Will the Real Realists Please Stand Up?

Guest Commentary

Barack Obama’s supporters have been trying to create a narrative around his foreign-policy doctrine for several years now, even before he was president. The goal has been simple: to preempt efforts to portray Obama as a naïve idealist by establishing his so-called “realist” credentials. A Google search on the phrase “Obama realism” yields an astounding 704,000 hits, with all of the top ranked hits supporting this core narrative. One could almost say mission accomplished.

But as we have seen elsewhere, President Obama’s advocates have taken a concept with a relatively unambiguous meaning (think, “tax cut”) and have turned it on its head to win legitimacy for ill-conceived policies. The result is not only a gross distortion of what “realism” actually means to students of international relations, but also a terribly misguided doctrine that, in my estimation, is making the world more dangerous.

As near as I can tell, Obama’s purported realism appears to be a sort of foreign-policy version of the serenity prayer: “change what you can, accept what you cannot.” In other words, being a foreign-policy “realist” within this narrative is merely about being “realistic” about things.

Thus, for example, why get all worked up about a nuclear Iran when there’s realistically very little we can do about it anyway?

Put bluntly, just being “realistic” is far cry from true political realism in the tradition of Thucydides, Sun Tzu, St. Augustine, Hobbes, von Clausewitz, Niebuhr, Morgenthau, Waltz, and others.

So, if realism is not merely a matter of acting out the serenity prayer on the world political stage, what is it?

Descriptively, classical realism is rooted in a fundamentally pessimistic view of human nature, growing out of the Judeo-Christian notion of original sin. Because human beings are individually prone to depravity and evil, their collective behavior will be similarly prone. To expect or hope otherwise is simply to deny reality.

From these principles, clear prescriptions follow. While individuals are free to deny the reality of human nature in their personal affairs, the world affords no such luxuries to national leaders. Given human nature and the absence of a global arbiter, nations must seek to protect their own interests and security, which are constantly at risk.

Furthermore, realism is often painted as a “straw-man” philosophy that blindly promotes the use of military force. This is simply not true. Morgenthau crafted his realist treatise, Politics Among Nations, largely based upon his belief that democratic leaders failed to confront a rising Germany in the 1930s because they were acting upon utopian rather than realist principles. On the other hand, Morgenthau was also convinced that the Vietnam War was folly because it couldn’t be justified in terms of U.S. national security.

In short, realism is not about accepting all conditions as they are; it is about accepting one eternal condition, “national interest defined in terms of power.”

Now, realism does not deny the existence of common interests (e.g., low tariffs), or the potential importance of moral principles (e.g., human rights), or the possibility that some people are fundamentally good. What it does reject though—utterly and completely—is the wisdom of ever betting national security on such considerations.

This brings us full circle back to the “Obama realism” narrative. This narrative has heavily leveraged not only the realistic-outlook-as-foreign-policy-doctrine already discussed. It has also rested on the argument that George W. Bush certainly was not a realist (given his Wilsonian wars to make the world safe for democracy). But neither Obama’s realistic outlook, nor the fact that Bush was probably not a very good realist, makes Obama a true realist.

Afghanistan and Iran provide two excellent though very different cases in point. We now know that Obama never believed any of his rhetoric about Afghanistan as the “necessary war of national security.” If success in Afghanistan truly were vital to U.S. interests, Obama wouldn’t care one iota whether the dogged pursuit of that success would cause him to “lose the whole Democratic party.”

On Iran, the contrast between realist and un-realist doctrines is even starker. Does anyone believe that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons, and does anyone not agree that such a development would constitute a massive threat? Anyone? And yet, all indications are that the Obama administration is increasingly accepting of a nuclear Iran and is attempting to reset the world community’s expectations on this issue.

Are these actions those of a true realist? In both cases we need only ask: “What would Morgenthau say?” On Afghanistan, Morgenthau would be utterly appalled at the transparently domestic political motivations dominating the president’s policy. On Iran, he would surely regard as inexplicable and totally misguided the unwillingness of the United States to confront and thwart this unmistakable threat to stability and security.

President Obama a realist? Hardly. And because he is not, we stand on the precipice of a politically motivated capitulation in Afghanistan and a refusal to oppose nuclear proliferation in Iran. If there’s anything we should all be hoping for, it’s that the real realists will soon stand up.