Stephen M. Walt

Can Obama be a realist … even if he wanted to?

While Walt is taking a break for two weeks, others will be guest-blogging: There are clear indicators that, in his second term, President Barack Obama is trying to shift American foreign policy toward a more "realist-leaning" direction. He has, so far, resisted the pull to intervene in Syria; his administration has begun significant ground-force reductions ...

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

While Walt is taking a break for two weeks, others will be guest-blogging:

There are clear indicators that, in his second term, President Barack Obama is trying to shift American foreign policy toward a more "realist-leaning" direction. He has, so far, resisted the pull to intervene in Syria; his administration has begun significant ground-force reductions in Europe and has embraced the so-called "pivot" toward Asia. His choices of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel to lead the State Department and Pentagon, respectively, suggest a desire to ensure that the voices of restraint are at the table when major policies are discussed.

Yet Obama has also just appointed Susan Rice as his national security advisor and Samantha Power as ambassador to the United Nations — two strong advocates of humanitarian intervention abroad. This week, former President Bill Clinton announced his support for neoconservative advocate Sen. John McCain’s arguments that America should be more involved in Syria. Close Hillary Clinton advisor in the State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter, has been one of the strongest public advocates of a robust American intervention there. At the core of this worldview is a basic belief that American values at home face an existential threat abroad if the country fails to use its power to stop humanitarian crisis and spread democracy. With the White House now promising direct military aid to the rebels in Syria, the United States appears to risk again being on a slippery slope toward escalating intervention in yet another war with dubious national interests, little clear objective, and no defined end state.

The case for a new, robustly articulated foreign policy guided primarily by realism is strong. First, America’s rise to global power largely resulted from realist-leaning restraint. While over the first 150 years of the nation’s existence its commitments and overseas interests grew, there was always a degree of reserve that rejected overstretch. This helped the United States maintain and preserve its resources and focus on the long-term economic growth that eventually made it the world’s greatest superpower. Second, the most dramatic gains America made after World War II and during the Cold War were advanced when policies guided by restraint were preferred, i.e. building rules in the United Nations to share great-power decision-making, the original concept of George Kennan’s geographic containment of the Soviet Union, Dwight Eisenhower’s refusal to be dragged into what he called "brush-fire wars," Richard Nixon’s abandonment of ideological judgment that allowed for outreach to China, and Ronald Reagan’s repeated statements, even at the height of his tough anti-Soviet worldview, that he wanted to negotiate with the Soviets and that he would work with Mikhail Gorbachev. President George H.W. Bush’s decision to not march on to Baghdad and instead pursue containment via sanctions and weapons inspectors, we now know successfully disarmed Iraq and constrained Iran simultaneously. Each of these presidents had variations and contradictions on specific policies, but overall, the worldview was guided by realist restraint and produced major gains for America’s global position. Also, third, on the biggest strategic miscalculation in American history, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, realists consistently warned about risks and dangers — and they were right. For decades now, contemporary realists like Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, Robert Pape, Barry Posen, Christopher Preble, Steve Walt, and more have cautioned against the pitfalls of overstretch in American foreign policy.

In 1992, however, the United States began to reject and unravel what had proved to work so well. A draft defense planning guidance done that year set out a goal of global primacy for the United States. It talked of enlarging NATO into Central and Eastern Europe and sustaining massive peacetime defense budgets to ensure no peer competitor would ever challenge the United States’ global position, and it noted that America might act unilaterally when collective action was not possible. The draft was rejected by George H.W. Bush’s White House, and a watered-down version went forward. It was described, however, by historian John Lewis Gaddis as reflecting "American hegemony, a doctrine in which the United States would seek to maintain a position that it came out of the Cold War with, in which there were no obvious or plausible challengers to the United States. That was considered quite shocking in 1992 — so shocking, in fact, that the first Bush administration disavowed it."

Bill Clinton’s administration also rejected, it seemed, this concept at first. It was first ambitious on United Nations peacekeeping, but after a disastrous experience in Somalia, it worked to stay out of Rwanda and the Balkans (initially). Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff set the tone, telling reporters, "We don’t have the influence. We don’t have the inclination to use military force. We certainly don’t have the money to bring to bear the kind of pressure which will produce positive results anytime soon." He was, however, quickly disavowed by his bosses, including Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who said: "Some say — and I’m sure you’ve heard this said — that our nation is on a course of decline, that we can no longer afford to lead.… And certainly, it is true that the United States faces many challenges unlike our nation has ever felt before in our history. But to me that means that we must be more engaged internationally, not less; more ardent in the promotion of democracy, not less; and more inspired in our leadership, not less."

By 1995, the Clinton administration appeared to have embraced many of the major assumptions of the previously rejected 1992 defense planning guidance, including the option of unilateral military force, though preferring collective action. The new view embraced "assertive multilateralism" generated by the strong advocacy of Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and then secretary of state, who saw the world in black-and-white images via her sense of the dangers of appeasement of brutality, as was the case in Munich before World War II. Her worldview also embraced using American power to spread values, advance human rights, and spread democracy — it was at core a liberal interventionist policy.

Albright chastised Colin Powell for his preference on restrained use of American military power. She would justify American interventionism on a sense that: "If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future." Official Clinton policy embraced a new National Security Strategy published in 1995 that explicitly linked spreading democracy abroad to American national security. Realist concerns were brushed aside. Kosovo — now a war championed as a model but, in reality, one that America and NATO almost failed to win — set the
tone. After the war, President Clinton said: "Whether you live in Africa or Central Europe, or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background, or their religion, and it’s within our power to stop it, we will stop it." Clinton also, in 1998, signed the "Iraq Liberation Act," which was referenced by the following administration of George W. Bush as having laid the formal premise for regime change in Iraq.

Since 1992, the tools of American foreign policy have been put in the service of "assertive multilateralism" (now characterized as "responsibility to protect," or for neoconservative advocacy like the invasion of Iraq). Obama’s first term embraced continuity in this worldview. He appointed a foreign-policy team that included no prominent early opponents of the Iraq invasion and ran a national security process on Afghanistan in 2009 that only seriously debated variations on escalation. Libya, in 2011, came to reflect a dangerous result — embracing the foreign-policy agenda of liberal intervention but trying to avoid the high costs of responsibilities that come with the decision to intervene. Now he must reconcile this dilemma in Syria. This is not to say that the basic concepts behind a liberal foreign policy are bad ideas, but the record from Vietnam to Iraq and now Afghanistan is not a good one. Indeed, most success stories involve nonmilitary actions — like the Marshall Plan and the Helsinki Accords. A realist approach to spreading democracy abroad begins with setting the best example for freedom and progress at home and aligning appropriate tools to shape foreign-policy outcomes abroad.

It is difficult to know what message Obama is sending in having now set up a foreign-policy team that, while more diverse in worldview than that of his first administration, is also potentially at odds with itself. Worst of all worlds is that the president might be tempted to sustain the primacy goals of American global engagement, but on the cheap. Deep cuts in capabilities combined with a continued overambitious worldview are a recipe for near-term disaster and a continued drain on American power. A realist worldview can avoid this via tough choices to realign the scale of America’s global role — and associated budgets.

Even if he wants to shift the sails and embrace a new era of realist restraint, Obama might find this very difficult to do. He would be reversing 20 years of American foreign-policy priorities embraced by both political parties and now deeply entrenched in America’s national security establishment and budgets. It would, however, be in the national interest to lead the nation into a discussion of new national security priorities and embrace what most polling shows Americans already get — that there are limits to American power overseas and it is time to realign foreign-policy priorities. Realism will offer the president a good guide — if he embraces and implements it.

Sean Kay is Robson professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University and an associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State University. His most recent book is Global Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace.

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