A Foreign Policy, In Two Words

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, countering criticism that the Bush administration has fundamentally broken with past U.S. foreign policy, asserted in a speech last night that the administration's policies are instead part of a 100-year-old tradition that she labeled "American realism."

"American realism deals with the world as it is but strives to make the world better than it is," Rice told the Economic Club of New York. "More free. More just. More peaceful. More prosperous. Ultimately safer. Not perfect. But better."

Rice used the term "American realism" 16 times in her remarks, an apparent effort to coin a phrase that would resonate long after the administration leaves office in 19 months. It was the first time that Rice has offered an overriding label for the administration's foreign policy since 2000, when, as an adviser to then-Gov. George W. Bush, she wrote an article for Foreign Affairs stressing that a new Republican administration would focus on promoting "the national interest" rather than the interests of the international community.

Under President Bush, U.S. alliances in Europe, the Middle East and Asia have become strained because of policies -- ranging from global warming to Iraq -- that many critics decry as a dangerous shift in the United States' approach to world affairs. Much of Rice's speech appeared intended to address assertions by Democrats that Bush broke with foreign policy traditions when he abandoned many policies pursued by President Bill Clinton on North Korea, the Middle East, global warming and other issues.

The United States has always been "not a status quo power but a revolutionary power," she said.

Rice argued that the spiritual father of American realism was President Theodore Roosevelt, whom she said some saw incorrectly as a "progressive idealist" or a "cold-eyed realist." She said that President Harry S. Truman, in the early days of the Cold War, carried forth this ideal with his secretaries of state, including George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson. Now, she said, the Bush administration was following in the same vein with its policies on trade, foreign aid and democracy promotion -- as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Helping states to transform themselves, to improve themselves, is the most realistic approach to the problems we now face," Rice said.

Strikingly, Rice cited a progressive Republican (Teddy Roosevelt) and a Democrat (Truman) as the administration's models, but she never mentioned conservative icon Ronald Reagan.

In the speech, Rice also appeared eager to put her stamp on the administration's often controversial approach to foreign relations.

During Bush's first term, the administration was frequently split between the so-called realists at the State Department under Colin L. Powell and the neoconservatives at the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney's office. Rice, for her part, was considered a realist before she joined the Bush administration. But as national security adviser she frequently tried to merge the competing ideas into an unwieldy amalgam that pleased neither camp.

As secretary of state, Rice has pushed for policies that soften some of the hard edges of the conservatives -- many of whom have left the administration -- and has appeared to reach out to allies. Philip D. Zelikow, a former Rice aide whom she considers an ideological soul mate, attempted in 2005 to describe the administration's approach as "practical idealism." In a major speech, Zelikow, then the State Department counselor, also cited Teddy Roosevelt as the exemplar of this concept, quoting the former president as saying that "in striving for a lofty ideal we must use practical methods."

In yesterday's remarks, Rice chose to emphasize "realism" rather than "idealism" -- suggesting that now, near the end of the Bush administration, she is returning to the foreign-policy concepts she had embraced previously. Some of her conservative aides, such as Undersecretary of State Robert G. Joseph and U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, have departed in recent months, expressing anger at her push to emphasize diplomacy in areas such as North Korea and Iran, which they criticize as a return to Clinton-era policies.

"It is the guiding conviction of American realism that we achieve our greatest and more enduring goals when we unite power and purpose together," Rice said, adding: "That is not to say there will never be tensions. We will never bring our day-to-day interests into perfect harmony with our ideals. But that is a challenge for policy, not a license to ignore our principles."

But Rice said the challenge is not to build new international institutions but to "help developing countries build more effective, more democratic domestic institutions," because, she said, "liberty and justice within states leads to peace and stability between states."

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