Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Is Obama A Realist? [updated]

Or is the better question: should Peter Baker have taken some IR before leaving Oberlin?

Baker has an interesting piece in the NYT about Obama's foreign policy.  First, two categories: messes he inherited from Bush; everything else.  Obama is now, according to Baker, moving onto the second bit, with the focus on non-proliferation.  The funny thing is, of course, non-proliferation was THE focal point of the Bush Administration, but it was defined and pursued in a very specific way--disarming certain countries that were pursuing weapons of mass destruction (Iraq first) and condoning others (that would be India).

I guess the difference is between non-proliferation and counter-proliferation.  Preventing the spread vs. disarming. 

Baker then invokes the classic realist/idealist dichotomy:
If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns. He has generated much more good will around the world after years of tension with Mr. Bush, and yet he does not seem to have strong personal friendships with many world leaders.
“Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41,” the first President George Bush, Mr. Emanuel said.
He added, “He knows that personal relationships are important, but you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”
That is basic intro to IR 101.  Well, old school IR 101, which I had.  But the new generation of IR classes do not focus so much on Realism vs. Idealism (a la E.H. Carr) but Realism vs. Liberalism and then perhaps also vs. Constructivism.  While Realists would like to conflate Liberalism with Idealism so that Liberal IR Theorists are seen as been just as silly, fuzzy-headed as those who tried to outlaw war in the 1920's.

But the key differences between Realism and Liberalism are not about self-interest vs. altruism and singing Kumbayah.  No, the differences are several, but most importantly:
  • Realism (with its many versions) focuses on the pursuit of power either for its own sake or for the sake of security. 
  • Liberalism (with its many versions) focuses on the pursuit of interests, including and sometimes especially self-interest.  But interest is not just defined in terms of power, and security is much more multi-dimensional.  
    • Not all Liberal IR theorists focus on such topics as human rights and democracy as the ends of foreign policy, particularly when we are trying to understand what countries do.
    • Indeed, one can argue that the rise of constructivism is in part due to the dissatisfaction with Liberalism's convergence with Realism on a variety of issues.
I guess Baker and the various interview subjects quoted in the piece are focused more on topics rather than on what Obama might actually be trying to do--maximize a variety of American interests rather than solely its security and security narrowly defined at that.
“All these other countries, they have their own interests,” said Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “They don’t get out of bed in the morning thinking, ‘Gosh, how can I make America’s life better?’
Indeed, and that recognition is realistic, but being realistic--that is reality-focused is not monopolized by Realists.  Liberals can be realistic, too, despite not having the catchy name.  Realism and Liberalism have many things in common from an IR theory perspective with both focused on the world as it is, not on how we would like it to be.  Neo-Cons are distinct from either approach as they sought to impose their views upon reality, ignoring inconvenient bits of reality such as Chalabi's own self-interests and Iranian ties (ooops!).

The good news is that this has been useful to me as I am re-thinking how to teach my Intro to IR class for next fall.

Update: Tom Friedman is a lousy IR theorist as well.  Again, distinguishing stuff between realism and idealism is doing nobody any favors.


Anonymous said...

When, do you think, will we be able to teach IR 101 without framing the discussion in terms of paradigmatic debates?

Steve Saideman said...

Fall 2010. I am adopting a new textbook that will force me out of my comfort zone and focus on a some alternative set of distinctions--interests, interactions and institutions--Frieden, Lake and Schultz.

But I still think getting the paradigms right can be useful.