Barack Obama has received lots of advice on what he should say in his second inaugural. Unlike some commentators, I hope he doesn't use it as an opportunity to articulate a new grand strategy. George Bush tried that approach, and his second inaugural was a grandiose embarrassment.
At his best, Obama has a rare ability to convey painful truths to the American people and help us consider them in a new light. That is what he did in his famous Philadelphia speech on race, and his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. In that spirit, here's my fantasy about what he might tell the American people tomorrow. It's high time they heard it.
My fellow Americans:
The United States is a country of great ideals -- of liberty, equality, opportunity, and democracy -- truths that our Founding Fathers held to be "self-evident." These principles have inspired us from the start, and given us standards by which to judge our achievements and to reveal where we have fallen short.
Yet there is another set of truths that has guided us no less than these principles, truths that we are usually reluctant to acknowledge, even to ourselves. It is those neglected but important realities that I shall speak of today.
In addition to being a country of lofty ideals, America is also a land whose best leaders have been imbued from the beginning with a deep sense of realism about the world in which we live and the ways we must make our way through it. America's best moments have come when our ideals were tempered by a clear sense of what was in America's national interest and what our capabilities would allow us to do. In those moments, we also understood what lay beyond our reach.
As realists, the Founding Fathers understood that men (and women) are not angels, so they labored to devise a political system that could serve the governed without turning into tyranny. Because they recognized the central role of power and the inevitable frailties of all human beings, they wisely devised a system of checks and balances that has helped safeguard our liberties for well over two centuries.
As realists, our early leaders understood that our fledgling Republic was unlikely to thrive if it was surrounded and beset by powerful rivals. So they set themselves the task of continental expansion and economic growth, and, at the same time, they committed our young nation to driving the European great powers from the Western hemisphere. Over the next century, the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny made the United States supreme among its immediate neighbors, transforming the 13 original colonies into the most secure great power in history. But let us never forget that these achievements were borne on the backs of the original inhabitants of this continent, and that America's rise to great power was accompanied by the sufferings of millions.
As realists, we Americans understand the dangers that would arise if other great powers came to dominate their regions of the world in the same way that the United States dominates the Western hemisphere. So our leaders took the United States into both World Wars, not just to defeat aggressive dictators but also to uphold the balance of power in Eurasia. And our greatest presidents understood that success in both war and peace sometimes requires painful compromises. Franklin Roosevelt had no illusions about the evils of communism, but he also knew that allying with the Soviet Union during World War II was necessary to defeat the greater evil of Nazi Germany. In his words, "to cross that bridge I would hold hands with the devil."
Realism also guided the United States to victory in the long Cold War. Instead of withdrawing from Europe and Asia when World War II was over, America forged alliances with key powers in both regions to contain the communist threat. Some of our partners did not share all of our ideals, but American leaders understood that these ideals would not long survive were the Soviet Union to prevail. At the same time, U.S. leaders understood that trying to roll back communism by force of arms was far too dangerous in a nuclear age, and that the best approach was to patiently wait for the Soviet empire to self-destruct.
Even today, as we strive to advance our core ideals both at home and abroad, we must be guided not only by our hopes and dreams, but also by a clear-eyed sense of what is necessary and a hard-headed recognition of what is possible. As realists, we now know that whole societies cannot be remade overnight, and especially not by military occupation. As realists, we understand that our ideals and our interests will sometimes conflict, and that sometimes we must do what we must rather than what we might wish. As realists, we understand that climate change is not a problem we can wish away, and that addressing it may require significant sacrifices. And as realists, we understand that states will be drawn to us if we are strong but not aggressive, and that they will distance themselves if we use our power unwisely and too often.
Realism also reminds us that our success as a nation is not measured by military power alone; because our military prowess depends on a strong economy and a loyal and well-educated population. Realists also know that states are as likely to err by exaggerating dangers they face as by paying them insufficient heed. We are neither stronger nor safer as a nation when we squander money on senseless wars or on unnecessary weapons, and when we forgo opportunities to resolve disputes with diplomacy.
Finally, realism reminds us that no country has a monopoly on wisdom or virtue. We are justly proud of America's many achievements, but we must also be ready to acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them. Indeed, perhaps our greatest strength as a people has been our willingness to learn from the past, to discard outmoded or unjust beliefs and policies, and to move forward with alacrity and audacity.
Make no mistake: America is, and always has been, an exceptional nation. Our citizens have come here from every corner of the world, and America has woven men and women of every race, creed, and religion into a resilient whole cloth. Our power is unmatched and our potential for good is enormous. We have the capacity to build an even better America and to help forge a safer and more just world. But our success in pursuit of these grand goals will require much more than lofty visions and pious principles. It will also require us to pursue those goals with an abiding sense of humility, the humility that a realistic approach to life and politics teaches. If we follow that path, then we shall surely succeed.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.