Barack Obama Is Not a Realist

In the absence of an overarching strategy, Obama's pragmatism in isolated cases doesn't build toward any larger strategic goals.

September-October 2014

IS PRESIDENT Barack Obama a foreign-policy realist? For most of his time in office, both his supporters and his detractors have said that he is—and until very recently, Obama did not dispute it. On the contrary, the White House often aggressively cultivated the image of the president as a steely-eyed pragmatist judiciously making tough calls on both international and domestic policy. Nevertheless, in his May commencement speech at West Point, Obama finally distanced himself from this, saying that “according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve” and that this view is inadequate to “the demands of this moment.”

If we take President Obama at his word that he is not a realist—and there are good reasons to do so—his administration’s long flirtation with foreign-policy realism and especially with the Left’s “progressive realists” raises two important questions. First, why were the president and his advisers comfortable with longtime and widely held perceptions that he was a realist? Second, what changed their minds?

Answering these questions with any certainty would require a front-row seat in the White House Emergency Public Relations Bunker that one can too easily imagine the administration building immediately beneath the Situation Room for its most important decision making. Still, it is not difficult to see how the image of foreign-policy realism could appeal to the president and his communications team—it has provided superficial intellectual and political legitimacy to Obama’s frequently expressed desire to concentrate on “nation building at home.” It likewise helped the administration to justify avoiding undue involvement in complex and time-consuming international problems, especially those inherited from former president George W. Bush, whose legacy the White House has publicly repudiated but quietly continued in many respects.

Want to get out of Iraq? Pivot to Asia instead—it’s more strategically important. Need to withdraw from Afghanistan? We’ve done all we can there. Hope to stay out of further wars in the Middle East? Negotiate with Iran and use Congress as an excuse to stay out of Syria. Americans frustrated with Bush’s expensive choices were understandably tempted.

In the end, however, the White House public-relations operation was too clever by half. The administration could not really explain why it was prepared to use force in Libya but not Syria, especially after President Bashar al-Assad appeared to cross Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons. More recently, Obama’s carefully built reputation for caution became a growing liability after his oratorically strong but factually weak response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Iraq’s sudden vulnerability to the militant group branding itself the Islamic State—and the administration’s struggle to respond—made matters worse by simultaneously calling into question the abrupt U.S. withdrawal in 2011 and the bizarre policy of undermining stability on one side of the Iraq-Syria border while trying to preserve it on the other. The president and his team needed to come up with a new rationale for his policies that would sound reasonable, explain when his administration would use force and when it wouldn’t, and rebut interventionist criticism of his purportedly “realist” approach. Hence the West Point speech, with its dismissiveness toward “self-described realists” and its contorted attempt to establish retroactively useful criteria for using military and other foreign-policy tools.


BUT DID the Obama administration actually ever pursue a realist foreign policy? This question is more complicated, because it requires a definition of realism, but also easier, because unlike its motives (and with the exception of classified programs), the administration’s actions have been open and visible to all.

The principal reason that Obama’s critics and defenders considered him a realist for so long has been his administration’s generally pragmatic policies. But realism is much more than pragmatism; confusing the two is one of the most fundamental and enduring errors in America’s foreign-policy debates. Realism is pragmatism rooted in awareness of international anarchy, infused with a deep understanding of American power and in service of a strategy based on American national interests. Obama is not a realist because his policies typically start and stop with the pragmatic and even the opportunistic. He appears to have excessive faith in international norms, little real appreciation of power’s uses and limits, and minimal interest in foreign policy, much less American international strategy.

Obama’s repeated efforts to contrast the twenty-first century with the nineteenth century highlight his inordinate attachment to rules and norms in an environment of international anarchy where there is no supreme enforcement authority (and he is unwilling to seize the role of judge, jury and executioner for the United States, as many neoconservatives seek). International rules and norms have indeed evolved over the last two centuries, but have not advanced in a linear and progressive manner—far from it. In a fundamentally anarchic system, rules and norms are meaningful only to the extent that they are widely observed by key players. They are therefore inherently fragile and subject to constant interpretation and reinterpretation. They are not “laws” and can only shape state behavior, not regulate or restrict it. (The United States itself has been unwilling to accept such limits.)