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Beyond Realism

Will Marshall wants Obama to move “beyond realism” in foreign policy:

Amoral, balance-of-power realism is the doctrine of Republicans like Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, George H.W. Bush, and Brent Scowcroft. This kind of “realism” is blind to the reality that a country’s internal politics decisively shapes its external conduct — that regimes that are not accountable to their own people are more likely to be bad actors on the world stage as well.

Marshall’s objection here would be more impressive if a state’s internal politics actually did decisively shape its government’s external conduct. The reality to which Marshall refers isn’t a reality at all. It is a conceit shared by advocates of democracy promotion. This conceit comes from confusing two undesirable things (unaccountable regimes, bad actors), and treating the one as the cause of the other. This may sound reasonable as a general statement, but when it comes to specific cases it tends not to hold up very well. Sometimes a state is labeled a “bad actor” because it is pursuing its own interests in ways that the U.S. and allied states dislike, and sometimes U.S. and allied governments make a mockery of international law by taking actions that would be considered “rogue” behavior if they were committed by others. Even when the “bad actor” label is well-deserved, this is not a product of the regime’s lack of accountability and likely would not change if the regime became more accountable.

The doctrine that Marshall so easily dismisses as amoral also happens to be the one that guided two of the administrations with the most successful foreign policy records of the last forty years. Modern administrations could do a lot worse than to follow the same doctrine. However, it’s not clear that Obama does follow it. As Daniel Trombly has already explained, it is very misleading to describe Obama’s foreign policy this way. Trombly:

It takes ludicrously high standards or profound ideological cherry-picking to describe Obama’s administration as dominated by realism. Obama has Hillary Clinton in the State Department, who has aggressively pushed the inclusion of liberal internationalist and “post-realist” concerns into U.S. foreign policy and the discourse surrounding it. I’m sure former Obama administration Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter would be surprised to hear that she was serving a “cold-blooded” realist administration, as would the many realist critics of the Obama administration’s war in Libya.

Obama’s record is often described as realist for two reasons: the U.S. has been willing to reach agreements with other states, including authoritarian states, in order to advance some U.S. policies, and it has been less enthusiastic in actively promoting democracy and chastising other states over their internal political and legal practices. Realists may approve of both of these to varying degrees, but they represent a minimum of what they would expect from a realist foreign policy. The fact that these two things are nonetheless too much for some Democrats to take proves very little.

If Obama hasn’t plunged the U.S. directly into Syria’s conflict, that proves that he isn’t foolish. It doesn’t make him a “balance-of-power realist.” The Libyan war is the obvious example that Marshall tries to avoid discussing at any length, since it renders a large part of his argument void. Put simply, a “balance-of-power” realist would not have ordered military action in Libya, and he would have been right not to do so, and the fact that Obama did should be a clear signal that he isn’t any such thing.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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