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Defining Obamapolitik

May 19, 2010

From Current Intelligence’s Jon Western comes a short piece on the ongoing attempt to classify Obama in familiar IR typologies.

It seems to me this debate is simply off the mark and conflates the idea of realpolitik with the idea of pragmatism.  One thing is very clear, Obama inherited an absolute mess – a global financial crisis that easily could have slipped into a global depression (and still may); a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan; and the on-going problems in Iraq and Iran.  International public antipathy towards the United States was at, or near, record highs.

As a result, the Obama foreign policy team has spent the first year in transition – getting all of their key people in place and assessing and focusing on containing the series of fires.

Many progressives and other supporters of Obama have, depending on their preconceptions about his administration, lauded or decried him for implementing realpolitik or a hard-nosed realist strategy. This is a sure misreading of what realpolitik means, which is the pursuit of the national interest without regards to ethical or moral considerations. Realpolitik is an amoral, some would say immoral strategy. Even if they disagree with them, I would think most politically-aware commentators could recognize that issues of ethics and morals play a vital role in Obama’s policymaking. In describing Obama’s policies as realpolitik or Realist, we can’t ignore the fact that Realism is not just “seeing the world as it is,” but agreeing with Realism’s controversial assertions the struggle for power, and the subordination of values and ideals to that fact, are inherent to “the world as it is.” Seeing the world as it is and making decisions accordingly, if the world is one where modern, liberal, humanitarian values are, or must be, universal values is important, might be realistic but it is not Realism or realpolitik. It’s just pragmatism. Realism (unlike realpolitik, under most definitions) can be conscious of morals or have moral elements, but Obama does not see the world first and foremost as a zero-sum struggle for power. He certainly does not make decisions without regard to morality.

Western goes on to explain this non-Realist pragmatism as a product of Obama’s administrative choices, namely recruiting a tight-knit cadre of American liberals well versed in procedure and policy. The technical and bureaucratic proficiency of these officials should not be confused with the theoretical tradition of Realism, however. The ability to read and navigate the political terrain of an issue is a necessary element of practical policymaking, but it is not inconsistent with a general belief that the US should aim to bring about democratic peace and an international liberal economic order. Obama is certainly more cautious than his predecessor. But he is not Henry Kissinger, nor Otto von Bismarck.

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