Politics & Policy

Our Unrealist President

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Why Obama’s foreign policy has been quite far from what you’d expect of a realist.

Even before his presidency began, Barack Obama articulated a foreign-policy course markedly different from that of his immediate predecessors. Not only did he present himself as the anti-Bush, but he also indicated that his administration would take a different approach to national security than had the Clinton administration. He was to be, in his aides’ terms, a “realist,” much in the mold of George H. W. Bush. As his then–chief of staff Rahm Emanuel put it in 2010: “Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist. If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41.” Nor has this view been confined to the White House; many commentators across the political spectrum have remarked that the Obama administration epitomized what realism would look like in practice, even under a Republican president.

Nearly halfway through his second term, it is time to take stock. Is President Obama actually a realist? The answer matters, particularly for Republicans and conservatives, who traditionally have claimed the mantle of realism in foreign affairs. Potential 2016 presidential candidates are beginning to think through what line they will take on foreign policy, and the notion that Obama’s approach has been realist would no doubt lead many to recoil from realism.

But the truth is that Obama is no realist. The president might approve of restraint in international affairs; he might be skeptical of grand projects, ambivalent about the promotion of democracy and human rights, and even inclined toward retrenchment. But that doesn’t make him a realist.

It helps to have a clearer sense of what realism is. Though there is a distinct school of thought that goes by this name (and even by the term “neo-realism”), practical realism (like conservatism) denotes a persuasion more than a clear doctrine. In essence, it is the view that the international arena is a lastingly tough and competitive one; that power matters in foreign relations and is often determinative; that countries pursue their interests more commonly than their stated ideals; and that force, deterrence, and coercion, while risky, are inherent elements of foreign policy and cannot be ignored or eliminated. In their policy prescriptions, realists tend to emphasize maintaining power and advantage, implementing a strategy to exploit strengths and mitigate weaknesses, pursuing the stable and satisfactory rather than the ideal, and sticking to the axiom that good fences make good neighbors.

If this sounds a good bit like what most people understand by conservatism, that is no accident. One can credibly argue that realism, with its Burkean focus on the achievable rather than the transformational and the prudent rather than the ideal, is nearly a synonym for conservatism.

Of course, neither realists nor conservatives think that realism offers a complete account of what a nation’s foreign policy should be. The greatest realists, such as Eisenhower, were deeply moral in their approach. But the morality of what one might call “righteous realism,” with its emphasis on responsibility and stewardship rather than purity of intent, is different from the high-minded tub-thumping of Woodrow Wilson or the hand-wringing of Jimmy Carter. For instance, George H. W. Bush, that paragon of recent presidential realism, showed a profound sense of responsibility in how he handled the end of the Cold War and in his carefully targeted outrage at Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait.

To be sure, Obama’s approach exhibits some elements of realism, most notably a caution about the overuse of force. Realists emphasize that force is an unpredictable and often costly instrument, and they tend to be conservative in their estimates about how well things will work out when nations reach for their guns.

But restraint is not what fundamentally characterizes realism. Rather, because realists see the international arena as innately competitive and often dangerous, they believe that strength is critical to a successful foreign policy. A domestic realist welcomes not only police restraint but also the appropriate vigorous application of police power; similarly, a foreign-policy realist knows that restraint alone is an invitation to chaos and peril. By this standard, Obama is neither an authentic realist nor a successful foreign-policy president.

A review of the president’s foreign-policy record bears this out. Consider the president’s fumbling over his “red line” on Syria. No realist would so cavalierly draw a red line, especially over such a peripheral interest, only to do nothing when the line is crossed. No realist would allow the world — friend and foe — to take away the lesson that America’s pledge is so unreliable.

Nor would a realist have pursued the uneven, unpredictable, and often contradictory approach toward the “Arab Spring” that this administration did. The president’s response to the upheavals in the Middle East has seemed to vacillate between a starry-eyed idealism about the prospect for a liberal revolution and a ham-fisted effort at realpolitik. Citing humanitarian aims, for instance, the administration intervened in Libya and helped upend Qaddafi’s regime; then it did virtually nothing to help stabilize Libya in the bloody aftermath. In the same way, the administration publicly pushed Mubarak to give up power in Egypt and then quietly accepted the government of General Sisi.

Or look at the administration’s approach to Ukraine, where Obama seems to have sleepwalked into a major conflict with Moscow over an interest few would construe as vital. Obama’s approach to Russia in recent years has been almost the opposite of a realist’s: Instead of carefully calibrating goals and backing up commitments already made, the president has expanded goals but held back on fortifying the U.S.’s ability to meet existing obligations. The United States and NATO are now on the brink of a major crisis with Russia over a country that NATO studiously did not invite to join the alliance, and this is at a time when NATO’s conventional-deterrent strength sits at or near an all-time low. Indeed, it is widely known, as evidenced most recently by a report of the United Kingdom’s Defence Committee, that NATO is not adequately prepared for significant conflict with Russia. A realist president would ensure that the alliance was stronger and readier before pursuing an assertive strategy in Russia’s near abroad, or he would tailor his aims more carefully — or, at best, do both.

Also consider Obama’s policy toward China. Beijing’s behavior in recent years represents an almost textbook validation of how a realist sees the world. The People’s Republic of China is a classic illustration of how a nation that gains in strength also increases its appetite for influence and eminence, and of how accommodating an expanding power too much can invite assertiveness rather than reduce it.

After lying low for years despite rocketing growth, China in the last half-decade has become increasingly assertive and brash, buoyed by confidence in its newfound power and by the perception that the United States, especially after the 2008 financial crisis and two long wars, is a declining power. To take a couple of the more brazen recent examples, China has physically seized islands in the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines (an American ally), and in the East China Sea it has locked firing systems onto the vessels of another American ally, Japan. Yet these actions have met with little resistance from the Obama administration, which has been visibly reluctant to apply pressure against Beijing. Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly said in Beijing in July that “there is no U.S. strategy to try to push back against” China’s assertiveness in Asia. Nor was this an isolated remark. Reports on the Sunnylands summit last year with Chinese premier Xi Jinping indicate that the president himself did not press U.S. objections to Beijing’s behavior; instead, he focused on smoothing relations with China. The administration has also embraced Beijing’s preferred concept of “a new type of great-power relations” — broadly understood in Asia as a strategic accord between the United States and China over the heads of other regional states (including U.S. allies), and one that implicitly benefits China more than the United States. Even U.S. defense officials, conscious of the administration line, appear loath to talk toughly and realistically about China.

This is not a realist approach. A true realist would look at a rising and increasingly bumptious China and judge that a demonstration of strength and resolve would be the best way to keep its assertiveness in check. A realist president would take a tougher line on China’s territorial disputes and would invest more resources to maintain our military’s upper hand, which China’s defense buildup is jeopardizing. The president appears content to allow ongoing foolish constraints that make it hard to effectively run the Department of Defense. DOD leaders are highly restricted, for instance, in determining the cuts to the defense budget that sequestration obligates them to make. Obama is also passive in the face of further bites to the Defense Department budget this year.

More broadly, a realist president would focus relentlessly on shoring up American primacy in the international arena — and the order it has underwritten among allies, partners, and other states — by calibrating U.S. involvement abroad to telegraph Washington’s commitment while husbanding U.S. resources and Americans’ resolve. In the domestic arena, he would undertake the reforms necessary to revitalize the American economy, which is the foundation of the nation’s international strength. Indeed, perhaps nothing shows the president’s lack of realism so clearly as his sanguine attitude about America’s continued primacy in the world absent real domestic reform.

So what is the president if not a realist? Peter Berkowitz and Paul Saunders have persuasively described him as a progressive pragmatist. As the president himself has put it, his foreign-policy philosophy is “Don’t do stupid s***,” which would be a decent tagline for pragmatism. Consequently, the administration’s foreign policy has a distinctly ad hoc quality: It occasionally resembles realism but also sometimes looks like liberal hawkishness, as in Libya in 2011, or old-school progressive idealism, as in the president’s Cairo and Ankara speeches, which gave the impression that Obama believed he could talk people out of their interests, grudges, and hatreds.

A truly realist president would look very different. Rather than elevating ad hocery to the level of foreign policy, he would act strategically, figuring out where to invest effort and resources and where to withhold them. Rather than presiding over inaction and drift, he would focus intently on maintaining America’s power by undertaking tough but necessary domestic reforms to spur growth. Where appropriate, he would be visibly strong and decisive, following the advice Eisenhower reportedly gave Nixon: Never let your enemy know what you will not do. In a world that is increasingly competitive, unstable, and dangerous, we could hardly hope for better.

— Elbridge. Colby is the Robert M. Gates Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. This article appeared in the September 22, 2014, issue of National Review.

Elbridge ColbyMr. Colby is a principal at the Marathon Initiative, an initiative focused on preparing the United States for great-power competition. 


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