A hot topic recently is Obama’s foreign policy ‘realism’. Now those who visit this site regularly already know that I’ve called Obama on his realism DAYS AGO! There are those who applaud this approach, arguing that the best foreign policy doctrine is not to have one. Then there are those who fear this outcome, asserting that one of America’s greatest assets is its promotion and defense of democracy and human rights.
This brings up two issues before we can argue for either side; 1. Has Obama truly shown himself a realist by his policies? 2. And is he really departing so completely from President Bush’s so-called ‘freedom agenda’? First off, I believe that all US presidents have been at least partially liberal in their world view, even those early presidents who lead a weak, fragile state at the time. That being said, it is not like these guys only had international liberalism in their bones, blood, and sinew, as they all followed the rules of power politics in most cases, from the Jay Treaty to the Bush’s partnership with Pervez Musharraf. Bush full heartedly tried to bring democracy to two despotic states, called the Darfur conflict a genocide, criticized the Burmese military dictatorship, gave prime time to political dissidents from China and elsewhere, and made many key speeches preaching the power of liberty and human rights. YET, he cozied up with dictators in Pakistan, Egypt, China, and Kazakhstan, used military force in pursuit of US interests, and disregarded many multilateral treaties. Bush was followed both a realist and liberal foreign policy.
Barack’s election rhetoric and policies so far have definitely trended more realist (and in many ways logically follow many of Bush’s policies). He has has openly stated he will negotiate with many dictator-run states (Iran, Syria, North Korea), put NATO expansion on hold, let Russia know that deals involving security trade offs could be made, treated Britain like it was just a ‘state’, rarely discusses the liberal threesome of liberty, democracy, and human rights in speeches, and his Sec of State Hilary Clinton stated that human rights would not get in the way of US-China relations. This being considered, Obama has also leaned liberal on many occasions. His emphasis on ‘talking’ and diplomacy are not just realist measures, but seem to him to be modern ways that conflicts are solved. He has also reached out to the Muslim world in a widely heard interview and plans on making a speech in a Muslim-majority country this year. Obama also showed his trust of international institutions and treaties by raising the US ambassador to the United Nations to a Cabinet Position and in his early discussions with Russia about arms reductions and Europe regarding climate change. But overall, I do agree with the aforementioned articles that Obama is mainly following a realist foreign policy so far. (of course so did Bush before 9/11)
So should we be concerned or pleased about Obama’s realist leanings? I think, like when given the choice between chocolate and strawberry ice cream, a little of both. The realist attributes of cautiousness and pragmatism are indeed valuable and Obama seems keen on following them in many of his policies so far. International relations are indeed fraught with dangers of missteps and a realist viewpoint can prevent the US from unforeseen calamities and overzealousness. However, if the US becomes more and more just like another state, it not only denies what it has been for its entire history, a beacon of liberty and hope, but it may also undermine the growth of a stable world, which has made a steady climb in democratization. It is not an overstatement to say the current strength of democratic governance in the international system is held up by American leadership. Specifically, states in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic States, and Poland, in many ways have their sovereignty and free political system dependent on US/NATO engagement and protection. These states will not welcome the canceling of the missile defense system treaty or talk of NATO expansion quietly fading away. In terms of Afghanistan and Iraq’s governing future, Obama has already laid framework for a less than democratic outcome. I also hear loudly how much Obama has NOT spoken about the power of liberty, democracy, and human rights and I think this is a shame as the world is listening.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen poignantly quoted an Obama intro to one of theologian/realist theorist Reinhold Niebuhr’s books: “there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. We should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”