Now that Barack Obama's nuclear-security summit has concluded, the world is taking a fresh look at the U.S. president's foreign policy. Even the White House chief of staff is having his say. In Wednesday's New York Times, Rahm Emanuel went on the record with this assessment of his boss's worldview.
"Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist," Emanuel said. "If you had to put him in a category, he's probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41 ... He knows that personal relationships are important, but you've got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation."
This of course reflects Obama's own praise for George H.W. Bush's foreign policy going back to the presidential campaign.
We asked a panel of U.S. foreign-policy experts for their reactions to Emanuel's comments: So, is Obama a cold-blooded realist? Is George H.W. Bush's presidency a fair comparison? What is the best way to describe Obama's foreign policy? Here's what they told us:
Senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
I will leave it to the self-described realists to explain in greater detail the origins and meaning of "realism" and "realpolitik" to our confused journalists and politicos. But here is what realism is not: It is not a plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons through common agreement by all the world's powers. And it is not a foreign policy built on the premise that if only the United States reduces its nuclear arsenal, this will somehow persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program, or persuade China and other reluctant nations in the world to redouble their pressure on Iran to do so. That is idealism of a high order. It is a 21st-century Wilsonian vision. And it is precisely the kind of idealism that realists in the middle of the 20th century rose up to challenge. Realists would point out that the divergent interests of the great powers, not to mention those of Iran, will not be affected in the slightest by marginal cuts in American and Russian nuclear forces.
The confusion no doubt stems from the fact that President Obama is attempting to work with autocratic governments to achieve his ends. But that does not make him Henry Kissinger. When Kissinger pursued diplomacy with China, it was to gain strategic leverage over the Soviet Union. When he sought détente with the Soviets, it was to gain breathing space for the United States after Vietnam. Right or wrong, that was "realpolitik." Global nuclear disarmament may or may not be a worthy goal, but it is nothing if not idealistic.