Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama: Realist or Liberal?

President Obama has been labeled a Realist. But is he? Does it matter? Well, IR theorists have long cared about Realism, defined in a very specific way. That is, realist approaches focus on the role of power in international relations, the necessity or even drive to pursue it, whether to maximize power itself (offensive realism) or to maximize security (defensive realism). In a world without government, countries must rely upon themselves and cannot really trust anyone else to protect them. Liberalism, always Realism's competitor, is not so idealistic as the Realists (who thrive on having a better label) would have people believe. Liberalism emphasizes the existence of conflicts of interest, not just conflicts over power, and that there can be areas where interests can coincide [And this idea of Liberalism is not the same as being a liberal in the American political context--actually it is more like Adam Smith and those folks] .

Ok, so much for IR Theory 101. There is a constant temptation to refer to Obama as a Realist because he sees the objective realities and wants to work with them, rather than deny the existence of tradeoffs and try to impose his own vision on the world. Just because Obama is not Bush does not make him a Realist even if he is realistic. Obama seems to emphasize again and again with the Russians and now with the Muslim world that there are both shared interests and conflicting interests, and that ignoring one or the other is unrealistic and unproductive. While he may be perhaps overly optimistic that the conflicting interests will not get in the way of the shared interests, it makes to try to do so. Many of our conflicting interests are, indeed, irresolvable. But if we can agree to disagree and make some progress on the issues over which we can cooperate, then wouldn't that be a realistic way to go?

Focusing on power is becoming increasingly problematic--because American leverage is a declining asset. Each element of American power is a bit less superior than it was eight years ago. The US military is overstretched, so it is not as useful a bargaining advantage against the Chinese, the North Koreans, or the Iranians. Yes, US planes and other weapon systems are still the best, but they are more finite than they used to be. The economy, well, let's not go there. Bush frittered away the political capital that was one of 9/11's few upsides. The US still has some powerful levers, but it is also dependent and constrained. While one way to bargain is to push people around, another is to see where bargains can be struck without much coercion.

Obama will have to be realistically Liberal, including seeing the limits of US power and figuring out how to use US power in those areas where there are deep conflicts of interest.

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