Over the course of history, and more emphatically, recent history, nations, in particular democracies, swing on the pendulum between idealism and realism.
The need for both can be traced through elections and parliamentary rule. Policy based on idealism or realism cannot be conducted long-term as both prove too weighty for a people and too costly for the world.
An idealist sees the world through a lens that reflects the possible best of humanity. A realist sees through a lens that reflects its possible worst. The glass is half-full or half-empty, as one views the contents of the glass with hope, the other with suspicion.
If the contents of the glass be evil, realism is the lens by which a nation should see.
Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan were arguably the two great realists of the 20th century. They were endowed by their Creator with an ability to perceive evil and, while many others avoided confrontation, to speak boldly about, against, and to it without hesitance.
In 1919, Churchill knew what Bolshevism was, as many at that time did or were beginning to learn. The primary difference was his ability to stand in a place of power and speak openly about it.
His command of the English language always left its indelible mark on listeners, especially when speaking about the evils of the world. During the time of the Paris Peace Conference, he perceptively and accurately labeled Bolshevism as a “disease” and a “pestilence.” He called the Bolsheviks a “league of failures, the criminals, the morbid, the deranged and the distraught.”
Before the House of Commons on Nov. 6, 1919, his vivid description of Vladimir Lenin’s return to Russia from Switzerland can hardly be forgotten.
“Lenin was sent into Russia by the Germans in the same way that you might send a phial containing a culture of typhoid or cholera to be poured into the water supply of a great city, and it worked with amazing accuracy.”
Individually, Churchill’s description of Lenin fits accurately with that of a psychopath—a psychological term that had only recently been coined.
“Implacable vengeance, rising from a frozen pity in a tranquil, sensible, matter-of-fact, good-humored integument! His weapon, logic; his mood, opportunist; his sympathies, cold and wide as the Arctic Ocean; his hatreds, tight as the hangman’s noose. His purpose, to save the world; his method, to blow it up. Absolute principles, but readiness to change them. Apt at once to kill or learn; dooms and afterthoughts; ruffianism and philanthropy. But a good husband, a gentle guest; happy, his biographers assure us, to wash up the dishes or dandle the baby; as mildly amused to stalk a capercaillie as to butcher an emperor.”
His ability never wavered with the threat of Adolf Hitler. Though the world was wary of Hitler, the preference of peace over war kept the nations in silence.
In May of 1935, Reeves Shaw, the editor of The Strand magazine, reached out to Churchill asking for his appraisement of Hitler, and requested he be “as outspoken as you possibly can” and to be “absolutely frank in your judgement of his methods.” His article was published a little more than a year after the Night of the Long Knives, where Hitler ordered 200 members of his military murdered in a three-day span.
He wrote, “[H]istory will pronounce Hitler either a monster or a hero. … If, because the story is unfinished, because, indeed, its most fateful chapters have yet to be written, we are forced to dwell upon the dark side of his work and creed, we must never forget nor cease to hope for the bright alternative.”
What was even more chilling, if not more accurate, was his appraisement of the German people after this massacre.
“But the astounding thing is that the great German People, educated, scientific, philosophical, romantic … have not only not resented this horrible blood-bath, but have endorsed it and acclaimed its author with the honours not only of a sovereign but almost of a God. Here is the frightful fact before which what is left of European civilization must bow its head in shame, and what is more to practical purpose, in fear.”
Three years later, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from a conference with Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, he stated “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. … Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”
A year later, Germany invaded Poland, leading France to declare war on Germany. France would fall to Germany months later. Chamberlain, the idealist, was ousted, and the British people turned their hopes to the realist.
The fall of Germany and Japan gave rise to the communist nations, in particular the USSR and Red China. In February of 1946, just six months after the end of World War II, the contents of George Kennan’s “long telegram” initiated the Western world’s policy of containment. The following month, Churchill delivered his Iron Curtain speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. … From what I have seen of our Russian friends and Allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for military weakness.”
His advice proved true. Regardless, by 1950, the United States had decreased its military strength to less than 10 percent of what it had been in September of 1945. The massive reduction proved fatal at the start of the Korean War. The idea that the world had finally reached “a peace for our time” was no more true than when Chamberlain first proclaimed it.
Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter inherited the policy of containment that became weaker and weaker over each administration. The weariness caused by the Vietnam War and its mismanagement paved the way for the idealist, Carter, who embraced the ultimate idealism: socialism. His time in office proved that the path of least resistance, in particular with Iran, was a path most costly.
Ronald Reagan was a realist who pinpointed not only the enemy abroad, but also the enemy within. In his 1964 speech, A Time for Choosing, he strongly stated, “We’re at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars, and it’s been said if we lose that war, and in so doing lose this way of freedom of ours, history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening.”
Sixteen years later, he would become president, much to the chagrin of idealists. He was a “maverick” who could cost mankind its existence. He spoke harshly and without hesitance of the Soviet Union.
In his 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, he called the Soviet Union “the focus of evil in the modern world” and “the evil empire.” He then directed the attention to the American people.
“If history teaches anything, it teaches that simple minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.”
Later that same year, Soviet military pilots shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, killing 269 people. Reagan did not hold back in his televised condemnation of the act and the regime. He went to the source by saying, “It was an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations.” He then made a profound statement when he said, “We shouldn’t be surprised by such inhuman brutality.”
Reagan understood that the people behind the government, and the ideology they embraced, were one and the same. Whatever barbarism displayed would not and could not be a surprise for Reagan; anything less would tend toward idealism.
The surprise came nonetheless through the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, a man with whom Reagan could finally work and speak directly to. And he did speak directly to him on numerous occasions, but never so effectively than when he did so without Gorbachev’s presence.
Before the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin in June of 1987, Reagan delivered one of the most powerful, and now most iconic speeches ever to be delivered by a president, or any leader.
He spoke of hope and possible freedom. He commented on how the world had moved on and become better while leaving the Soviet Union behind. His rhetoric was different, yet the same. He was not combative, yet he was resolute. It was an invitation to join the rest of the world.
For decades, these two countries had only seen the worst in each other; but now Reagan was placing an idealistic idea into the heads of Soviets—and Gorbachev, most importantly. He hoped Gorbachev would look upon the contents of America’s glass with hope, and not suspicion.
Interestingly, the most demanding part of his speech did not come at the end, it came in the middle. The placement proved a sense of sincerity, rather than a flash of brevity.
With the Berlin Wall behind him, he made his invitation: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
The Berlin Wall was torn down two years later.
The same year Reagan made that speech, Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” was published. As the USSR fell into ruin, China began to rise. As the Chinese Communist Party has continued to intimidate, if not dominate, other nations, especially within Southeast Asia, China has gone uncontested. Despite the intelligence community raising alarm about the Chinese threat, leaders have continued nearly unalarmed.
Trump has been vocal about the human rights abuses and chaotic behaviors of particular regimes. During his speeches at the United Nations (U.N.), he has gone so far as to call the regimes of Iran and North Korea “murderous” and “depraved,” respectively.
In front of the U.N., he threatened that if America was forced to defend itself or its allies, that it would have “no choice than to totally destroy North Korea.” He declared in 2017 that “rocketman [Kim Jong-un] is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime.”
He has condemned Iran’s regime as a “corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy,” has supported its protestors, and withdrawn the United States from the Iran Nuclear Deal. His verbal treatment of Syria and the Assad regime has not been very different. All of which have been backed up with some type of military action.
On China, however, it has been a different tone, one that continues to come under scrutiny from both the left and the right. The closest Trump has come to denouncing China’s human rights abuses is by expressing dismay that “some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.” There are 47 states on the council, of which numerous have such records.
There is no argument that China and the United States are the two great powers of the world. On the grand scale, however, there are few regimes in the world that inflict more human rights abuses than China.
It’s a question worth asking whether the leader of the free world sees the content of China’s glass with hope or suspicion. Since becoming president, it has appeared to be the former, though the recent COVID-19 outbreak may have changed that.
Trump has continued to attack China from an economic angle, though it remains to be seen whether he believes economic retaliation against the Chinese Communist Party will succeed where words fail.
Every leader throughout history has had their enemy. Some conquer them. Some fail to conquer. Some fail to even try. Undoubtedly, the Chinese Communist Party is among the great evils of this world.
The question is not whether Trump is an idealist as Chamberlain or Carter. The question is whether he can rise to the level of Churchill or Reagan.