You say idealist, I say realist… let’s call the whole thing off

Everybody — and by everybody, I mean FP —  is getting hot and bothered by this section of Peter Baker’s New York Times story:  If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Everybody -- and by everybody, I mean FP --  is getting hot and bothered by this section of Peter Baker's New York Times story

If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns. He has generated much more good will around the world after years of tension with Mr. Bush, and yet he does not seem to have strong personal friendships with many world leaders.

“Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41,” the first President George Bush, Mr. Emanuel said.

Everybody — and by everybody, I mean FP —  is getting hot and bothered by this section of Peter Baker’s New York Times story

If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns. He has generated much more good will around the world after years of tension with Mr. Bush, and yet he does not seem to have strong personal friendships with many world leaders.

“Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41,” the first President George Bush, Mr. Emanuel said.

He added, “He knows that personal relationships are important, but you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”

Stephen G. Rademaker, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, said: “For a president coming out of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, it’s remarkable how much he has pursued a great power strategy. It’s almost Kissingerian. It’s not very sentimental. Issues of human rights do not loom large in his foreign policy, and issues of democracy promotion, he’s been almost dismissive of.”

Well, a couple of thoughts.  First, the idea of George H.W. Bush disdaining personal relationships is somewhat absurd.  Bush 41 was notorious for his thank you cards and supersized Rolodex.  On the margins, personal rapport among leaders does count for something, so this certainly helped Bush advance the national inrest. 

So that makes Bush different from Obama, right?  Well, let’s click over to Scott Wilson’s story in today’s Washington Post now, shall we? 

[I]n convening his first international summit — the largest on a single issue in Washington history — [Obama] focused more squarely on his relationship with world leaders. He slapped backs, kissed cheeks and met one on one with more than a dozen heads of state, leavening his appeal to shared security interests with a more personal diplomacy.

The approach marked a shift for Obama as he seeks to translate his popularity abroad into concrete support from fellow leaders for his foreign policy agenda, most urgently now in his push for stricter sanctions against Iran.

"He’s in charge, he’s chairing the meetings, and this is where his personality plays a big part," said Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador to the United States, who compared Obama’s role during the summit to the way he led the bipartisan health-care meeting at Blair House in February….

Obama’s attention to his guests began on the summit’s opening night, when he spent more than an hour and a half greeting the 46 foreign leaders and three heads of international organizations he invited.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom administration officials describe as high on the list of the European leaders Obama most admires, received a kiss on each cheek at the final bilateral meeting.

Obama bowed formally to Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. He used both hands to shake the hands of some leaders and joked with others.

David Miliband, Britain’s foreign secretary, said such personal diplomacy is "quite important" at summits, especially one about an issue he said is "often seen as administrative."

"When Obama stands up and says ‘My friend Dmitry Medvedev’ or ‘My friend Nicolas Sarkozy,’ he’s right, and that’s important," Miliband said. "He’s made a number of friends of world leaders, and I think that’s a testament to why so many arrived to take part in this."

Wow, so it really is George H.W. Obama, right? 

As someone who thinks George H.W. Bush has been vastly underrated, I’d love to say yes.  But this gets confusing to your humble blogger.  After all, some have argued that Obama is really no different than George W. Bush.  I’m also pretty sure I’ve read somewhere, way back in early 2010, that Obama is really Jimmy Carter.  So I’m not sure  this comparison can or should stick. 

Moving from personalities to ideas, the realist/idealist divide, you still wind up with a muddle.  Bob Kagan is right to say that Obama’s desire for a nuclear-free world is about as idealistic as one can get.  Similarly, Obama’s affirmation of multilateralism doesn’t seem terribly realist either.  On the other hand, his policies towards great power rivals like Russia and China, and dependent allies like Israel and Afghanistan, seem pretty damn realist.  Much like his Nobel Peace Prize address, the Obama administration’s latest foray into the less shallow waters of international relations theory offers a sliver of support to all major IR approaches. 

Which box you put him in, I suspect, depends on which policy dimension you think matters most.  Human rights advocates will use the r-word; fans of nuclear deterrence will use the i-word.  As someone concerned with the management of great power politics, I’d be comfortable calling Obama an realist, but I’m biased  — I speculated that this was the approach the post-Bush president would be forced to pursue

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

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