The Affirmative team gets up and says, “You should pass our plan because of X,Y, and Z principles.” Then the Negative team gets up and says, “You should reject their plan because it does not accomplish X, Y, and Z benefits.” Repeat ad nauseum. Believe it or not, this was what a debate I just saw looked like. When debaters come to the lectern with different assumptions about what justifies their position, it can lead to a very incognizant clash of ideas. Here are some thoughts on how to debate idealistic foreign policy vs. pragmatic foreign policy.

Debating Against Idealistic Foreign Policy

How do you debate against an opponent who says their position is justified almost solely on the principles, maxims, or ideals that we all hold dear?

Idea of Realpolitik

“Realpolitik” is a school of thought in international relations theory that says foreign policy is based on pragmatic rather than ideological considerations. You can see the root word is “real,” implying a “realistic” outlook at the complex situations facing the world. One could say that Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian and the first anthropologist, was realpolitik’s primogenitor in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides  identified that the actions of the Greek nation-states (Athens and Sparta) fit within the context of their particular goals and national interests. Likewise, the realpolitik school of thought says nations conduct foreign policy to obtain practical benefits for themselves. If you are debating against idealistic foreign policy, you could bring up the historical justification of pragmatic foreign policy: government bodies have almost always engaged in foreign-policy-analysis with the mindset of how it provides tangible benefits to their nation.

Reason Why Principles are Good: Tangible Impacts

Why are principles worth upholding? Think about it. The reason why we view particular principles as “good” or “beneficial” is because those principles have positive tangible impacts. For example, the reason why the principle of “rule of law” is viewed positively is because the rule of law leads to the tangible effects of increased order, reduced crime, and a happier, more prosperous society.

Opponent Must Demonstrate the Impact

Therefore, if you are debating against an opponent who justifies their position almost exclusively off of how their position upholds some ideal, you could argue how their principle only matters if it provides guaranteed tangible impacts. Press your opponent to demonstrate (if they haven’t already done so) how in that specific instance, their ideal will provide tangible impacts that are the reason we value it so. Therefore, in order for an affirmative team arguing their position upholds the rule of law to demonstrate why it matters, they would have to show their policy’s impact on crime, order etc.

Debating Against Pragmatic Foreign Policy

However, what do you do if you are debating against the position that pragmatic foreign policy is always the way to go?

Historical Precedence

Provide historical examples and stories of when the worth and value of upholding your principle proved to be important.

Theme-Based Debate

Think simple and use a theme in favor of your principle. Using a theme also provides numerous other practical benefits that enhances your communication.

Impact Calculus

Perhaps the best way to counter pragmatic-based foreign policy is to use Impact Calculus. Impact Calculus is when you weigh the impacts of the arguments of both sides (your position and your opponent’s) and conclude that your impacts outweigh your opponents. In short, you show that your arguments are more important than your opponents. Argue that violating principles that define American outweigh any positive gains. One previous Ethos article on Impact Calculus illustrates how this can be done quickly and effectively:

“To do some quick [Impact Calculus], we see that this plan’s supposed economic benefits do not outweigh this disadvantage because we can’t enact a plan that would break the principles we promised to uphold.”

Doing the above suggestions should help you to get to the crux of the issue and have substantive – yet impactful – discussions about real-world foreign policy actions.


Joshua Anumolu is in his fourth year of speech and debate. Last year, he was blessed to place 6th at the NCFCA National Championship in Team Policy debate. For him, competitive debate is about learning how to communicate truth effectively. Every round he lost, was a round he learned from to become a better communicator. He believes true mastery of rhetoric is accomplished when one finds their own balance between ethos, pathos, and logos. He loves to use debate as a platform to inform the audience of issues he cares about.