Walter Russell Mead and the “Fretting” Realists
Walter Russell Mead asserts the following:
The Obama administration is moving from a realist, in some ways Jeffersonian approach to foreign policy—limiting commitments, looking for compromise solutions with opponents regardless of ideology—to something more Wilsonian: giving democracy promotion and human rights a higher profile in the national security portfolio.
Mead cites a recent post by Stephen Walt as evidence for this “shift,” but he reads far too much into Walt’s comments on the personnel changes in the administration. Walt was weighing the pros and cons of a Susan Rice nomination as Secretary of State, and argued that Rice might be “too much of an Obama insider and too dependent on the president’s patronage to be an ideal Secretary of State.” What concerned Walt about a possible Rice nomination was not so much that it signaled a “shift” in the administration’s policies, but that her elevation to that position would “reinforce the growing lack of intellectual diversity within the administration.” That’s a legitimate concern, and avoiding groupthink and excessive uniformity would be desirable no matter what the prevailing view happened to be.
Assuming that Rice is nominated, it doesn’t automatically follow that “democracy promotion and human rights” will be given a higher profile in the second term. Considering how little emphasis these things received in the first term, there’s no reason to expect that they would become more important in the next few years. If there is evidence that such a “shift” is underway, Mead doesn’t provide it.
Another flaw in Mead’s analysis is that the administration’s foreign policy has never been nearly as realist as its hawkish interventionist detractors have claimed, and it has never been remotely Jeffersonian. Mead remains wedded to the idea of Obama-as-Jeffersonian when all of the available evidence points in other directions. According to Mead’s own definitions, Obama has conducted a hybrid Hamiltonian-Wilsonian foreign policy that has been markedly less Wilsonian than that of his predecessor.
Insofar as the administration has been less obnoxiously Wilsonian in its foreign policy than Bush was or McCain and Romney would have been, many realists have found some good things to say about its record. That doesn’t mean that these realists endorse most or all of that record or that they claim that it has been a foreign policy characterized by restraint and prudence. It hasn’t been. All that it means is that they recognize that it is in an improvement on what came before it and that it could have been worse. Any administration that wages an unauthorized war to intervene in another country’s internal conflict when no security interests are at stake was already quite Wilsonian. At the same time, it has consistently been criticized by hawks outside the administration for being insufficiently Wilsonian in its willingness to risk American lives and squander American resources in unnecessary conflicts.
Mead’s entire argument about fretting realists depends on Walt’s fairly mild reservations regarding Rice, but Walt concludes his post by saying that he would vote to confirm her nomination if she were appointed to the position. Walt goes so far as to say that “there’s nothing in the record to warrant rejection,” and allows that he might be “pleasantly surprised.” This cuts Rice a little too much slack in my view, but it isn’t something that a “fretting” realist would say if he were alarmed at the direction of administration policy. Mead writes that “Walt may be worried that as Secretary of State, Susan Rice will continue to push towards a more engaged and ideal driven foreign policy,” but Walt doesn’t seem to be worried about that at all. If he were, he probably would have said so. Mead had no basis for reaching his conclusion, and nothing in Walt’s post supports what he is saying.