In Memoriam: James Chace

Nov 5, 2004

A Lost Voice for Sanity Nicholas X. Rizopolous

James Chace, who died suddenly in Paris on October 8, was a popular professor of international relations at Bard College and a prolific writer on political and historical subjects. He was admired by those of us who were his long-time friends, and sometime colleagues, as much for the clarity of his thinking on issues of international politics and U.S. foreign relations as for a writing style that, while reflecting his deep love of the classics of Western literature, was unencumbered by orotundity or ideological baggage. Moreover, perhaps because he had also been for many years a talented professional editor (at Foreign Affairs, the New York Times Book Review, and World Policy Journal), he proved to be a very good listener when it came to his own writing-in-progress, accepting criticism with good grace.

In his numerous studies on American history and foreign policy, including some splendid shorter review essays, Chace-an old-fashioned liberal in his politics-essentially propounded a "realist" viewpoint, but one closer to the early and nuanced George Kennan (of the "X" article) than to the fundamentally amoral Henry Kissinger or the dogmatic "Straussians" in the current administration. There was a strong ethical dimension to his thinking, though it was certainly not "faith-based." Then, too, he was so sensitive to human foibles as to be unfailingly suspicious of national leaders (Gladstone, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter) claiming to be pursuing a "virtuous diplomacy."

In articulating his own philosophy, Chace borrowed most heavily from John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Walter Lippmann, and Dean Acheson. He never tired of citing Adams's much-quoted admonition: "America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Not that he was a confirmed anti-interventionist; far from it. He simply insisted that the U.S. should choose its causes-and identify the threats to its security-with great care, always making sure that adequate means were at hand to achieve the desired ends. In other words, the U.S. should safeguard solvency and avoid overextension. This, of course, was the principal message he also drew from a close reading of Lippmann's writings-along with the need to achieve a judicious balance between prudence, firmness, and restraint.

Chace admired T.R.'s "muscular diplomacy" because it was grounded in a pragmatist's appreciation of the dynamics of Great Power politics and of the benefits accruing to the United States as well of a smoothly functioning balance-of-power system. He also respected T.R. because he saw in him "certainly a moralist, but not a self-righteous one."

My own sense is that Chace wished for the United States to continue playing the role of benevolent hegemon within the community of democratic states while resisting the "imperial temptation" of imposing, not infrequently by force of arms, an American model upon the rest of the world.

Citing, finally, Dean Acheson-whose distinguished biographer he was-Chace argued that while American leadership was essential in preserving a peaceful international order in the post-Cold War world, among statesmen "the pragmatic realist must always be distrustful of universal solutions." Not surprisingly, then, in what was to be my last conversation with him, just before he left for Paris to begin work on a biography of the Marquis de LaFayette, Chace judged George W. Bush's foreign policy record thus far to have been certainly inept and woefully wrongheaded.

A Tribute from Joel Rosenthal

Chace last spoke at the Carnegie Council on June 16 about his latest work, 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs-The Election that Changed the Country. We present an excerpt from the introduction that Carnegie Council president Joel Rosenthal gave on that occasion.

James is somebody whom I admire for his many virtues. It is appropriate that we appear here tonight under the banner of "ethics." James is a virtuous character. I would like to use this occasion to share a few of those virtues with you, although the list could be much longer.

The first is the virtue of hard work. I used to think that I was a very hard-working person-coming from New England, I have that sort of Puritan work ethic-until I had the occasion to travel with James, himself a New England native. I have this unforgettable memory of hotel clerks coming to his room every evening with piles of faxes for him and James delivering the faxes back in the morning, having worked all night. He really humbled me in terms of his capacity for work.

But being a very prudent fellow, James balances that virtue with a capacity to have fun. As I also know from traveling with James to Shanghai and looking for a jazz club late one evening, he is not so earnest a person that he doesn't enjoy a good time.

Another one of James's virtues is a generosity of spirit. When I was young, an obscure program officer here at the Carnegie Council, I remember getting a phone call from a gentleman named James Chace, whom I knew only by reputation. James was organizing a conference on realism, and somebody had told him that a young man named Joel Rosenthal had written something on realism that might be interesting. With incredible fair-mindedness and decency, he said, "I'm going to invite you to this conference to hear what you have to say about realism."

It has always struck me about James that he is forever open to new ideas and to new people, which I think is truly admirable. It's my modest hope that this is why James likes spending time at the Carnegie Council.

Finally, there is another virtue that James embodies. It is what I would call an aesthetic sensibility, a certain artful way of looking at the world. You see it in his writing. When I read his biography of Acheson, for instance, it made me think that Acheson was fortunate indeed to have a biographer like James, who could match wits with his intellect and with his experience in the world.

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