Stephen M. Walt

Hints of Realism?

  On the foreign-policy front, there are some encouraging hints of realism emerging from the Obama administration. Realists think the world is a competitive place where states guard their own interests first and foremost. Realists generally assume that most states act more-or-less rationally most of the time, although they are aware that states can get ...

US President Barack Obama reads a piece of paper in the Oval Office after arriving on Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, February 19, 2009. Obama traveled to Ottawa, Canada, his first foreign trip as president. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

On the foreign-policy front, there are some encouraging hints of realism emerging from the Obama administration. Realists think the world is a competitive place where states guard their own interests first and foremost. Realists generally assume that most states act more-or-less rationally most of the time, although they are aware that states can get sidetracked by imperfect information, ideological fixations, domestic politics, the delusions of particular leaders, etc. That’s one reason why realists favor energetic diplomacy, so that potential rivals can learn more about the other side’s interests and motivations and gain a clearer sense of the consequences of different courses of action. Case in point: if we want to change Iran’s behavior, it might help to talk to them.

Realists understand that power is the primary currency in world affairs, and that great powers have the latitude to define interests broadly. As the United States has proved in recent years, especially strong powers are prone to fits of hubris, adopting unachievable goals and then pursuing them carelessly. When they do, realists warn, opponents usually bite back (see under: Iraq, Afghanistan).

Contrary to what some people think, realists aren’t cold, calculating machines who are indifferent to moral concerns. Rather, realists simply recognize that are often tradeoffs between our moral preferences and our other interests, and that moral precepts alone are an sufficient guide to foreign policy. Realists also worry that idealistic moral objectives too easily become crusades, thereby causing more human suffering than the ills they were meant to stop.

Finally, because the world is a competitive place, realists look for opportunities to divide adversaries and to discourage potential rivals from joining forces, based on the simple idea that it is better to face weak and/or divided opponents than a strong and unified opposition. Bismarck’s diplomacy is an ideal model: after defeating France and unifying Germany in the Franco-Prussian war, Bismarck adopted a conservative, status-quo strategy that kept France isolated for the next twenty years. Not only did this make Germany safer, it also made Europe more tranquil.

So what are the hopeful signs? Here are a few straws in the wind:

1. Obama has put down a marker on Iraq, indicating that he will in fact carry though on his pledge to get all U.S. forces out by the end of 2011. By stating this commitment as clearly as he could (with one senior official ruling out a Korea-like long-term commitment), and by lining up a lot of prominent support for it, he has made it more difficult to renege even if the situation in Iraq becomes more violent as U.S. forces withdraw. Such a development would be unfortunate, even tragic, but as Andrew Sullivan noted, it is not a reason to stay. Obama is enough of a realist to know that if he doesn’t get us out of there, Bush’s 2003 mistake will be a deadweight for his entire presidency.

2. There are now hints of a U.S. willingness to talk to “moderate” elements of the Taliban. This is realistic in two senses: First, it recognizes that the Taliban is not a unified, centralized movement with a single headquarters and a strong governing ideology; rather, it is a loose collection of groups with certain common beliefs but lots of internal divisions. Alignment and realignment of various tribes and factions is a recurring theme in Afghan history, and this approach reflects an awareness of that core principle. Second, it recognizes that the United States has no vital interest in determining who actually governs in Afghanistan, provided that the government does not let Afghan territory be used to organize attacks on U.S. soil (or other core interests). Co-opting any moderate elements can be won over will make our task easier; waging war on all of them at once merely reinforces their fragile unity. Reaching out to the moderates may not work, of course, but there’s little risk in trying and potentially much to gain.

3. Similarly, the new overture to Syria follows a similar logic. As I’ve argued before, a well-integrated Middle East strategy will try to coordinate our approaches to Syria, Iran, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, to give potential spoilers less incentive to derail progress and give current obstacles incentives to rethink their positions. Keeping Syria isolated encourages them to stay close to Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, because they are the only cards Syria has to play. Reaching out to them does exactly the opposite; it gives them an incentive to distance itself from these actors in order to obtain things that are more important. The success of this initiative will ultimately depend on whether we can broker the long-delayed peace treaty with Israel (which will require Israel to return the Golan Heights), but these initial contacts are an encouraging first step.

4. Despite an embarrassing gaffe, the initial meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seems to have gone well despite one obvious self-inflicted wound. Whose idea was to give Lavrov a mock “reset button” in the first place? This was a juvenile gesture ill-befitting a great power, and then screwing up the gag with an erroneous translation made the State Department look like a bunch of amateurs. Overall, the incident reminded me of the infamous bible-shaped cake that Ollie North took to Tehran during the Iran-contra scandal. But beyond the atmospherics, the actually meeting appears to have been both serious and cordial. And the administration’s willingness to put missile defenses on the table shows that Obama and Co. are aware that this is a critical issue for Russia and could be the key to gaining Russian cooperation on more important items like Iran.

5. Finally, Secretary Clinton’s Middle East trip was, as Marc Lynch, summarizes here, something of a “mixed bag.” But given what we come to expect from visits by the previous secretary of state, even a mixed bag is a step forward. And as Gary Sick notes here (also courtesy of Marc’s blog), there are lots of signs on all sides of an emerging interest in — horrors! — “diplomacy” throughout the region. That’s a realistic course for everyone to take at this point. And if I may beat a dead horse one more time, the big question is whether our future diplomatic strategy is well-coordinated or not. If it is, we could realize major gains; if not, we are going to make things worse.

So as I said, there are some encouraging hints of realism in the realm of foreign policy. But don’t get too happy yet. If Paul Krugman is right in today’s Times, a sense of realism may still be lacking on the economic front, and that’s probably more important these days.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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