Gates: America Must Balance Idealism, Realism

MOUNT VERNON, Va., April 14, 2011 — Since the begin­ning of the repub­lic, the Unit­ed States has had to bal­ance its ide­al­is­tic impuls­es with real­ism, and that remains true today, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said here today.
Gates was the keynote speak­er at the ground­break­ing for the Nation­al Library for the Study of George Wash­ing­ton on the grounds of the Mount Ver­non Estate.

 National Library for the Study of George Washington
Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates speaks at the ground­break­ing for the Nation­al Library for the Study of George Wash­ing­ton on the grounds of the Mount Ver­non Estate, Va., April 14, 2011.
DOD pho­to by R.D. Ward
Click to enlarge

Wash­ing­ton faced some of the same ques­tions over the rise of rev­o­lu­tion­ary France that Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma faces with the rev­o­lu­tions in North Africa and the Mid­dle East, Gates said. Wash­ing­ton became America’s first pres­i­dent in 1789, and he was con­front­ed with the con­se­quences of the French Revolution. 

“The issue was whether to sup­port the rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment and its war against an alliance of Euro­pean monar­chies led by Great Britain,” Gates said. “To many, like Thomas Jef­fer­son, the French Rev­o­lu­tion, with its stat­ed ideals of lib­er­ty, equal­i­ty and fra­ter­ni­ty, seemed a nat­ur­al suc­ces­sor to our own.” 

But many dis­agreed, includ­ing Vice Pres­i­dent John Adams. “They were appalled by the revolution’s excess­es and feared the spread of vio­lent French rad­i­cal­ism to our shores,” the sec­re­tary said. 

Wash­ing­ton had to resolve the mat­ter. “My best wish­es are irre­sistibly excit­ed when­so­ev­er, in any coun­try, I see an oppressed nation unfurl the ban­ners of free­dom,” he wrote. But the upheaval in Europe had begun to dis­rupt the U.S. econ­o­my, and he under­stood the fragili­ty of America’s posi­tion at the time. He “adopt­ed a neu­tral­i­ty pol­i­cy toward France and would go on to make a peace treaty with Great Britain – spark­ing mas­sive protests and accu­sa­tions of sell­ing out the spir­it of 1776,” Gates said. 

“Wash­ing­ton was con­fronting a ques­tion, a dilem­ma, that has been per­sis­tent through­out our his­to­ry: how should we incor­po­rate America’s demo­c­ra­t­ic ideals and aspi­ra­tions into our rela­tions with the rest of the world?” the sec­re­tary said. “What Washington’s expe­ri­ence shows is that, from our ear­li­est days, America’s lead­ers have strug­gled with ‘real­is­tic’ ver­sus ‘ide­al­is­tic’ approach­es to the inter­na­tion­al chal­lenges fac­ing us.” 

The most suc­cess­ful Amer­i­can lead­ers stead­fast­ly encour­aged the spread of lib­er­ty, democ­ra­cy, and human rights, Gates said. “At the same time, how­ev­er, they have fash­ioned poli­cies blend­ing dif­fer­ent approach­es with dif­fer­ent empha­sis in dif­fer­ent places and at dif­fer­ent times,” he added. 

The Unit­ed States has made human rights the cen­ter­piece of its nation­al strat­e­gy, even as it was doing busi­ness with some of the worst vio­la­tors of human rights, the sec­re­tary not­ed. “We have worked with author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments to advance our own secu­ri­ty inter­ests, even while urg­ing them to reform,” he said. The world is wit­ness­ing an extra­or­di­nary sto­ry in the Mid­dle East and North Africa, the sec­re­tary said. 

“Peo­ple across the region have come togeth­er to demand change, and in many cas­es, a more demo­c­ra­t­ic, respon­sive gov­ern­ment,” he said. “Yet many of the regimes affect­ed have been long­stand­ing, close allies of ours, ones we con­tin­ue to work with as crit­i­cal part­ners in the face of com­mon secu­ri­ty chal­lenges like al-Qai­da and Iran, even as we urge them to reform and respond to the needs of their people.” 

A theme of Amer­i­can his­to­ry is that the Unit­ed States is com­pelled to defend its secu­ri­ty and inter­ests in ways that spread demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues and insti­tu­tions, Gates said. “When we dis­cuss open­ly our desire for demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues to take hold across the globe, we are describ­ing a world that may be many years or decades off,” the sec­re­tary said. “Though achieve­ment of the ide­al may be lim­it­ed by time, space, resources or human nature, we must not allow our­selves to dis­card or dis­par­age the ide­al itself.” Amer­i­ca must speak about its val­ues and ideals, Gates said. 

“And when we look at the chal­lenges fac­ing con­tem­po­rary fledg­ling democ­ra­cies, or soci­eties and gov­ern­ments fac­ing pres­sures for change,” he added, “we would do well to be mod­est­ly mind­ful of the tur­bu­lence of our own ear­ly his­to­ry and to remem­ber our own long jour­ney from a polit­i­cal sys­tem of, by, and for prop­er­ty-own­ing white men to an inclu­sive nation with an African-Amer­i­can president.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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