Thursday, December 24, 2009

Über-Realist Stephen Walt looks at whether Obama is a 'realist"

Stephen Walt, one of the leading foreign policy scholars advocating the Realist school approach asks, Was Obama's Nobel Peace Prize speech really "realist?" Foreign Policy 12/18/09.

Walt comes up with a mixed verdict, but his bottom line is that we need to judge Obama's foreign policy by its results. And, as of the time of that post, he is giving Obama 0-2 on major foreign policy actions:

In his first year in office, President Obama has made two critical decisions involving matters of war, peace and justice. The first is his decision to abandon the admirable principles he set forth in his Cairo speech in June, to tacitly accept the continued expansion of Israel's West Bank settlements, and to collude in a well-orchestrated assault on the Goldstone Report on war crimes in Gaza. The result will be to perpetuate precisely the sort of injustice that gives rise to very violence he deplored in his speech. The second is his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan -- sending 17,000 troops last spring and 30,000 more last month -- despite the continued absence of a compelling rationale or coherent strategy for success. [my emphasis]
One of the biggest things I don't like about the Realist school is their almost-definitional distrust and underestimation of international institutions. And Walt notes that there were elements of Obama's Nobel speech that look dangerous Wilsonian from the Realist point of view.

But Realists can also be lower-case realists, as Walt generally is. And he is right to criticize Obama for an arrogant overestimation of American power and self-righteousness that is not promising for a sound foreign policy:

... as Obama himself acknowledged, what has kept peace among the great powers over the past sixty years is mostly power. Here Obama gave full credit to the United States, saying that it "has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades." Most realists would agree -- but only up to a point. As Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall show in their excellent new book, America’s Cold War, the United States did play a positive role in stabilizing Europe after World War II and in containing possible Soviet expansion in that region afterwards. But they also show that America’s role in Indochina, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East was far more destructive, even though the U.S. leaders who conducted these policies undoubtedly thought they are serving a larger moral purpose as well.

Furthermore, despite his wise remarks about the human capacity for error, the limits of reason, and the like, it was still a speech that invoked the threat of “evil” to justify the use of force, and applied an implicit double standard to the conduct of the United States, its friends, and other powerful states. [my emphasis]
He also points out that Obama's statement that "those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flauted" isn't backed up well by some notable relatively recent instances of American conduct in the world:

But although Obama said that "all nations -- strong and weak alike -- must adhere to standards that govern the use of force," he clearly didn't mean it. He was hardly endorsing international sanctions against the United States when it breaks existing "rules of conduct," as it did when it invaded Iraq in 2003, fired cruise missiles into Sudan in 1998, or engages in targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists (and sometimes kills innocent civilians in the bargain) today. Surely he was not proposing to sanction Israel for its refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty or for its illegal colonization of the West Bank. Nor do I think he was suggesting that the international community hold China "accountable" for its absorption of Tibet. [my emphasis]
Walt doesn't mention it in his post. But until the United States imposes full legal accountability on the torture perpetrators from the Cheney-Bush years - and after? - it's going to be hard, I think, for anyone, American or otherwise, to seriously believe the United States consistently supports the international rule of law.

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