Paul Saunders wins this week’s Vizzini Award

I spent most of today on a transcontinental flight either sitting on the tarmac or cursing at the executives at United Airlines dumb enough to think 1) A Katherine Heigl movie will put everyone in a better mood; and 2) Running out of food — for purchase, mind you — halfway through the flight would be ...

I spent most of today on a transcontinental flight either sitting on the tarmac or cursing at the executives at United Airlines dumb enough to think 1) A Katherine Heigl movie will put everyone in a better mood; and 2) Running out of food -- for purchase, mind you -- halfway through the flight would be a swell idea.

I was, in other words, in a very cranky mood.  And then someone asked me to look at a Paul Saunders essay over at The National Interest.  Here's how it opens:

The Obama administration’s poor handling of its interaction with Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng has prompted renewed denunciations of its “realist” foreign policy, already a focus for critics of its approach to Russia, the Middle East and other major international issues. Yet while criticism of the administration’s conduct is appropriate, calling it “realist” is misguided. In fact, the administration’s aimless and stumbling pragmatism is giving realism and realists a bad name.

I spent most of today on a transcontinental flight either sitting on the tarmac or cursing at the executives at United Airlines dumb enough to think 1) A Katherine Heigl movie will put everyone in a better mood; and 2) Running out of food — for purchase, mind you — halfway through the flight would be a swell idea.

I was, in other words, in a very cranky mood.  And then someone asked me to look at a Paul Saunders essay over at The National Interest.  Here’s how it opens:

The Obama administration’s poor handling of its interaction with Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng has prompted renewed denunciations of its “realist” foreign policy, already a focus for critics of its approach to Russia, the Middle East and other major international issues. Yet while criticism of the administration’s conduct is appropriate, calling it “realist” is misguided. In fact, the administration’s aimless and stumbling pragmatism is giving realism and realists a bad name.

Pragmatism is a central component of foreign-policy realism, but it is only so when firmly subordinated to a strategic vision founded on American interests and reflecting American values. While President Obama and senior administration officials cling rhetorically to a strategic vision based on a pragmatic version of liberal internationalism, attempting to build a rule-based liberal international order, the sum total of U.S. policy appears instead to define a considerably narrower goal: avoiding international problems, particularly when they have domestic political consequences.

Oh thank you thank you thank you — there’s nothing that puts me in a better mood than seeing tripe like this and ripping it to shreds.

Look, there’s been a lot of debate nowadays about what a realist foreign policy would look like and what that really means, but I am sure of a few very important things about realists: 

1) They don’t give a flying fig about promoting "American values" overseas;

2) They don’t sweat the small stuff.  

The first point is Realism 101, and doesn’t need to be elaborated upon.  It’s the second thing that matters more here.  Seriously, all realists pretty much care about is the relationships among the great powers.  And if you step back, the signal theme of the Obama administration’s foreign policy guidance and national security guidance has been to disengage from costly ground campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and refocus energy on the most dynamic region in the global economy and the only one with a possible rising hegemon.  That seems to fit this description of a realist foreign policy pretty well.  That’s exactly what the Obama administration has done with its "strategic pivot" or "rebalancing" or whatever they’re calling it this week. 

If you focus on the big picture, this administration is really realist.  If you focus on small tactical errors like the Chen case and inductively generalize from that, well, you’ve revealed yourself to be someone without a firm grasp of realpolitik principles in the first place. 

Congratulations to Mr. Saunders for being this week’s Vizzini Award winner — I don’t think "realism" means what he thinks it means. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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