Even before his presidency began, Barack Obama articulated a foreign-policy course markedly different from that of his immediate predecessors. Not only did he present himself as the anti-Bush, but he also indicated that his administration would take a different approach to national security than had the Clinton administration. He was to be, in his aides’ terms, a “realist,” much in the mold of George H. W. Bush. As his then–chief of staff Rahm Emanuel put it in 2010: “Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist. If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41.” Nor has this view been confined to the White House; many commentators across the political spectrum have remarked that the Obama administration epitomized what realism would look like in practice, even under a Republican president.
Nearly halfway through his second term, it is time to take stock. Is President Obama actually a realist? The answer matters, particularly for Republicans and conservatives, who traditionally have claimed the mantle of realism in foreign affairs. Potential 2016 presidential candidates are beginning to think through what line they will take on foreign policy, and the notion that Obama’s approach has been realist would no doubt lead many to recoil from realism.
But the truth is that Obama is no realist. The president might approve of restraint in international affairs; he might be skeptical of grand projects, ambivalent about the promotion of democracy and human rights, and even inclined toward retrenchment. But that doesn’t make him a realist.
It helps to have a clearer sense of what realism is. Though there is a distinct school of thought that goes by this name (and even by the term “neo-realism”), practical realism (like conservatism) denotes a persuasion more than a clear doctrine. In essence, it is the view that the international arena is a lastingly tough and competitive one; that power matters in foreign relations and is often determinative; that countries pursue their interests more commonly than their stated ideals; and that force, deterrence, and coercion, while risky, are inherent elements of foreign policy and cannot be ignored or eliminated. In their policy prescriptions, realists tend to emphasize maintaining power and advantage, implementing a strategy to exploit strengths and mitigate weaknesses, pursuing the stable and satisfactory rather than the ideal, and sticking to the axiom that good fences make good neighbors.
If this sounds a good bit like what most people understand by conservatism, that is no accident. One can credibly argue that realism, with its Burkean focus on the achievable rather than the transformational and the prudent rather than the ideal, is nearly a synonym for conservatism.
Of course, neither realists nor conservatives think that realism offers a complete account of what a nation’s foreign policy should be. The greatest realists, such as Eisenhower, were deeply moral in their approach. But the morality of what one might call “righteous realism,” with its emphasis on responsibility and stewardship rather than purity of intent, is different from the high-minded tub-thumping of Woodrow Wilson or the hand-wringing of Jimmy Carter. For instance, George H. W. Bush, that paragon of recent presidential realism, showed a profound sense of responsibility in how he handled the end of the Cold War and in his carefully targeted outrage at Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait.
To be sure, Obama’s approach exhibits some elements of realism, most notably a caution about the overuse of force. Realists emphasize that force is an unpredictable and often costly instrument, and they tend to be conservative in their estimates about how well things will work out when nations reach for their guns.
But restraint is not what fundamentally characterizes realism. Rather, because realists see the international arena as innately competitive and often dangerous, they believe that strength is critical to a successful foreign policy. A domestic realist welcomes not only police restraint but also the appropriate vigorous application of police power; similarly, a foreign-policy realist knows that restraint alone is an invitation to chaos and peril. By this standard, Obama is neither an authentic realist nor a successful foreign-policy president.
A review of the president’s foreign-policy record bears this out. Consider the president’s fumbling over his “red line” on Syria. No realist would so cavalierly draw a red line, especially over such a peripheral interest, only to do nothing when the line is crossed. No realist would allow the world — friend and foe — to take away the lesson that America’s pledge is so unreliable.
Nor would a realist have pursued the uneven, unpredictable, and often contradictory approach toward the “Arab Spring” that this administration did. The president’s response to the upheavals in the Middle East has seemed to vacillate between a starry-eyed idealism about the prospect for a liberal revolution and a ham-fisted effort at realpolitik. Citing humanitarian aims, for instance, the administration intervened in Libya and helped upend Qaddafi’s regime; then it did virtually nothing to help stabilize Libya in the bloody aftermath. In the same way, the administration publicly pushed Mubarak to give up power in Egypt and then quietly accepted the government of General Sisi.