Dan Drezner continues the discussion on Obama and realism and cites the principles of ethical realism:

First, liberal values do matter to Obama — they just don’t matter as much as other things. Second, to be fair, contra academic realism, there is a set of ethical values that are attached to realpolitik, and I think they inform Obama’s decision-making as well [bold mine-DL]. It seems pretty clear that Obama’s first foreign policy instinct after advancing the national interest is the foreign policy equivalent of the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. If you think about it, the one liberal deviation from Obama’s foreign policy is the Libya intervention, where he explicitly authorized the use of force for a mission that he acknowledged was not in the core national interest. It worked, but we’ve seen/seeing the second-order effects in Benghazi and across Northern Africa.

I’m glad Drezner mentions ethical realism, which gives us some clearer criteria for judging the administration’s policies. Ethical realist principles include prudence, humility, study, responsibility, and patriotism. Anatol Lieven and and John Hulsman defined these principles in the book that Drezner cites. The principles are mostly self-explanatory, but it is worth considering the definitions of three of them in a little more detail. On humility:

Taking the opinions of other nations into account and accommodating their interests when possible, beyond making ethical sense, will also help buy the United States the international goodwill in the world that it desperately needs. (p.73)

When compared to his predecessor’s record, Obama’s foreign policy seems to adhere to this principle much better, but in practice there have been quite a few instances when the administration has ignored this principle entirely. Some of the more obvious examples that come to mind include the dismissive treatment of Turkey and Brazil when they sought to act as mediators in dealing with Iran on the nuclear issue, the ham-fisted response to Japanese concerns about basing on Okinawa, and the complete indifference shown to the opinions of Libya’s neighbors and most African countries prior to and during the Libyan war. It’s not as if no one was warning the U.S. and its allies about the potential dangers that the intervention in Libya posed to states in the Sahel, but they were ignored. The U.S. and its allies decided early on that the “regional” opinion that mattered consisted of Gulf and other Arab states that would never face any of the consequences of the war. If they had paid more attention to the opinions of the countries most likely to be affected by intervention, they might have pursued a different and wiser policy.

Lieven and Hulsman explain the principle of study this way:

Ethical realism has an acute awareness of the limits of the individual’s capacity ever to fully understand the world in which we live–an awareness that leads to prudence in action. Niebuhr explicitly opposed the belief on the part of both Communists and liberals in his own time that human affairs could be grasped with the help of a simple, universal set of ideas, leading to a one-sized-fits-all approach to the challenges of foreign policy.

Morgenthau, moreover, made the duty to study other countries a central ethical command. This is especially true of countries in which the United States wishes or needs to become closely involved, and where its action are likely to have a profound impact. (p.73)

I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say that the U.S. and its allies were not particularly attentive to understanding the country they were intervening in during the Libyan war, and they were largely oblivious to the consequences the war could have for the surrounding region. It was a war launched suddenly without much time for deliberation, preparation, or study. The intervening governments intended from the beginning to wash their hands of the aftermath as quickly as possible.

The authors also describe the principle of responsibility:

Under an ethic of responsibility, having good intentions is not remotely adequate. One must weigh likely consequences and, perhaps most important, judge what actions are truly necessary to achieve essential goals. An ethic of conviction, while superficially moral, has a tendency to be indifferent to the consequences of actions in the real world. And even when the will to take action is there, neither in statecraft nor in common sense can good intentions be a valid excuse if…they are accompanied by gross recklessness, carelessness, and indifference to the range of possible consequences. (p.77)

The Libyan intervention from start to finish was a classic example of a policy defined by indifference to the negative consequences of military action. On three of the principles of ethical realism, the Obama administration openly flouted and violated them when it decided to intervene in Libya. It’s difficult to accept the argument that Obama’s decision-making is informed by these principles when one of the more important decisions he made in his first term ignores most of them. Drezner also goes too far in his conclusions when he says that Obama isn’t a liberal internationalist*. That is probably the only label that makes any sense for describing Obama’s foreign policy views.

* Liberal internationalists disagree among themselves whether the U.S. or any other state should intervene militarily in Syria.