Giving Realists a Bad Name

The Chen incident demonstrates that President Obama's stumbling China policy is anything but realist.

Editor's Note: Paul Saunders has replied to criticism from Daniel Drezner.

The Obama administration’s poor handling of its interaction with Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng has prompted renewed denunciations of its “realist” foreign policy, already a focus for critics of its approach to Russia, the Middle East and other major international issues. Yet while criticism of the administration’s conduct is appropriate, calling it “realist” is misguided. In fact, the administration’s aimless and stumbling pragmatism is giving realism and realists a bad name.

Pragmatism is a central component of foreign-policy realism, but it is only so when firmly subordinated to a strategic vision founded on American interests and reflecting American values. While President Obama and senior administration officials cling rhetorically to a strategic vision based on a pragmatic version of liberal internationalism, attempting to build a rule-based liberal international order, the sum total of U.S. policy appears instead to define a considerably narrower goal: avoiding international problems, particularly when they have domestic political consequences.

Mr. Chen is a case in point. While it now appears Beijing may permit him to leave China—a course often preferred by Chinese leaders in dealing with dissidents—the administration’s initial management of the Chen affair was either stunningly naive or shockingly ruthless. Either way, it was wholly unrealistic and un-realist.

How could senior State Department officials ask for, much less believe, Chinese government assurances that Chen would be permitted not only to live quietly in China after leaving the American embassy but also to attend a Chinese law school so he could become a more effective antigovernment activist? And if they did not believe these assurances, how could they turn Chen over to Chinese authorities, knowing his possible fate and knowing how little the United States could do to help him once he left the U.S. diplomatic mission? Doing so may have been pragmatic from the narrow perspective of ending the dispute over Chen, but no genuine foreign-policy realist would accept the damage to America’s credibility and moral standing that inevitably would have followed from essentially handing over someone who sought U.S. aid and received considerable global attention in the process.

U.S. officials clearly faced a difficult dilemma when Chen contacted them in Beijing, apparently through intermediaries. Working with Chen and his allies to bring him into the embassy would—and did—anger Chinese officials, especially after an embassy vehicle reportedly evaded Chinese security to deliver him. Conversely, American officials had to expect that if they did not assist him, Chen would eventually be detained by Chinese authorities, or worse. If that happened, Chen’s fate would be uncertain, and his unsuccessful attempt to seek U.S. help likely would become known.

Still, U.S. officials had an option that was both pragmatic and moral: immediately establishing that Chen was seeking refuge at the embassy in order to leave China. This was the most practical approach because it would have been founded on the reality that the United States could not provide meaningful guarantees to Chen inside his country. Moreover, it would have limited damage to U.S.-China relations. And it would have been moral in that the United States would have offered aid to a man in great need and avoided returning him to China’s jurisdiction.

To the extent that the administration was concerned about appearances, requiring Chen to express a desire to leave China before allowing him in the embassy would have been better politics, too. If Chen declined, he would have been turning down American assistance instead of the reverse. Unfortunately, no matter what happened, the United States could do little to help Chen’s family once he decided to approach the embassy on his own.

Today, the Obama administration seems to have found the correct solution—getting Chen out of China—but only after needless damage to the U.S.-China relationship that its initial approach allegedly sought to prevent. But there is a bigger and broader problem as well: What exactly is the administration trying to do in protecting the U.S.-China relationship? More serious than the administration’s poor tactical execution of policy is its muddled strategy toward China and Asia. The confused description of the so-called “pivot” to Asia is a recent illustration.

This lack of clear strategic goals is the fundamental weakness of the Obama administration’s foreign policy—and the reason neither the president nor his senior advisors are realists, despite what many think. It has damaged not only the administration’s China policy but also its policy around the globe. In dealing with Russia, the Obama administration courted former president Dmitri Medvedev at the expense of ties to his more influential predecessor and successor Vladimir Putin and appeared to support—with little evidence—the notion that Medvedev was more “modern” and, by implication, more “democratic.” This alienated someone whose cooperation the administration needs without actually advancing the cause of Russia’s reform.

Meanwhile, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Egypt, Libya and Syria, the administration often seems to base policy on Bill Clinton-style political triangulation, trying to do enough to satisfy some without going so far as to aggravate others. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the result has been a too-hasty exit from two wars that needed to end but where U.S. interests could have been better protected. In Egypt, Libya and Syria, the lack of a strategic framework integrating U.S. interests and values has produced glaring inconsistencies that undermine America’s political and moral credibility with friends and foes alike. While realists tend to be skeptical of the use of force without a clear benefit to vital U.S. interests, it is difficult to justify intervening in Libya but not Syria. It similarly undermines U.S. leadership when Washington helps to remove its long-term ally Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt but is more restrained in dealing with the considerably less friendly Bashar al-Assad.

Since the U.S. economy is both an immediate and a longer-term challenge for America’s domestic health and its international role, one could argue that China, Russia and the Middle East should take a backseat to restoring sustainable growth; perhaps in current circumstances, avoiding international problems and minimizing their domestic consequences is the best the White House can do. That would not be a bold agenda, but it could be a defensible one—if President Obama were working to build domestic consensus to tackle the deficit and create jobs. The administration’s ineffective and uncoordinated half measures don’t promote either America’s security or its prosperity.

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.