Idealism and realism in U.S.’s leadership role: Column
By Rich Elfers
“We [the United States] are both fated to lead and fated to do so erratically and impulsively” (Joseph P. Ellis. “American Dialogue: The Founders and Us”).
The United States is a republic that was founded in the blood, sweat, and tears of the American Revolution. A republic, by definition, is anti-imperialistic. We fought and won our independence from the British Empire. Ironically though, as noted by Ellis, we have struggled between idealism and realism from our founding to the present time.
President George Washington was a realist who deeply valued living up to the ideals of equality and representative government. He found this difficult on several fronts where his realism clashed with his ideals.
One such area was in dealing with the Indian tribes during the first year of his administration. Washington believed that native Americans should be treated not as inferior people to be exterminated in America’s western expansion of the continent, but as human beings who deserved respect. His vision was to accede to their territorial claims and work around their nations as Americans moved West.
Unfortunately, Washington’s dream was crushed by the reality that settlers didn’t care a whit about the treaty he made with the Creeks, a powerful nation he was going to use as a prototype of future dealings with Indian tribes. His plan had been to guarantee their nation by keeping settlers out of their territory using the army. But as Washington soon discovered, it would have taken 5,000 soldiers guarding the borders of the Creek nation to keep the settlers out. The entire U.S. military only consisted of 2,500 soldiers, making it impossible for him to keep his promise.
Washington’s frustration and failure can be clearly seen in this quote: “Tis vain to believe that anything short of a Chinese wall will restrain land jobbers and the encroachment of settlers upon Indian territory.” Reality told Washington that the new government lacked the ability to keep its promises regarding native Americans. His failure to manage the Indian question meant that for the next 100 years, settlement of the West would be accomplished, not with reason and equality, but as an imperialist nation conquering weaker peoples who stood in its path to domination of a continent.
Washington was more successful turning western lands into new states. It was possible that the original 13 states could have demanded their permanent superiority over the rest of the western lands. This territory could have been turned into colonies. But Washington, with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson’s agreement, pushed to make future states equal to the original 13. This guaranteed the continuation of the ideal where European settlers would become citizens rather than subjects. It was the glue that bound settlers together into a united republic.
In his idealism, Washington encouraged Europeans to come to America to settle those western lands: “Rather than quarrel abt territory, let the poor, the needy, & oppressed of Earth, and those who want Land, resort to the fertile plains of our Western Country.”
There was also a great deal of realism here as well. If large numbers of Europeans settled in the West, their very numbers would dissuade the British, French, and Spanish Empires from conquering those lands for themselves. It was in the contest between imperialism and republicanism that Washington set the tone to win North America for the United States.
This struggle between realism and idealism has continued into our time. Ellis notes that in the quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, “the most distinctive feature is nearly perpetual war, and the most distressing fact is that the overwhelming military superiority of the United States did not produce successful outcomes.”
Our conquest of Iraq in the name of spreading democracy to the world has only driven them into the arms of Iran and helped to radicalize Iraq’s Sunni population to embrace ISIS. As Ellis notes, “The American political recipe for success has proven unpalatable for people and places with different histories, religions, and political traditions.”
President Washington believed in American exceptionalism. But his realism differed from modern conservative idealism: Our history, geography, and culture mean we cannot export our republican values and government to other nations. We are unique.
Ellis was right: “We are both fated to lead and fated to do so erratically and impulsively.” We are caught in the endless trap of matching our ideals with reality. We will continue to lead the world, but we will act “erratically and impulsively” in the process.
Rich Elfers is a columnist with the Courier-Herald in Enumclaw, a former Enumclaw City Council member and a Green River College professor. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.