Voice

From Russia with disdain

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Moscow earlier this week, seeking Russian support for tighter sanctions on Iran. And what did she get for his efforts? A few nice photo ops, plus an unambiguous "nyet" from Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov.

I have a couple of questions.

Did she go there believing that she really would get a meaningful commitment for tighter sanctions from the Russians? Or did she know beforehand that she wasn't going to get anywhere, but felt she had to go through the motions anyway?

Frankly, I don't know which answer would worry me more. If it's the former, she's getting very bad advice from her Russia experts, who clearly have no idea how Russia's leaders perceive their own interests. If the latter, she has no business wasting time and effort on a lost cause and giving Lavrov the opportunity to score points by stiffing her in public. The Secretary of State of a great power shouldn't be flying off to foreign capitals with the diplomatic equivalent of a tin cup, pleading with them to comply with our wishes. You're supposed to wait until your assistants have got the deal more-or-less in place, and then you show up to make the final push and iron out the last sticky details. Either way, this just wasn't very smart diplomacy.

And let's not overlook the obvious possibility that Lavrov was right: right now isn't an opportune time to threaten Iran with more sanctions. The initial round of talks were encouraging (though there's still a long way to go), and brandishing threats is probably the best way to derail them before any additional progress is made. There are undoubtedly people in the United States (and Iran) who would like to see that happen, but I didn't think Hillary was one of them.

DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

Letters

Realism, Really?

Steven Clemons and Stephen Walt sound off on Paul Wolfowitz’s critique of realism and Obama’s foreign policy.

Paul Wolfowitz's provocative critique of foreign-policy realism ("Think Again: Realism," September/October 2009) has several flaws.

For one, he punts on the Iraq war. By dropping the subject, he misses a fundamental reality: The power a president inherits when he or she gets the keys to the White House is not the same from president to president.

President Barack Obama, in his early foreign-policy moves, has found his "inner Nixon" and made a number of key realist-like gestures -- not because Nixonianism was lurking just under the skin of his campaign for the White House all along, but because he had to. John McCain, his Republican opponent in the presidential campaign, also would have been compelled to find his "inner Nixon," because the United States is substantially constrained today and viewed by much of the world as a superpower in decline.

The Iraq war punctured the mystique of America's superpower status and exposed military limits, followed later by economic limits that have undermined the confidence of key allies in American power and dependability. Had the Iraq invasion not occurred, and had George W. Bush's team dealt a crushing blow to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and come home, the world and America would be in a different place. In those circumstances, Obama might have been the type of values crusader that Bush got to be-at least for a short while.

Another issue I wish Wolfowitz had raised is the importance of America's demonstrating by example the kind of democracy it hopes others aspire to. We saw how the reactions to the September 11 attacks and the buildup to the Iraq war led to a national security pathology in the United States in which core democratic values, including our beliefs about universal human rights, were undermined. This kind of example is something that authoritarian governments salivate at-and true democrats abroad revile.

Steven Clemons

Director

American Strategy Program

The New America Foundation

Washington, D.C.

 


It is easy to understand why Paul Wolfowitz dislikes "realism." On the most significant foreign-policy decision since the end of the Cold War -- the ill-fated 2003 invasion of Iraq -- the realists who opposed it were right and Wolfowitz and the other architects of the war were dead wrong. No wonder he begins his article by saying that this "is not the place to reargue the Iraq War." I'd try to exclude Iraq from discussion if I were him, too.

Contrary to Wolfowitz's claims, there is no "debate" between realists and idealists over the desirability of democratic government and human rights. I know of no realists who oppose the peaceful encouragement of these values, and Wolfowitz offers no examples of any. The real issue, as the Iraq debate revealed, is whether the United States and its democratic allies should be trying to spread these ideals at the point of a gun or sacrificing other important interests in order to advance them.

Wolfowitz is correct about one thing: Barack Obama is probably not a "realist." He is essentially a pragmatist. But his administration is chock full of traditional liberal internationalists, many of whom backed the Iraq war in 2003 and still think America's mission is to right wrongs wherever they may arise. That's why we are plunging deeper into Afghanistan and why the foreign-policy establishment continues to think we are making progress every time Washington has to assume responsibility for fixing some foreign problem.

The bottom line is that it really doesn't matter whether Obama is a "realist" or not. But the sooner he starts to act like one, the better off the United States will be.

 

Stephen M. Walt

Robert and Renée Belfer

Professor of International Relations

Harvard University

Cambridge, Mass.

 Stephen M. Walt is a blogger for ForeignPolicy.com.