Obama’s Realpolitik?

So President Obama is the second coming of Kissinger.  Who knew?  Last month, Peter Baker of the New York Times wrote, “If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns.”

Alright, so being more realpolitik than President George W. “Freedom Crusade” Bush doesn’t necessarily make one the next Henry Kissinger.  But, the piece did provoke a debate, including an interesting spread in Foreignpolicy.com that exposed a wide range of interpretations of Obama’s administration.

For the neoconservatives, Obama is nothing more than a repackaged, weak, Wilsonian idealist.  Daniell Pletka, for example, labeled Obama “an ideologue, a worshipper at the altar of American decline….[with a penchant to]… ignore the practical threats to the United States that exist in the real world.  For Robert Kagan, Obama has thus far demonstrated “idealism on high order.”

Meanwhile, ForeignPolicy.com’s resident realist, Stephen Walt, labeled what he’s seen from the Obama administration thus far as “cold blooded” and “ruthlessly realistic.”   This is a view that is increasingly shared by progressives who helped elect Obama and who see the increased U.S. military effort in Afghanistan as Obama’s Vietnam. All of which was enough to make Dan Drezner’s head spin –  he titled his response “You say Idealist, I say Realist, let’s call the whole thing off.”

What to make of all this?

It seems to me this debate is simply off the mark and conflates the idea of realpolitik with the idea of pragmatism.  One thing is very clear, Obama inherited an absolute mess – a global financial crisis that easily could have slipped into a global depression (and still may); a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan; and the on-going problems in Iraq and Iran.  International public antipathy towards the United States was at, or near, record highs.

As a result, the Obama foreign policy team has spent the first year in transition – getting all of their key people in place and assessing and focusing on containing the series of fires. 

Nonetheless, the administration’s responses have exposed some early trends. First, at least in these early stages, the administration’s national security team is more disciplined and more united than any administration since Eisenhower’s first term. While there are some internal divisions, for the most part these divisions concern tactics rather than strategy.  I think its fair to say that Obama and most of his team are drawn from a classic, centrist, American liberal internationalist tradition. They believe that conflict and insecurity can be managed and reduced by a combination of American power and multilateral institutions; that global markets, democracy, and human rights make the world more secure and prosperous, but that none of these are self-executing or can be implemented with a magic wand; and, that while the United States can and will spend roughly half of the world’s expenditures on defense, there are limits to what U.S. power can do.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, most members of this national security team are, at their core, policy wonks.  They all seem to relish in the intricate elements of policy.  For example, during his European trip earlier this month, Vice President Biden pushed a five-point message on the future of transatlantic relations that read straight from one of those convoluted Pentagon Powerpoint presentations.  Biden urged:  greater “reciprocal transparency” on military forces; greater “reciprocal limitations” on the size and location of conventional forces; more resources to deterring and combating security threats to Europe that come from outside Europe; a more effective conflict-prevention, conflict-management, and crisis-resolution mechanism to defuse crises; an affirmation of the importance of territorial integrity for all countries in Europe; and the right of states to choose their own security alliances.

Whatever you want to say about the merits of Biden’s message, one thing is clear: Rumsfeld’s simplistic New Europe/Old Europe dichotomy this is not.

These two trends are certainly reflected in the two major foreign policy decisions this administration has made thus far. The decision last fall on Afghanistan was slow and deliberate and calculated to address multiple objectives  - to improve security in Afghanistan, to weaken the Taliban capabilities in Pakistan, and to demonstrate tangible successes to ease European anxieties.   At the end of the day, Obama demanded that military commanders develop a set of matrices to plot success or failure.  In exchange, he has stepped up troop commitments and he has increased the use of Predator drone attacks.

Similarly, the START agreement reflects a policy with multiple objectives.  While, it commits to a 30% reduction, the practical element is somewhat limited because of a change in counting rules and because of previous reductions. Still, it was a logical effort to resume nuclear reductions, to improve relations with Russia, and to signal to the world that the US is not abandoning the core principles of the Non-Proliferation Treaty – a message clearly intended to be sent prior to the start of this months NPT review conference and to further isolate Iran.

It is too early to evaluate the overall effectiveness of these policies, and given the multiple objectives the results almost certainly will be mixed. The key to success or failure of this administration will be the degree to which it will be able to pivot when things go bad, and how well it can manage the negative externalities that inevitably flow from even the best policy choices.  Thus far, the administration seems grounded in a pragmatism informed by a classic liberal internationalism that is hardly “idealism on high order” or “ruthlessly realistic.”