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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Washington advocacy director for
Human Rights Watch
Obama is clearly suspicious of grand schemes to remake the world and of
policies driven by moral mission. He wants his focus on interests over ideology
to stand in contrast with the approach of the second President Bush.
we're truly going measure the temperature of Obama's blood, we should start by
weighing his words and ideas, not his chief of staff's. We might look at Obama's
Nobel lecture, for example, perhaps the fullest expression thus far of the
president's worldview. The central argument of that speech was that America's
pragmatic goals, whether winning a war, or building sustainable peace, can be
achieved only by respecting and championing liberty, law, and human rights.
It's too early to say whether Obama will consistently live by that insight. But
he was right to express it.
as the influence of other nations, such as China, grows and traditional forms
of economic and military power become more diffuse, America's willingness to
stand up for universal principles will increasingly be the source of its global
appeal and comparative advantage. If American foreign policy is to be
realistic, it cannot be cold blooded.
Vice president for foreign and
defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute
a certain weird irony in the Obama administration's efforts to portray the U.S.
president as the successful son George H.W. Bush never had. In 2008, before
Rahm Emanuel labeled his boss more "realpolitik, like Bush 41," the Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne
that in "electing Barack Obama, the country traded the foreign policy of the
second President Bush for the foreign policy of the first President Bush."
eager to take a cheap shot would remember that among the hallmarks of George H.
W. Bush's foreign policy were (hmmm) antipathy to Israel, an eagerness to
kowtow to creepy dictators, and a lack of the "vision thing" that will forever
relegate him to being that guy Americans elected because they couldn't give
Ronald Reagan another term.
Barack Obama isn't a realpolitician,
and I fear he does indeed have a vision. Obama has embraced the foreign policy
of an ideologue, a worshipper at the altar of American decline. The framework
seems a simple repudiation of American global leadership, a devaluation of
alliances, and a penchant for paper agreements and empty dialogue that
articulate grand aims (Disarmament! Global zero! Proximity talks!) but ignore
the practical threats to the United States that exist in the real world.
Stephen M. Walt
Robert and Renee Belfer Professor
of International Affairs, The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
University; contributing editor to Foreign Policy and blogger at ForeignPolicy.com
Obama has little choice but to be "cold-blooded" about advancing U.S.
interests. He inherited an economy in freefall, two ruinous wars, and an
America whose international image had been tarnished by his predecessor's
incompetence. It was no time for starry-eyed idealism, and Americans ought to
be grateful that Obama grasped this essential fact from the very beginning.
Of course, people like Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates had figured this out
too, and they spent most of George W. Bush's second term trying to reverse the
disastrous consequences of his first four years. It is no accident that Obama
kept Gates on, and his foreign policy can even be seen as a more imaginative
and energetic continuation of Bush's second term.
There are certain similarities with George H.W. Bush, but also one key
difference: Bush 41 was playing a very strong hand. The United States had just
triumphed in the Cold War and it looked like the whole world was swinging our
way. The elder Bush (and Baker and Scowcroft) played that hand skillfully and
managed crises well, but they were holding all aces from the start.
The real question is whether Obama will remain as ruthlessly realistic as
America's fortunes improve, or whether he will then succumb to the same sort of
ambitious fantasies that doomed his predecessor. Based on what I've seen so
far, I'd bet not.
Joseph S. Nye
Sultan of Oman professor of
international relations at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
University; author of The
Paradox of American Power
Obama administration has referred to a smart-power strategy that combines hard
and soft power. A smart-power strategy requires that the old distinction
between realists and liberals needs to give way to a new synthesis that might call
liberal realism. It starts with an understanding of the strength and limits of
American power. Preponderance is not empire or hegemony. As I argue in my
forthcoming book, The Future of Power in
the 21st Century, the United States can influence but not
control other parts of the world.
always depends upon context, and in the context of transnational relations
(such as climate change, illegal drugs, pandemics, and terrorism) power is
diffuse and chaotically distributed. Military power is a small part of the
solution in responding to these new threats. They require cooperation among
governments and international institutions. Obama seems to understand this
well. He focused first on avoiding a global depression and made good use of the
G-20. He has reached out to others with a series of adept speeches and symbolic
gestures that restored American soft power. He has now made progress on his
nuclear agenda, both with Russia and on countering proliferation. I think he
deserves good marks for liberal realism, rather than being pigeonholed into one
category of the other.
Alexander F. Hehmeyer professor
of political science at Duke University; contributing editor to Foreign Policy and blogger at Shadow
quote is puzzling. President Obama may be more "realpolitik" than George W.
Bush in the sense that he has downgraded the place of human rights and support
for democracy in his foreign policy. But it is certainly not "realpolitik" to
slight the personal relationships of presidential diplomacy -- and it would be
hard to identify something more unlike
George H.W. Bush than this feature of the Obama approach to foreign policy. In
any case, the rewards for this alleged "realpolitik" turn are still hard to
measure. President Obama is significantly more popular with the general publics
in the other great powers (except possibly in Asia), but if measured
cold-bloodedly by American "self-interest," the last President Bush had at
least as good and probably more effective and cooperative relations with the
governments of those great powers (except possibly with Russia). Relations with
Britain, China, France, Germany, India, and Japan were more troubled in 2009
than they were in 2008.
Senior fellow for European
studies, The Council on Foreign Relations
In the classic divide between realists and
idealists, President Obama clearly tilts in the realist direction. But what is
most distinctive about his foreign policy is its absence of ideological
clutter. Thus far, Obama has been the consummate pragmatist, guided by three
hard-headed questions: What's the problem? How do we fix it? Who will help the
United States fix it? Moreover, he seems comfortable working with
democracies and non-democracies alike -- as long as they are willing to
contribute to the common cause. This problem-solving approach is both sensible
During his first year in office, Obama
seemed inclined to govern at home and abroad primarily through his oratory
talents and powers of persuasion. With few results to show for his efforts,
Obama has switched tracks, and is now in the political and diplomatic trenches,
twisting arms, making bargains, fashioning personal bonds with foreign
counterparts -- all good news in terms of closing deals and securing
deliverables. Heading into the 2010 midterms, Obama needed to have some
tangible accomplishments in hand. After the "New START" treaty, the
nuclear-security summit, and the improving relationship with China, he now has
some. Welcome additions to Obama's list of accomplishments would include
China's willingness to appreciate its currency and its readiness to present
Iran with a united front in the U.N. Security Council.
Another aspect of Obama's pragmatism is his
willingness to take what he can get. The Nuclear
Posture Review embraced significant -- but modest -- changes in nuclear
doctrine. The same can be said for New START. Obama is well aware that attempts
to reach further would likely have invited staunch opposition from the right
and imperiled the prospects for Senate ratification of arms control treaties.
At the nuclear-security summit, Obama settled for voluntary measures to stem
proliferation, not binding commitments. The same applies to limits on
greenhouse gas emissions. Although more ambitious and formalized agreements
might be more effective, they are, at least for now, out of reach. Obama is
right to sense the limits imposed by domestic constraints at home and abroad --
another sign of a president guided by pragmatism.
Policy director for the economic
growth program at the New America Foundation; author of The American Way of Strategy
Emanuel is right. In many areas, ranging from his caution about escalating the
war in Afghanistan to his firm approach to Israel, Barack Obama shows more
affinities with the moderate Republican realist tradition of Dwight Eisenhower,
Richard Nixon and the first Bush than with the Cold War liberal tradition of
John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson that spawned
the neoconservative combination of hawkishness and crusading rhetoric. This
reflects not only Obama's worldview but also the migration into the Democratic
Party of many former moderate Republican voters. Their influence is seen as
much in the Democratic health-care bill, which rejects New Deal-style social
democracy for an approach of subsidizing private insurance that Eisenhower and
Nixon pioneered, as in the Obama administration's cost-conscious, realist
White Burkett Miller professor of
history at the University of Virginia; former counselor to U.S. Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice
unfortunate aspect of Peter Baker's story was this
quote from Rahm Emanuel: "Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and
realist." Well, no. At least not me.
Sure, this framing (realist/idealist) is all too common. And since that habit
of thought so often spawns both bad history and bad policy, it is a bit
unfortunate that Baker and Emanuel have so powerfully reinforced it. But think
for a second: If Emanuel were asked to categorize President Obama's health-care
policy as either realist or idealist, what would he pick? Wouldn't he say it
was both? Or if he was asked to categorize the nuclear nonproliferation agenda
that has just dominated the president's week as either realist or idealist,
what would he pick? Wouldn't he say it was both? Hmmm. Maybe these labels
aren't so helpful after all.
Of course no one wants to be in the "unrealistic" camp. This is why Woodrow
Wilson's biographer described his man's vision as simply embodying "a higher
form of realism." It was not a silly argument, really, when compared with the
power politics that had just produced a catastrophic war. If, on the other
hand, by "realist" we mean to say that "realists" don't care about how other
countries govern themselves, this is hardly an accurate description even of the
very essence of U.S. policy in, say, Afghanistan, much less many other less
important countries. Does anyone think the U.S. government is indifferent about
how China governs itself (including its commitment to a more open economic
model)? I doubt very much that President Obama would align himself with such a
definition of his policies, even in private.
In other words, these labels are simply words we use to make an argument in
favor of one policy preference over another. Usually the people who like this
realist/idealist dichotomy style themselves as "realists." They are making an
argumentative contrast. It is another way of saying, "My views are practical,
unlike those of some other people."
Of course, though, one can be a practical idealist. Every U.S. president and
secretary of state of the 20th and 21st century thought he or she was exactly
that. Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger may seem like
sole outliers, but even they had an ideal vision, elevating stability and
managed conflict to being ends in themselves. To Nixon and Kissinger, reacting
to a traumatically polarized and turbulent age, "stability" came for a short
time to seem like a rather rosy ideal.
As for the analogy to George H.W. Bush's administration, it is flattering to
this former servant of that administration, but is nonetheless best put back in
the drawer. This sort of reasoning by analogy is tempting but dangerously
misleading, including in this case. The argument about cold-blooded realism
starts breaking down if one digs into Bush's policies on subjects like rolling
back Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, German unification, sending 500,000
troops to confront Iraq over Kuwait, holding elections to settle Nicaragua's
future, or developing the North American Free Trade Agreement. It helps to
analyze what people thought about those ideas (some of which were regarded as
wildly impractical or dangerous, or both) at the time, before everyone
discovered how they turned out.
And those who regard Bush 41 as a cold-blooded, unsentimental person neither
know him nor his record. Bush's stress on personal relationships came from a
pretty warm-blooded person who relied deeply on his instincts about people. (In
this sense the apple, in the case of his eldest son, really didn't fall all
that far from the tree.) In his "cool" temperament and his clinical empathy,
Obama does remind me a bit sometimes of another president, but that would be John
F. Kennedy. Then again, people used to make those observations (cold-blooded,
etc.) about Nixon's temperament too. Maybe these analogies really are a bit
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