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

At the same time, global rules and norms are in flux. America, the European Union, some components of the UN bureaucracy and progressive NGOs have attempted to redefine them, weakening state sovereignty and legitimizing force to right perceived wrongs. It is naive to expect others—especially dissatisfied major powers like China and Russia—to observe international rules and norms that we ourselves consider inadequate and are attempting to modify. This is a particularly daring assumption when we ourselves often try to change rules and norms through action and precedent rather than negotiation and consensus.

It’s also naive to think that once some major powers question rules and norms, others will not seek to modify them too—and in ways more suitable to their interests than to ours, whether in the South China Sea or in Crimea. Moreover, from the viewpoint of Beijing and Moscow, Washington often appears to go well beyond what its interlocutors believe has been agreed upon in international talks, as in Libya and in the former Yugoslavia’s successive conflicts. For them, the United States is violating the same international law it purports to uphold. Because rules and norms are inherently subjective and open to contending interpretations, these perspectives matter—and arguments about what is “legal” go nowhere. The fact that the U.S. Senate has not ratified agreements like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, does not strengthen Washington’s hand.

Most perversely, however, the rules and norms that existed at the end of the Cold War—the ones that the Obama administration, the Bush administration and the Clinton administration have been trying to change—contributed enormously to America’s power, leadership and capabilities in defending its vital national interests. This was, after all, the system through which the United States won the Cold War. So trying to change the way the world works actually risks destabilizing an international system that is fundamentally to America’s advantage in managing rivals and adversaries. Realists understand all of this. Obama doesn’t.


OBAMA’S STATEMENTS about American power have been even more telling. After Iraq and Afghanistan, it is understandable that Obama—and other Americans—worry about the limits of power. But the president has gone well beyond this, renouncing military power to an extent unprecedented among post–World War II U.S. presidents. Perhaps most telling was his shocking statement in Brussels that Russia could not be “deterred from further escalation by military force”—a dramatic abandonment of a foundational principle of American foreign policy for seven decades.

More recently, Obama said, “Very rarely have I seen the exercise of military power providing a definitive answer.” But an answer to what? Military power will indeed very rarely be a definitive answer to nation building, but it is often quite sufficient in determining which nation owns what—as Ukrainians have painfully learned. (And, as they say, possession is nine-tenths of the law.) Coupled with credible troop movements, a stronger position on Ukraine could have created sufficient uncertainty for Russian president Vladimir Putin to moderate his conduct after his annexation of Crimea. Declaring Moscow’s conduct “unacceptable” and then tying our own hands in responding piles weakness on top of overreach; it is far more dangerous than either weakness or overreach alone and can encourage other challenges.

Even as Obama describes the limits of force, he seems to overestimate his personal rhetorical and persuasive power. How else could Obama think that declaring that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” without actually doing anything, would remove Syria’s brutal leader from office? Or that his declarations that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is “unacceptable” will produce real results? This is either outsized self-confidence or remarkable disinterest in the consequences of regularly failing to live up to one’s own explicit and implicit commitments. Neither has any place in a realist foreign policy.

The Obama administration’s lack of any clearly defined international strategy is in some ways the strongest argument against its supposed realism. Obama may often look for pragmatic approaches to individual foreign-policy issues, but in the absence of an overarching strategy, his pragmatism in isolated cases doesn’t build toward any larger objectives. At the same time, Obama’s pragmatism is politically driven at its core, often placing domestic struggles and standing ahead of foreign-policy outcomes. This distorts the decision-making process and produces policies that may sound pragmatic but are actually unlikely to succeed and thus largely unprincipled. His mutually contradictory policies on opposite sides of the Iraq-Syria border are one example; his approaches to China and Russia, which risk simultaneous and thus doubly dangerous confrontations with each, are another. The latter could have profound consequences for America.