.S. is always in the right, that all nations should have democracy-- these have beliefs have had a fundamental impact on our involvement in the Cold War and in non-Western countries. And they contribute to the concept of American exceptionalism. (For a very charged, but fascinating take on this, read this critique on U.S. foreign policy by William Blum. Or a less charged one, this article from The Atlantic.)

While I do think this is a challenge for middle schoolers, I think it is ESSENTIAL that they understand it. But I suspect they will understand it better by example. Case in point: when my daughter saw the second two idealist quotes, she said, "I don't like these. You shouldn't use those with students." So I think instead, I would wait and use those in the context in which they were delivered: in the late nineteenth century, just before and just after the Spanish American War and the Annexation of the Philippines. Waiting to allow students to understand it in the context of the times, will, I think, make better sense to them. And probably high schoolers, too.

Once students have a grasp of these competing viewpoints, you can now get them to consider the shift in foreign policy that begins around 1890.

One way to do that is by posing an overall question (compelling question, big question, essential question, inquiry--whatever you'd like to call it) about the factors I mentioned at the very beginning of this post. Here's one shot at it:

What factors led to an increased interest among Americans, and American policy makers in particular, to acquire colonies and spread American power overseas?

I am a big fan of getting information off of 81/2 by 11 sheets of paper--and also a break from computers--and putting information onto index-sized cards. You could, of course, do the same activity with online documents or on regular paper, but I have noticed that something about being able to manipulate cards makes the activity seem more "hands-on" to students. It's not that I think I'm fooling them. But it does seem to shake things up a bit. I have no idea why. The same thing can be said of using "stations." Putting different information at different tables forces students to get up out of their seats and move. It may be more time-saving to keep the student in their seats and move the paper instead of the kids, but this viral post from Grant Wiggins (co-author of Understanding by Design) has reminded me that kids need to move more often.

So you could take some of the factors mentioned above--the closing of the frontier, increased immigration, facts about industrial growth from last post's PowerPoint, etc.--and write a little blurb about them.  Put them either on a set of cards for each group of 3-4 students, or put one sheet at a "station" and create some supporting questions that will help students make connections. (E.g. "how might this lead Americans to become more interested in foreign involvement?") And wrap it up with a brief discussion that will lead you to the The Maine and the outbreak of the Spanish American War the next day.

I'd especially love to hear from middle school teachers-- give the idealism/realism dichotomy a try and let me know how it goes!

For background information for teachers about the concept of idealism vs. realism, check out these websites:

Additionally, check out chapter 2, "The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson," in Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy, which I mentioned in the last blog post. The second half of this chapter describes Roosevelt's realism against Woodrow Wilson's idealism.

1 comment:

  1. Nice ideas, i would try to provide it on my history lessons, thank you. You can this important site very helpful, many articles and essays. I hope it would be interesting for you!