Steven Clemons and Stephen Walt sound off on Paul Wolfowitz’s critique of realism and Obama’s foreign policy.
Paul Wolfowitz's provocative critique of foreign-policy realism ("Think Again: Realism," September/October 2009) has several flaws.
Paul Wolfowitz’s provocative critique of foreign-policy realism ("Think Again: Realism," September/October 2009) has several flaws.
For one, he punts on the Iraq war. By dropping the subject, he misses a fundamental reality: The power a president inherits when he or she gets the keys to the White House is not the same from president to president.
President Barack Obama, in his early foreign-policy moves, has found his "inner Nixon" and made a number of key realist-like gestures — not because Nixonianism was lurking just under the skin of his campaign for the White House all along, but because he had to. John McCain, his Republican opponent in the presidential campaign, also would have been compelled to find his "inner Nixon," because the United States is substantially constrained today and viewed by much of the world as a superpower in decline.
The Iraq war punctured the mystique of America’s superpower status and exposed military limits, followed later by economic limits that have undermined the confidence of key allies in American power and dependability. Had the Iraq invasion not occurred, and had George W. Bush’s team dealt a crushing blow to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and come home, the world and America would be in a different place. In those circumstances, Obama might have been the type of values crusader that Bush got to be-at least for a short while.
Another issue I wish Wolfowitz had raised is the importance of America’s demonstrating by example the kind of democracy it hopes others aspire to. We saw how the reactions to the September 11 attacks and the buildup to the Iraq war led to a national security pathology in the United States in which core democratic values, including our beliefs about universal human rights, were undermined. This kind of example is something that authoritarian governments salivate at-and true democrats abroad revile.
American Strategy Program
The New America Foundation
It is easy to understand why Paul Wolfowitz dislikes "realism." On the most significant foreign-policy decision since the end of the Cold War — the ill-fated 2003 invasion of Iraq — the realists who opposed it were right and Wolfowitz and the other architects of the war were dead wrong. No wonder he begins his article by saying that this "is not the place to reargue the Iraq War." I’d try to exclude Iraq from discussion if I were him, too.
Contrary to Wolfowitz’s claims, there is no "debate" between realists and idealists over the desirability of democratic government and human rights. I know of no realists who oppose the peaceful encouragement of these values, and Wolfowitz offers no examples of any. The real issue, as the Iraq debate revealed, is whether the United States and its democratic allies should be trying to spread these ideals at the point of a gun or sacrificing other important interests in order to advance them.
Wolfowitz is correct about one thing: Barack Obama is probably not a "realist." He is essentially a pragmatist. But his administration is chock full of traditional liberal internationalists, many of whom backed the Iraq war in 2003 and still think America’s mission is to right wrongs wherever they may arise. That’s why we are plunging deeper into Afghanistan and why the foreign-policy establishment continues to think we are making progress every time Washington has to assume responsibility for fixing some foreign problem.
The bottom line is that it really doesn’t matter whether Obama is a "realist" or not. But the sooner he starts to act like one, the better off the United States will be.
Stephen M. Walt
Robert and Renée Belfer
Professor of International Relations
Stephen M. Walt is a blogger for ForeignPolicy.com.
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt
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