George H.W. Obama?

That’s what Rahm Emanuel thinks. We asked nine experts to weigh in with their own reactions.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Now that Barack Obama's nuclear-security summit has concluded, the world is taking a fresh look at the U.S. president's foreign policy. Even the White House chief of staff is having his say. In Wednesday's New York Times, Rahm Emanuel went on the record with this assessment of his boss's worldview.

"Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist," Emanuel said. "If you had to put him in a category, he's probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41 ... He knows that personal relationships are important, but you've got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation."

This of course reflects Obama's own praise for George H.W. Bush's foreign policy going back to the presidential campaign.

Now that Barack Obama’s nuclear-security summit has concluded, the world is taking a fresh look at the U.S. president’s foreign policy. Even the White House chief of staff is having his say. In Wednesday’s New York Times, Rahm Emanuel went on the record with this assessment of his boss’s worldview.

"Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist," Emanuel said. "If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41 … He knows that personal relationships are important, but you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation."

This of course reflects Obama’s own praise for George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy going back to the presidential campaign.

We asked a panel of U.S. foreign-policy experts for their reactions to Emanuel’s comments: So, is Obama a cold-blooded realist? Is George H.W. Bush’s presidency a fair comparison? What is the best way to describe Obama’s foreign policy? Here’s what they told us:

Robert Kagan
Senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

I will leave it to the self-described realists to explain in greater detail the origins and meaning of "realism" and "realpolitik" to our confused journalists and politicos. But here is what realism is not: It is not a plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons through common agreement by all the world’s powers. And it is not a foreign policy built on the premise that if only the United States reduces its nuclear arsenal, this will somehow persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program, or persuade China and other reluctant nations in the world to redouble their pressure on Iran to do so. That is idealism of a high order. It is a 21st-century Wilsonian vision. And it is precisely the kind of idealism that realists in the middle of the 20th century rose up to challenge. Realists would point out that the divergent interests of the great powers, not to mention those of Iran, will not be affected in the slightest by marginal cuts in American and Russian nuclear forces.

The confusion no doubt stems from the fact that President Obama is attempting to work with autocratic governments to achieve his ends. But that does not make him Henry Kissinger. When Kissinger pursued diplomacy with China, it was to gain strategic leverage over the Soviet Union. When he sought détente with the Soviets, it was to gain breathing space for the United States after Vietnam. Right or wrong, that was "realpolitik." Global nuclear disarmament may or may not be a worthy goal, but it is nothing if not idealistic.

Tom Malinowski
Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch

President Obama is clearly suspicious of grand schemes to remake the world and of policies driven by moral mission. He wants his focus on interests over ideology to stand in contrast with the approach of the second President Bush.

But if we’re truly going measure the temperature of Obama’s blood, we should start by weighing his words and ideas, not his chief of staff’s. We might look at Obama’s Nobel lecture, for example, perhaps the fullest expression thus far of the president’s worldview. The central argument of that speech was that America’s pragmatic goals, whether winning a war, or building sustainable peace, can be achieved only by respecting and championing liberty, law, and human rights. It’s too early to say whether Obama will consistently live by that insight. But he was right to express it.

Indeed, as the influence of other nations, such as China, grows and traditional forms of economic and military power become more diffuse, America’s willingness to stand up for universal principles will increasingly be the source of its global appeal and comparative advantage. If American foreign policy is to be realistic, it cannot be cold blooded.

Danielle Pletka
Vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute

There is a certain weird irony in the Obama administration’s efforts to portray the U.S. president as the successful son George H.W. Bush never had. In 2008, before Rahm Emanuel labeled his boss more "realpolitik, like Bush 41," the Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne memorably announced that in "electing Barack Obama, the country traded the foreign policy of the second President Bush for the foreign policy of the first President Bush."

Those eager to take a cheap shot would remember that among the hallmarks of George H. W. Bush’s foreign policy were (hmmm) antipathy to Israel, an eagerness to kowtow to creepy dictators, and a lack of the "vision thing" that will forever relegate him to being that guy Americans elected because they couldn’t give Ronald Reagan another term.

But Barack Obama isn’t a realpolitician, and I fear he does indeed have a vision. Obama has embraced the foreign policy of an ideologue, a worshipper at the altar of American decline. The framework seems a simple repudiation of American global leadership, a devaluation of alliances, and a penchant for paper agreements and empty dialogue that articulate grand aims (Disarmament! Global zero! Proximity talks!) but ignore the practical threats to the United States that exist in the real world.

Stephen M. Walt
Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; contributing editor to Foreign Policy and blogger at

President Obama has little choice but to be "cold-blooded" about advancing U.S. interests. He inherited an economy in freefall, two ruinous wars, and an America whose international image had been tarnished by his predecessor’s incompetence. It was no time for starry-eyed idealism, and Americans ought to be grateful that Obama grasped this essential fact from the very beginning.

Of course, people like Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates had figured this out too, and they spent most of George W. Bush’s second term trying to reverse the disastrous consequences of his first four years. It is no accident that Obama kept Gates on, and his foreign policy can even be seen as a more imaginative and energetic continuation of Bush’s second term.

There are certain similarities with George H.W. Bush, but also one key difference: Bush 41 was playing a very strong hand. The United States had just triumphed in the Cold War and it looked like the whole world was swinging our way. The elder Bush (and Baker and Scowcroft) played that hand skillfully and managed crises well, but they were holding all aces from the start.

The real question is whether Obama will remain as ruthlessly realistic as America’s fortunes improve, or whether he will then succumb to the same sort of ambitious fantasies that doomed his predecessor. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d bet not.

Joseph S. Nye
Sultan of Oman professor of international relations at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; author of The Paradox of American Power

The Obama administration has referred to a smart-power strategy that combines hard and soft power. A smart-power strategy requires that the old distinction between realists and liberals needs to give way to a new synthesis that might call liberal realism. It starts with an understanding of the strength and limits of American power. Preponderance is not empire or hegemony. As I argue in my forthcoming book, The Future of Power in the 21st Century, the United States can influence but not control other parts of the world.

Power always depends upon context, and in the context of transnational relations (such as climate change, illegal drugs, pandemics, and terrorism) power is diffuse and chaotically distributed. Military power is a small part of the solution in responding to these new threats. They require cooperation among governments and international institutions. Obama seems to understand this well. He focused first on avoiding a global depression and made good use of the G-20. He has reached out to others with a series of adept speeches and symbolic gestures that restored American soft power. He has now made progress on his nuclear agenda, both with Russia and on countering proliferation. I think he deserves good marks for liberal realism, rather than being pigeonholed into one category of the other.

Peter Feaver
Alexander F. Hehmeyer professor of political science at Duke University; contributing editor to Foreign Policy and blogger at Shadow Government

Emanuel’s quote is puzzling. President Obama may be more "realpolitik" than George W. Bush in the sense that he has downgraded the place of human rights and support for democracy in his foreign policy. But it is certainly not "realpolitik" to slight the personal relationships of presidential diplomacy — and it would be hard to identify something more unlike George H.W. Bush than this feature of the Obama approach to foreign policy. In any case, the rewards for this alleged "realpolitik" turn are still hard to measure. President Obama is significantly more popular with the general publics in the other great powers (except possibly in Asia), but if measured cold-bloodedly by American "self-interest," the last President Bush had at least as good and probably more effective and cooperative relations with the governments of those great powers (except possibly with Russia). Relations with Britain, China, France, Germany, India, and Japan were more troubled in 2009 than they were in 2008.

Charles Kupchan
Senior fellow for European studies, The Council on Foreign Relations

In the classic divide between realists and idealists, President Obama clearly tilts in the realist direction. But what is most distinctive about his foreign policy is its absence of ideological clutter. Thus far, Obama has been the consummate pragmatist, guided by three hard-headed questions: What’s the problem? How do we fix it? Who will help the United States fix it? Moreover, he seems comfortable working with democracies and non-democracies alike — as long as they are willing to contribute to the common cause. This problem-solving approach is both sensible and refreshing.

During his first year in office, Obama seemed inclined to govern at home and abroad primarily through his oratory talents and powers of persuasion. With few results to show for his efforts, Obama has switched tracks, and is now in the political and diplomatic trenches, twisting arms, making bargains, fashioning personal bonds with foreign counterparts — all good news in terms of closing deals and securing deliverables. Heading into the 2010 midterms, Obama needed to have some tangible accomplishments in hand. After the "New START" treaty, the nuclear-security summit, and the improving relationship with China, he now has some. Welcome additions to Obama’s list of accomplishments would include China’s willingness to appreciate its currency and its readiness to present Iran with a united front in the U.N. Security Council.

Another aspect of Obama’s pragmatism is his willingness to take what he can get. The Nuclear Posture Review embraced significant — but modest — changes in nuclear doctrine. The same can be said for New START. Obama is well aware that attempts to reach further would likely have invited staunch opposition from the right and imperiled the prospects for Senate ratification of arms control treaties. At the nuclear-security summit, Obama settled for voluntary measures to stem proliferation, not binding commitments. The same applies to limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Although more ambitious and formalized agreements might be more effective, they are, at least for now, out of reach. Obama is right to sense the limits imposed by domestic constraints at home and abroad — another sign of a president guided by pragmatism.

Michael Lind
Policy director for the economic growth program at the New America Foundation; author of The American Way of Strategy

Rahm Emanuel is right. In many areas, ranging from his caution about escalating the war in Afghanistan to his firm approach to Israel, Barack Obama shows more affinities with the moderate Republican realist tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and the first Bush than with the Cold War liberal tradition of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson that spawned the neoconservative combination of hawkishness and crusading rhetoric. This reflects not only Obama’s worldview but also the migration into the Democratic Party of many former moderate Republican voters. Their influence is seen as much in the Democratic health-care bill, which rejects New Deal-style social democracy for an approach of subsidizing private insurance that Eisenhower and Nixon pioneered, as in the Obama administration’s cost-conscious, realist foreign policy.

Philip Zelikow
White Burkett Miller professor of history at the University of Virginia; former counselor to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

The most unfortunate aspect of Peter Baker’s story was this quote from Rahm Emanuel: "Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist." Well, no. At least not me.

Sure, this framing (realist/idealist) is all too common. And since that habit of thought so often spawns both bad history and bad policy, it is a bit unfortunate that Baker and Emanuel have so powerfully reinforced it. But think for a second: If Emanuel were asked to categorize President Obama’s health-care policy as either realist or idealist, what would he pick? Wouldn’t he say it was both? Or if he was asked to categorize the nuclear nonproliferation agenda that has just dominated the president’s week as either realist or idealist, what would he pick? Wouldn’t he say it was both? Hmmm. Maybe these labels aren’t so helpful after all.

Of course no one wants to be in the "unrealistic" camp. This is why Woodrow Wilson’s biographer described his man’s vision as simply embodying "a higher form of realism." It was not a silly argument, really, when compared with the power politics that had just produced a catastrophic war. If, on the other hand, by "realist" we mean to say that "realists" don’t care about how other countries govern themselves, this is hardly an accurate description even of the very essence of U.S. policy in, say, Afghanistan, much less many other less important countries. Does anyone think the U.S. government is indifferent about how China governs itself (including its commitment to a more open economic model)? I doubt very much that President Obama would align himself with such a definition of his policies, even in private.

In other words, these labels are simply words we use to make an argument in favor of one policy preference over another. Usually the people who like this realist/idealist dichotomy style themselves as "realists." They are making an argumentative contrast. It is another way of saying, "My views are practical, unlike those of some other people."

Of course, though, one can be a practical idealist. Every U.S. president and secretary of state of the 20th and 21st century thought he or she was exactly that. Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger may seem like sole outliers, but even they had an ideal vision, elevating stability and managed conflict to being ends in themselves. To Nixon and Kissinger, reacting to a traumatically polarized and turbulent age, "stability" came for a short time to seem like a rather rosy ideal.

As for the analogy to George H.W. Bush’s administration, it is flattering to this former servant of that administration, but is nonetheless best put back in the drawer. This sort of reasoning by analogy is tempting but dangerously misleading, including in this case. The argument about cold-blooded realism starts breaking down if one digs into Bush’s policies on subjects like rolling back Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, German unification, sending 500,000 troops to confront Iraq over Kuwait, holding elections to settle Nicaragua’s future, or developing the North American Free Trade Agreement. It helps to analyze what people thought about those ideas (some of which were regarded as wildly impractical or dangerous, or both) at the time, before everyone discovered how they turned out.

And those who regard Bush 41 as a cold-blooded, unsentimental person neither know him nor his record. Bush’s stress on personal relationships came from a pretty warm-blooded person who relied deeply on his instincts about people. (In this sense the apple, in the case of his eldest son, really didn’t fall all that far from the tree.) In his "cool" temperament and his clinical empathy, Obama does remind me a bit sometimes of another president, but that would be John F. Kennedy. Then again, people used to make those observations (cold-blooded, etc.) about Nixon’s temperament too. Maybe these analogies really are a bit treacherous.

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