Duck readers may recall that just over two years ago Charli posted about an interesting and provocative Deborah Boucoyannis article arguing that realist notions of the balance-of-power are actually liberal ideas about checks-and-balances.

The post generated a lot of comments (which apparently cannot be linked under the new software), including a fairly long and somewhat critical one from Duck founder Dan Nexon. Despite the flaws he noted, Dan nonetheless wrote that “the argument…is persuasive; she’s made a very important contribution, at a minimum, in arguing that the ‘balance of power’ is too big to restrict to realism, and ought to be treated as an object of analysis in its own right.” Later, the author responded to the critics.

As Charli said in her post, if an idea long associated with realism can be explained from a liberal viewpoint, then many of us must rethink how we teach IR theory. In my case, I’d long compared the balance of power to domestic checks and balances so that students familiar with the latter could better understand the IR concept. However, I’d never made the argument Boucoyannis presented.

This exchange came to mind recently when I read Stanford historian David Kennedy’s brief essay in the January/February Atlantic Monthly. Kennedy makes a novel-to-me argument about Woodrow Wilson’s famous call that “The world must be made safe for democracy.” This time, however, the scholar asserts that an idea long associated with liberalism (nee Wilsonianism!) in IR was actually tied to a practical realism:

Wilson tempered his diplomatic ideals with a pragmatic comprehension of the modern world, of its possibilities and its dangers. He respected the pride and the prerogatives of other peoples. He shrewdly calculated the reach as well as the limits of American power. Perhaps most important, he was attentive to what kind of foreign policy, resting on principles of moral legitimacy, the American public would embrace.

Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman took the lessons. They asked only that the world be made safe for democracy, not that the world be made democratic. They understood the complexities of human cussedness and the constraints on even America’s formidable power. They would surely have hesitated to wage a preemptive war against Iraq that grossly overestimated America’s capacity to achieve its goals.

In the end, Kennedy praises a set of four “principles [that] constitute a blend of realism and idealism, not a stark choice between them, and their careful application over several decades represents a singular achievement for American diplomacy.”

At ISA, I served as a discussant on a panel about continuity or change in U.S. foreign policy from Bush to Obama. Two of the three papers quoted the familiar Wilson line in a way that reflected the taken-for-granted meaning — and widely shared view of its crusading implications. I pointed the authors to Kennedy’s piece because it was fresh in mind, but it is certainly possible that this is an established argument that I’ve somehow missed or forgotten. Does a longer version appear elsewhere?

Kennedy’s argument about Wilson serves also as a fairly clear warning that neoconservative calls for a “democratic realism” are dangerous and not Wilsonian. Neocons want to employ American (military) power to advance democracy. Wilson and his successors wanted to secure democracy in a dangerous world.