Shadow Government

Obama the realist?

Over the last four years, many commenters have labeled President Obama a foreign policy realist (see also here and here).  At first, I scratched my head at this appellation being applied to him because 1) I heard him speak and watched him act; and 2) I know by reputation and in some cases professionally and ...


Over the last four years, many commenters have labeled President Obama a foreign policy realist (see also here and here).  At first, I scratched my head at this appellation being applied to him because 1) I heard him speak and watched him act; and 2) I know by reputation and in some cases professionally and personally his foreign policy and national security staff and few of them strike me as realists.  While most analysts and pundits continue to call him a realist (methinks they do protest, more on that below), some are lamenting that he appears to be "slipping" into a more Wilsonian mode, and heaven forefend, a Bush 43 mode.  I’m not quite sure what is going on here, but I can speculate: 1) these commenters are trying hard to give a president who is criticized for not caring much about foreign policy something to hang his commander-in-chief role on; 2) they are trying hard to be sure that their man in the White House-oft-criticized for apologizing for the United States and relying too much on the United Nations-is not called an idealist, a term that is held in derision by some; or 3) they are simply still attacking President George W. Bush over Iraq because they cannot get over it and see "his" war as the ultimate violation of realist doctrine; that is, Bush invaded Iraq to change the nature of its government, Obama has invaded nowhere to do such a thing.  This latter argument would fall into the category of the ongoing claim that "our guy is not your horrible guy."

Let’s look at the tenets of realism and see if President Obama lives up to them.  Now of course there are many understandings of and nuances to a theory that has been around for millennia (Thucydides was the first exponent, Machiavelli and Hobbes are its best known exponents in the early modern era, and probably Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger are that today).  But a few points have been commonly accepted for decades, in part because statesmen like Richelieu, Bismarck and T. Roosevelt acted on them and changed the world with them.  They are: the international system is anarchic where distrust and anxiety are the norm and force is the final arbiter; states, as the most important actors, are rational and unitary and they must work out the problems of coexistence themselves; and finally, states seek above all their own interests defined ultimately as survival and they do so by maximizing their power, ultimately military power.  It is really difficult in my view to label a policymaker or a policy realist if they don’t comport with most if not all of these elements.

Let me stipulate at the outset that the Obama administration uses force sometimes even if that means mostly using drones.  Moreover, the administration has at times, as in the case of Libya, at least partially gone it alone. But the entire tenor and work of the administration is best described as idealist or liberal, the latter being the current term of art (no one likes to be called an idealist it seems).  Following are a few examples:

1) The administration’s view on the role of the United Nations is quite clear: all actions taken by states to secure the peace must have the imprimatur of this supreme intergovernmental organization and it can and will solve problems if states will submit to it.  This is what the administration says, even if it doesn’t abide by that principle 100% of the time. The statements of the president and vice president, the UN ambassador and the secretary of state attest to this.  That’s par for the course for post-McGovern Democratic administrations and this one is no different.  The personnel who populate the Obama administration have been policymakers of that view their entire careers; if Senator Kerry becomes Secretary of State, all the more so.  It is no surprise that this is the case, but it is a surprise to hear them called realists since realist philosophy, as noted above, holds that unitary, rational actor states are the sole judges of their actions in pursuit of their interests. 

2) Realist thought, especially as put into practice by the statesmen noted above, includes the idea that states should attempt to shape the anarchic world to conform to their state’s interests.  This can be done by moral suasion, of course, but often it requires threats that run the gamut from noncooperation in the fulfillment of the opposing state’s interests to the outright use of military force, either in an alliance or alone.  An administration that says the United Nations is supposed to determine matters of war and peace and avows that only alliances are the appropriate context for the use of force is not sending the message that it will insist on securing its interests. There is plenty of evidence in terms of diplomatic statements and actions to suggest that this attitude characterizes the Obama administration.  

3) Realist thinking contemplates that states must seek to maximize their power via a strong economy and a military capable of deterring aggression against the state’s interests.  The rational actor that is the state is represented by a government that sees as its first job the building and maintaining of sufficient force to defend its interests and deter those who would try to reshape the international system in ways that harm the state’s interests.  The financial health of the state is fundamental to it being perceived as militarily credible in the face of threats.  The Obama administration, in running up record deficits and showing no sign of dealing with an entitlement crisis except to bluff its way through a sequestration time-bomb-that it proposed-does not comport with realist thinking.  Even the administration’s own secretary of defense called this approach to reform "devastating" for military preparedness, though he did not acknowledge it was hatched within the administration but rather blamed Congress.  To be sure, opponents of the United States knew better.

4) Finally, a brief review of some examples drawn from the US’s dealings with specific countries.  In the case of Iraq, realist thought would have moved the president to do everything in his power-and he had plenty-to get a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government so that the United States could better safeguard its interests in the region.  It is not in line with realism to have spent so much in lives and treasure only to walk away without using our ample leverage to continue to have forces in this country which is situated right next to one of our greatest enemies.  And speaking of Iran, from failing to encourage the enemy of our enemies (the people v. the regime), to bringing the regime to its knees through sanctions and other pressure years ago if it didn’t disavow its nuclear program, the administration has failed to live up to the realist moniker.  Rather, the Obama administration has relied on the United Nations and pleading for talks with an implacable theocratic regime.  On Syria, a realist president would have seized the opportunity early on to conclusively aid those who would topple the last state ally of Iran.  And, finally, on the Palestine question, the Obama administration’s handling of our relationship with Israel has alienated our strongest ally in a dangerous region while encouraging our enemies to see us as weak and fickle.  Realists don’t take risks with important allies.  Neither Richelieu, Bismarck nor TR would counsel such a policy. 

So why are some so adamant that President Obama is a realist?  I am left still with my speculations: they know he doesn’t have a coherent policy, that often he appears to wing it on an area of governance he has little interest in, so they want to characterize him with the perceived strongest and wisest of the approaches possible.  Or they are simply still waging the "he’s not Bush" campaign-it is telling when one of these pundits describes Obama as following Hans Morgenthau’s and Eisenhower’s thinking regarding Vietnam.  But that is a very selective reading and use of Morgenthau.  Whatever the reason, I don’t see the evidence to make such clear-cut calls.  It would be better to admit, of course, that there are no pure realists or idealists once in office, and then fashion a hybrid approach to describe Obama, much as Kissinger did so eloquently and convincingly for Reagan in his great work Diplomacy

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