Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #51: Crusaders and Pragmatists
Stoessinger's book has stayed with me since I first read it for Tom Trout's American foreign policy class 25 years ago. He evaluates the major US foreign policy moments of the 20th century through the lens of the primary figures involved: Wilson and the League of Nations, FDR at Yalta, Dulles during the Suez crisis, JFK and the Cuban missiles, Reagan and the Cold War, among others. He traces the intellectual and political development of these men, determining whether their background drew them to unbending missionary zeal or nimble dealmaking flexibility.
The content stays with me, but so does the title: Crusaders and Pragmatists. It's a fundamental divide in all political life (probably in all life, period) - those who insist on ideological purity and those willing to compromise for incremental gains. There's certainly a place for both - for Malcolm X and Dr. King, for Magneto and Charles Xavier. The world needs visionaries and ideologues, but it also needs people who can operate the machinery of statescraft and keep the lights on while the grand theater of history plays out. I've always tended more to the latter, to pragmatism. It's what made me less Bernie Bro and more HRC apologist in 2016, and what drives me to seek achievable goals rather than the untrammeled pursuit of perfect wakefulness. Is that in part rooted in the privilege of a straight white male? I'll happily stipulate that to a degree. But it's also because I've been involved in making the sausage as far back as I can remember. I have vivid memories of my time in university governance at UNH, when a new policy would have the potential for great harm to students. Some of my fellow student leaders would insist on a full reversal of the policy, viewing the matter in absolute moral terms, without regard to whatever financial or legal context might be at play. I always found more success trying the understand what was happening, to grasp its nuances, and to seek an alternative that would satisfy the needs of the machine while mitigating the harm to the people I represented. It ain't theater, and I'm no superhero. People don't stand in line to hear the pragmatist speak, people don't make t-shirts with the pragmatist's face on it, and nobody writes folk songs about the daily grind of making government work better for more people than it did yesterday. There's a romance to the home run that rarely notices the singles hitter.
I have no problem with agitators, with the ideologically pure, with those who cannot stomach lesser evils, with Billy Joel's angry young men who struggle and bleed as they hang on the cross. They're indispensable to progress. They just don't make good executives. And I know I'll never be one. What I would enjoy is mutual consideration that we're often on the same side.