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On the Imaginary Illiberalism of the Obama Administration

September 5, 2012

Will Marshall has a strange argument in Foreign Policy making the case that the problem with Obama’s foreign policy is… too much realism?

The Republicans’ disarray gives Democrats a chance to occupy the pragmatic center on security and foreign policy. To do that, they should look beyond Obama’s “realist” correction of his predecessor’s mistakes. With the excesses of the Bush-Cheney years fading mercifully into memory, the party needs a post-realist outlook grounded in the liberal convictions of the American people. Such a policy would combine Obama’s resolve in defending Americans against terrorism with new strategies for using U.S. power, soft and hard, to bend history’s arc toward freedom.

Too many Democrats seem terrified that affirming the liberal internationalist tradition they invented will make them sound too much like George W. Bush. This has left them tongue-tied at precisely the moment when America needs to wage and win a battle of ideas against Islamist extremism and China’s model of autocratic capitalism.

It takes ludicrously high standards or profound ideological cherry-picking to describe Obama’s administration as dominated by realism. Obama has Hillary Clinton in the State Department, who has aggressively pushed the inclusion of liberal internationalist and “post-realist” concerns into U.S. foreign policy and the discourse surrounding it. I’m sure former Obama administration Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter would be surprised to hear that she was serving a “cold-blooded” realist administration, as would the many realist critics of the Obama administration’s war in Libya.

Marshall rails against the Three D’s – diplomacy, development, and defense – not including a fourth (democracy), even though the actual Three D’s all correspond to identifiable instruments of national power, while “democracy” is a desirable outcome more than an instrument. He repeats the tired, tired critiques of the Obama administration on the Green Revolution and Arab Spring.

Marshall, and many conservative counterparts, continue to obsess over some kind of lost opportunity during the Green Revolution. A quick recap – the Green Revolution was by no means representative of the whole Iranian populace. Its goals were to uphold the Constitution of the Islamic Republic by forcing the government to acknowledge Mousavi as the rightful Presidential election winner, not to overthrow the regime of Iran. There was no indication that it intended to radically alter Iranian foreign policy or its nuclear program, and it was contesting a position which had no real political power to change those things except insofar as the clerical elements of the regime delegated them that ability. Even more, many representatives of the Green movement felt that America’s confrontational foreign policy against Iran, its hegemonic role in the Middle East, and its support of Israel – all goals American internationalists of all stripes basically support – strengthened the regime’s claims to legitimacy and gave it greater leeway in suppressing domestic dissent.

As for the Arab Spring, it is manifestly unclear what the Obama administration’s “voice” would have contributed to an ongoing historical shift. In Egypt, Obama did not quickly and vocally come out in favor of anti-regime protests, but neither, for that matter, did the Muslim Brotherhood. If anything, quickly pulling the rug out from under the Egyptian regime could have backed the military into a corner and greatly destabilized a fraught transition that has worked out about as well as anyone could have expected. Despite attempts to pin the Morsi government’s turn away from American foreign policy preferences on American intransigence during the days of Tahrir, any logical assessment of Egypt’s revolutions would have concluded no civilian government responding to Egyptian people’s concerns would be as reliably friendly to the U.S. as a U.S.-subsidized, military-backed hybrid regime.

Libyans, for that matter, probably do not feel the administration “lost its voice” there, for that matter.

Marshall further rails against America’s “reset” with Russia and China:

Likewise, the administration’s desire to “reset” relations with great powers like Russia and China too often has meant hitting the mute button on disputes over human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. To autocrats, U.S. reticence on values comes across as weakness; to the people they misrule, as a betrayal of their hopes. Obama has been described as a rhetorical idealist but an operational realist. Democrats, however, cannot live by realism alone. The party has served America best by fusing U.S. might to liberal purposes, and acting on the strategic insight that a freer world is a safer and more prosperous one, for America and other countries. Amoral, balance-of-power realism is the doctrine of Republicans like Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, George H.W. Bush, and Brent Scowcroft. This kind of “realism” is blind to the reality that a country’s internal politics decisively shapes its external conduct — that regimes that are not accountable to their own people are more likely to be bad actors on the world stage as well. Democrats should look instead for inspiration to tough liberals like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton.

This is a satisfying narrative, and like most satisfying narratives about foreign policy, it is not very true to history. Russia and China do not assess American strength on the basis of our bluster, but our power. China responded to Clinton’s supposedly “tough liberalism” not with complaisance and political reform, but by massively increasing its paramilitary internal security apparatus and building up its military capabilities. There is little indication that Clinton’s policies did much to bend the arc of Chinese history towards freedom, and in all likelihood any such development will owe more to localized Chinese concerns about the Party’s abysmal record of corruption, waste, and negligence than American exhortations.

As for Russia, if anything, Clinton’s policy did much to aggravate the concerns of Russian nationalists. Many Russians do not look back on the 1990s as a “good time.” Pro-American Yeltsin’s liberal reforms were enabled by ending a Russian constitutional crisis with the shelling and assault on the Russian parliament. Russian reform depended on a toxic coterie of quasi-liberal politicians and the patronage of oligarchs, generals, and other unsavory actors, against the wishes of a parliament that would generally consist of communists, ultranationalists, and other anti-liberals.

The culmination of Russia politics during the Clinton administration was the ascension of a then little-known Yeltsin supporter, Vladimir Putin. One could conclude from this episode that the United States has relatively limited abilities to shape the course of a great power’s internal political development, and that policies opposing the regime or national interests of that power will enervate trust and cooperation. One could also conclude that if only there was more resolve, more toughness, and more seriousness, that by some unknown mechanism, things could have gone differently.

Unsurprisingly, Marshall lists Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Clinton as tough liberal internationalists (Johnson is excluded. Was he not tough, not liberal, or was he just embarrassing to the cause?). Undoubtedly, all of these men had some liberal internationalist tendencies. But we could level many of the criticisms that Marshall levies against Obama against them, too.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt undertook a “reset” with Moscow of his own. Since 1917, liberal internationalist Woodrow Wilson’s policy of hostility towards the USSR had been a bipartisan accepted fact of American foreign policy. Wilson supported an intervention in an attempt to check the Red Army’s power, and when that failed, his conservative successors maintained a strict policy of domestic anti-communism and refusal to engage with the Soviet Union.

By the time Roosevelt took office, America was the only major world power to still refuse to recognize the USSR. It was clear that America’s “tough” stance on the USSR had utterly failed to prevent the consolidation of the communist regime, by 1933 Russia had become more tyrannical and more powerful. Meanwhile, Japan was pursuing an expansionist policy in East Asia that gravely threatened America’s Pacific interest and the sovereignty of China, the great hope of American liberals and Christians for a pro-US transformation of the region.

Roosevelt, of course, did not simply roll over to Moscow. He stipulated recognition and the advancement of US-Soviet relations on a reduction of Soviet interference in American domestic politics (which, at least to the Soviets, did not preclude riddling the Roosevelt administration-era U.S. with spies and informants), and increased rights for U.S. citizens living within the USSR. As for the citizens of the USSR itself? Roosevelt recognized there was little he could do to loosen Stalin’s grip over their lives. Even before the clear exigent circumstances of World War II, Roosevelt was willing to put bluster behind the concerns of balance of power politics and engagement.

When WWII arrived, of course, Roosevelt’s concessions to the USSR continued. Even as Allied victory became imminent, Roosevelt held on to a view of the USSR that, by Marshall’s standards, that showed far more deplorable levels of naivete (or else supreme cynicism!) than Obama’s views of Russia or China appears to. Here is Roosevelt, according to Bullitt, on Stalin:

I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.”

When these efforts failed, Roosevelt recognized these hopes were misplaced, but still felt that accommodating the USSR’s concerns would allow for the postwar concert of powers to preserve the strength of the United Nations. To Roosevelt, maintaining good relations with unsavory actors was a critical part of the solvency of the international system. This assessment was basically correct. World War II was a clash of totalitarian titans that had bought time and space for the survival of liberal democracy in a few corners of the world. Roosevelt, like many liberal internationalists, saw preserving liberalism where it was as ultimately a higher goal than pressing it in the places where it had the least chance of success.

Truman’s liberal internationalism was informed by many of the same concerns. Truman was no stranger to the demands of balance of power politics, either. If anything, he was more willing to exploit them than even Roosevelt. In his infamous quote as a Senator, Truman declared:

If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances. Neither of them thinks anything of their pledged word.

Incidentally, this was much in line with a lot of the American population, who broadly disliked the Nazis, the Soviets, or the prospect of American entry into the war.

Even Truman’s anti-communism after the war acquiesced to the realist desire for containment. Liberal internationalism was a much more limited project. Rolling back or undermining communism where it was already in power was hardly a priority, and Truman’s approach to China showed that his toughness had limits where power realities overshadowed the principles at stake.

Kennedy, for his part, was more liberal in the sense Marshall outlines. His foreign policy initiatives reflecting these desires were also frequently disastrous. Even as he emphasized human rights and a new approach in Latin America, he attempted various acts of covert violence to check communist advances in the region. He acquiesced in the 1963 coup in Vietnam and endorsed a military escalation in the region that set the stage for Johnson’s full entry into the war.

Liberal internationalism must be sensitive to the balance of power, because concepts of global governance, multilateralism, and order in a pluralist, liberal sense, cannot be executed without attention to the distribution of power in the international system. The free world and its liberal mechanisms were preserved with prudence, not through aggressive undermining of the illiberal world.

As for the claim that somehow the American people demand liberal crusading, this argument is less convincing. As Dan Drezner and others have pointed out, the American public is at least as open to realism as it is to liberal internationalism. Indeed, when Americans have been most favorable to liberal internationalism, it has been when liberal internationalists have fused it with realist concerns about American national interests and arguments for strategic emergency.

Marshall claims that amoral realpolitik is the doctrine of Republicans – and that is somewhat fair – but then never bothers to wonder why Republicans, for decades, were the trusted party on national security. Clinton was not elected because the foreign policy of Scowcroft, Baker, and George H.W. Bush was found wanting, but because of “the economy, stupid.” Liberal internationalist elites, when in power, have demonstrated they can effectively mobilize American public behind certain types of intervention, or at least get them to acquiesce to it, but in so doing they paved the way for neoconservatives and “exceptionalists” to promulgate an even more bellicose and nationalist variety of it. There is something incredibly bizarre in the assertion that Democratic success relies on hypertrophic liberal internationalism, when Obama is the most trusted Democratic leader on national security in something like half a century.

Marhsall goes on to assert that the U.S. is failing to exploit its ideological advantages in the War on Terror and an imagined contest with China for ideological supremacy. Apparently, Obama is failing to wage a war of ideas, a stance Marshall shares with Doug Feith, William Galston and Abram Shulsky – they even all agree it should be modeled on the National Endowment of Democracy. Once again, the issue appears to boil down to a lack of resolve and effort rather than a fundamental problem with the concept itself. To the extent that the “war of ideas” was won by American offensives during the Cold War, it took several decades. More important, one would think, would be the existence of an entire communist world and the gradual, and dramatic, failure of these systems by the standards of their own subjects.

On the War on Terror, the Arab Spring and East Asia, Marshall wants to play a long game that puts principles before immediate security. This sounds sensible, except that this sort of foreign policy was not the kind the United States conducted successfully during the Cold War, either. The U.S., liberal internationalist included, recognized the “long game” to achieve liberal objectives was best met by playing the “short game” of security concerns effectively. Truman put checking communist advances ahead of democracy promotion, as did Republican realists. George H.W. Bush rightly recognized that failing to create a stable balance of power in Eastern Europe, even during the death rattle of the USSR, was more important than immediately appeasing the interests of Eastern European democrats. Despite annoyance from dissidents in the late 1980s, the U.S. helped create perhaps the most momentous peaceful power transition in Europe, and in the long run, neither European liberalism nor American interests suffered for it.

Ultimately, U.S. interests are not suffering from an excess of realism in the American foreign policy approach. Particularly as U.S. power declines, a realist approach that preserves U.S. power and checks its excesses would do more to consolidate the already remarkable gains of liberalism internationally than would starting or redoubling foolish efforts to control or direct the transformation of other people’s politics. Locking in world powers into the liberal internationalist system requires, to some extent, delimiting our attempts to manipulate the politics of its potential stakeholders. Relentless interference with the internal affairs of powerful states may be self-satisfying but it is more likely to widen cleavages between the United States and other countries than it is to rebuild the world in America’s image.

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