Realists shouldn’t see the West Point speech as an utter disaster, of course. Its emphasis on shifting more defense burdens onto allies has been compared favorably to the Nixon Doctrine. Yet though the administration’s foreign policy may contain some realist elements, a few trees do not make a forest. The president implied he wasn’t a realist. We should take him at his word.
There are a few reasons why this matters. The first is the need to produce accurate analysis. If we try to explain Obama’s foreign policy while laboring under the wrong assumptions about what it is and what it has tried to do, we will come up with the wrong answers. Misreading Obama as a realist because we would prefer him to be one is just as misleading as it is when neoconservatives and liberal hawks do the same thing in their polemics. The second is the need to understand where the administration has gone wrong and why. It is not an accident that the biggest mistakes that Obama has made on foreign policy also happen to be when he has paid the least attention to those he dismisses as “self-described realists,” and some of his modest successes have come from the “realist elements” that Gay mentions. Take Russia policy, for instance. When U.S. Russia policy prioritized working with Russia on matters of common interest, relations with Moscow measurably improved and the U.S. made some modest gains on a few issues. When Washington returned to its old habits of agitating over internal Russian affairs and seeking to overthrow Russian clients, relations went into rapid decline. Since then, U.S. punitive measures have contributed to the intensifying Sino-Russian cooperation that Gay refers to. Finally, there is a danger of applying these labels so indiscriminately and defining them so broadly that they cease to have any descriptive value. If the realist label can be applied so widely to so many different figures with opposing views, it no longer tells us anything about anyone’s views except that he isn’t a knee-jerk interventionist.