Robert Kaplan proposes that geopolitics-policy is a more relevant distinction than realist-idealist in delineating different approaches to foreign affairs and international relations.
However, to label the first mindset as realist and the second mindset as idealist is much too facile. So, too, is to label the first mindset determinist and the second anti-determinist—with those often opposed to humanitarian intervention usually in the first camp and those often in favor of it usually in the second camp. And yet all of these dichotomies do capture elements of a certain division in the battle of ideas. Indeed, because these are wholly different sensibilities and worldviews that I am talking about—which, among other things, undergird differences of opinion on specific issues—there is something deeper going on here that explains many of the disputes in Washington, and that causes some people, for example, to admire the prescient wisdom of the arch-realist Brent Scowcroft and others to admire the sheer energy of the do-gooder John Kerry.…
In fact, I am talking about those who are drawn to geopolitics—the eternal battle of space and power played out in a geographical setting, among states with specific and often intractable historical and cultural tendencies—and those who are drawn to policy, in which human agency actively tries to forge solutions to international problems based on specific actions of the U.S. government. The first group is more or less drawn to reading and studying history and literature; the second is more or less drawn to reading and studying political science. The first is attracted to narrative; the second to graphs and tables. The first is attracted to deep-rooted cultural essences; the second to the commonality that unites individuals across cultural boundaries in an age of globalization.
As imperfect as these generalizations are, they do convey a truth, I believe. That truth being: where people stand on the big questions of foreign policy is subjectively related to their intellectual tastes and proclivities. But it gets more complicated. For while the idealistic policy types, as I’ve noted, are drawn generally to political science, neoconservatives (a subset of idealists) are drawn to philosophy whereby they apply the same abstract principles the world over. The realist geopolitical types, on the other hand, are drawn to area expertise, which requires the kind of intimate cultural and historical knowledge of specific geographical terrains: terrains that turn out, in many instances, not to be amenable to those general philosophical principles neoconservatives and liberal internationalists, too, revere.The National Interest
The Real War of Ideas
Robert D. Kaplan | senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security