A Caricature of Realism

As someone who also flies on United Airlines, I can well understand why Daniel Drezner was “in a very cranky mood” as he read my commentary “Giving Realists a Bad Name,” in which I argued the Obama administration is not pursuing a realist foreign policy because it lacks clear strategic goals. But I am disappointed that his mood at the moment appears to have interfered with both the quality of his analysis and the tone of his argument.

First, it is nonsense to claim, as Drezner does, that realists “don’t give a flying fig about promoting ‘American values’ overseas.” This caricature of realism and realists is routinely peddled by their critics but has little basis in fact. Realists understand well that perceptions are important in shaping international power and influence and, as a result, that policies disconnected from our values diminish the United States and weaken its ability to lead. Moreover, they recognize that such policies are not politically sustainable in America and are therefore impractical and—wait for it!—unrealistic. Ivory-tower academics with no responsibility for formulating or executing policy may think otherwise, but I expect that few involved in actual foreign-policy decisions would agree. The real question, which Drezner ignores, is not whether to advance our values, but how to advance our interests and values most effectively.

Second, Drezer’s argument that the Obama administration is “realist” because it is getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan to concentrate on China entirely misses the point. The fact that the administration has decided to “refocus energy” on Asia, as he writes, rather than continuing long wars in the Middle East demonstrates no more than a degree of pragmatism. But pragmatism is only pragmatism when it does not serve a clear strategic goal that neither the administration nor Drezner have been able to articulate—and his description of the administration’s policy in Asia as “its ‘strategic pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’ or whatever they’re calling it this week” only reinforces this.

The Chen Guangcheng case matters in this context because it starkly illustrates the Obama administration’s inability to define and defend its China policy in realist terms—or, indeed, in any other terms. If realists “don’t sweat the small stuff” as Drezner argues, why did U.S. embassy staff pick up Chen and bring him to into the diplomatic compound in the first place? Why did senior U.S. diplomats spend days seeking guarantees from Chinese authorities before sending him to the hospital? Why are they still discussing Chen’s potential travel to America? More broadly, why was it so important to avoid disrupting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit? What specifically was the administration trying to accomplish? How was that plan connected to U.S. goals in Asia?

Because the administration has failed to provide anything other than intellectual-sounding mush to define its goals, I stand by my statement that “the administration’s aimless and stumbling pragmatism is giving realism and realists a bad name.”

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest. He was a State Department political appointee during the George W. Bush administration.