Robert Kagan — decorated academician, Carnegie Endowment talking head, and older brother of Fred Kagan, ‘author’ of the Iraqi and Afghan Surges — has an article out in the current edition of World Affairs. In ‘Obama’s Year One,’ Kagan tries to debunk the concept that the President’s foreign policy is realist, arguing instead that it is in fact based on — wait for it — “remarkable idealism”!
Obama’s approach derives from an idealistic premise: that the United States can approach the world as a disinterested promoter of the common good, that its interests do not clash with those of the other great powers, and that better relations can be had if the United States demonstrates its good intentions to other powers.
I found this piece extremely frustrating to read, namely because I agree that the premise outlined above is idealistic, not realist. Additionally, some (okay, a lot) of the rhetoric that comes out of the White House does indeed imply that Americans expect their interests to reflect the world’s ‘common good.’
That is, of course, absurd.
So there does appear to be a degree of stupidity entrenched in realist aspirations of Obama’s diplomacy. Maybe it’s only rhetorical and, behind closed doors, the White House is in fact speaking more plainly about conflicts and zero sum. Unfortunately, I doubt this is the case. I attended a luncheon with Obama’s top Russia adviser, Michael McFaul, last year and there was zero indication that the U.S. is ready to acknowledge a sliver of legitimacy in Russia’s geopolitical ‘designs.’
So far, so good, Dr. Kagan. When will American officials grow up and stop pretending that only U.S. interests are real?
I must confess that I welcomed this analysis with some suspicion. I was familiar with the Kagan family’s legacy. I had tasted chocolate in my first bite of this intellectual tootsie roll. Just two paragraphs later, though, that cocoa treat became the veiled turd I anticipated from the start:
The old strategy, which survived for six decades, rested on three pillars: military and economic primacy, what Truman-era strategists called a “preponderance of power,” especially in Europe and East Asia; a global network of formal military and political alliances, mostly though not exclusively with fellow democracies; and an open trading and financial system. [...] The goal, expressed by Harry Truman in 1947, was first to strengthen “freedom-loving nations” and then to “create the conditions that will lead eventually to personal freedom and happiness for all mankind.”
The operative phrases here are “mostly though not exclusively” and “lead eventually.” How marvelously the author disguises the same old neocon tripe as realpolitik!
This formula would seem to be Kagan’s political calculus: (a) American foreign policy during the Cold War was realist; (b) America was “the ‘indispensable nation,’” promoting alliances among democracies and ‘open economic’ states; therefore, (c) democracy promotion and capitalism are, by definition, realist. What’s not realist, the math suggests, is assessing a nation’s ability to project power and then limiting its commitments where it lacks the resources to compete with stronger competitors.
This becomes the platform for lamenting Obama’s “slighting of traditional allies” (who can forget the infamous DVD-gift scandal with Gordon Brown, or the cancelation of the extremely controversial missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland?). The old alliances of the Cold War, against Moscow and Beijing, are still needed! And the reason is simple: “autocratic powers may have fundamentally different perceptions of their interests than democracies.”
On the heels of this, the reader is subjected to a laundry list of failures over the last year, where Obama didn’t stand up for the little people of the world’s dictatorships. Iran features first (why didn’t we ‘sympathize’ more with the opposition?), Latin America is mentioned (Obama’s “apparent desire” to make up/out with Chavez and Raul Castro has “created insecurity” among our great democratic allies in Columbia and Honduras), and Russia is made to sound like it’s one step away from re-Sovietization.
The basic principle sewn into this philosophy/schizophrenia/religion is that America works with the good guys. We work that way because we all share the same interests. The people who don’t share our interests are the autocracies. But they would gladly come around, if only America could project its “sympathy” a little better. Sadly, the Obama administration is too deafened by its idealism to hear the piper’s liberty song.
Or maybe it’s not so sad. Perhaps it’s the very best we could ever expect of an American leader. ‘Managed decline’ is an obscenity among neocons and ‘true patriots,’ but it’s the only real option available to American decision-makers. (There are alternatives, admittedly, but they are doomed to cost a great deal of blood and treasure, not to mention they will fail.) I would never expect Washington to adopt this approach openly or even consciously, but maybe this kind of idealism is a best case scenario.
One thing I’m certain of is that Russia and China have a great act to follow. I wonder how many freedom-lovers they’ll be able to stack up?