Idealism in foreign policy holds that a state should make its internal political philosophy the goal of its foreign policy. For example, an idealist might believe that ending poverty at home should be coupled with tackling poverty abroad. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was an early advocate of idealism. Wilson's idealism was a precursor to liberal international relations theory, which would arise amongst the "institution-builders" after World War II. It particularly emphasized the ideal of American exceptionalism.
More generally, Michael W. Doyle describes idealism as based on the belief that other nations' stated good intentions can be relied on, whereas Realism holds that good intentions are in the long run subject to the security dilemma described by John H. Herz.
By the 'idealists' we have in mind writers such as Sir Alfred Zimmern, S. H. Bailey, Philip Noel-Baker, and David Mitrany in the United Kingdom, and James T. Shotwell, Pitman Potter, and Parker T. Moon in the United States. ... The distinctive characteristic of these writers was their belief in progress: the belief, in particular, that the system of international relations that had given rise to the First World War was capable of being transformed into a fundamentally more peaceful and just world order; that under the impact of the awakening of democracy, the growth of 'the international mind', the development of the League of Nations, the good works of men of peace or the enlightenment spread by their own teaching, it was in fact being transformed; and that their responsibility as students of international relations was to assist this march of progress to overcome the ignorance, the prejudices, the ill-will, and the sinister interests that stood in its way.
Since the 1880s, there has been growing study of the major writers of this idealist tradition of thought in international relations, including Sir Alfred Zimmern, Norman Angell, John Maynard Keynes, John A. Hobson, Leonard Woolf, Gilbert Murray, Florence Stawell (known as Melian Stawell), Philip Henry Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian, Arnold J. Toynbee, Lester Pearson and David Davies.
Much of this writing has contrasted these idealist writers with 'realists' in the tradition of E. H. Carr, whose The Twenty Years' Crisis (1939) both coined the term 'idealist' and was a fierce and effective assault on the inter-war idealists. Idealism is centered on the notion that states are rational actors capable of ensuring lasting peace and security rather than resorting to war.
Idealism is also marked by the prominent role played by international law and international organizations in its conception of policy formation. One of the most well-known tenets of modern idealist thinking is democratic peace theory, which holds that states with similar modes of democratic governance do not fight one another. Wilson's idealistic thought was embodied in his Fourteen points speech, and in the creation of the League of Nations.
Idealism transcends the left-right political spectrum. Idealists can include both human rights campaigners (traditionally, but not always, associated with the left) and American neoconservatism which is usually associated with the right.
Idealism may find itself in opposition to Realism, a worldview which argues that a nation's national interest is more important than ethical or moral considerations; however, there need be no conflict between the two (see Neoconservatism for an example of a confluence of the two). Realist thinkers include Hans Morgenthau, Niccolò Machiavelli, Otto von Bismarck, George F. Kennan and others. Recent practitioners of Idealism in the United States have included Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Link finds that Wilson from his earliest days had imbibed the beliefs of his denomination - in the omnipotence of God, the morality of the Universe, a system of rewards and punishments and the notion that nations, as well as man, transgressed the laws of God at their peril. Blum (1956) argues that he learned from William Ewart Gladstone a mystic conviction in the superiority of Anglo-Saxons, in their righteous duty to make the world over in their image. Moral principle, constitutionalism, and faith in God were among the prerequisites for alleviating human strife. While he interpreted international law within such a brittle, moral cast, Wilson remained remarkably insensitive to new and changing social forces and conditions of the 20th century. He expected too much justice in a morally brutal world which disregarded the self-righteous resolutions of parliaments and statesmen like himself. Wilson's triumph was as a teacher of international morality to generations yet unborn. Daniel Patrick Moynihan sees Wilson's vision of world order anticipated humanity prevailing through the "Holy Ghost of Reason," a vision which rested on religious faith.
Wilson's views were based on the future welfare of humankind. He called for a world made safe democracy, this was organized around political, economic and social standards. These principles were stated in his 14- point peace program. Wilson thought of this program as an American commitment to show man kind the way of liberty. The core of Wilson's program was a league of nations committed to peace, and bringing down tyranny which was thought to be the root of war. The idea was that if democracy could be widespread peace and prosperity would prevail.
American foreign relations since 1914 have rested on Wilsonian idealism, says historian David Kennedy, even if adjusted somewhat by the "realism" represented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Henry Kissinger. Kennedy argues that every president since Wilson has "embraced the core precepts of Wilsonianism. Nixon himself hung Wilson's portrait in the White House Cabinet Room. Wilson's ideas continue to dominate American foreign policy in the twenty-first century. In the aftermath of 9/11 they have, if anything, taken on even greater vitality."
Idealism proper was a relatively short-lived school of thought, and suffered a crisis of confidence following the failure of the League of Nations and the outbreak of World War II. However, subsequent theories of international relations would draw elements from Wilsonian Idealism when constructing their world views.
Liberalism manifested a tempered version of Wilson's idealism in the wake of World War II. Cognizant of the failures of Idealism to prevent renewed isolationism following World War II, and its inability to manage the balance of power in Europe to prevent the outbreak of a new war, liberal thinkers devised a set of international institutions based on rule of law and regularized interaction. These international organizations, such as the United Nations and the NATO, or even international regimes such as the Bretton Woods system, and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), were calculated both to maintain a balance of power as well as regularize cooperation between nations.
Neoconservatism drew from Liberalism its intense focus on the promotion of "universal values", in this case democracy, human rights, free trade, women's rights and minority protections. However, it differs in that it is less wedded to the importance of preserving international institutions and treaties while pursuing assertive or aggressive stances which it deems morally worthy, and is willing to use force or the threat of force, unilaterally if necessary, to push for its goals.