The Obama Administration’s Foreign Policy Confirms Realist Expectations and Should Utterly Frustrate Obama Supporters

It is a fundamental tenet of realist theory (and I identify as a classical realist, though I have a healthy and pronounced respect for the notion that international anarchy also causes nation-states to place interests over ideological considerations) that while domestic considerations–such as a change in the nature of a nation-state’s government, or a change in the head of government or governing party–may play some role in determining the shape and nature of a nation-state’s foreign policy, the primary influence on a nation-state’s conduct of foreign affairs are the permanent interests of the nation-state in question, interests that persist regardless of the type of government a nation-state possesses, or the specific person or party running that government.

As such, most realists assumed that a change in administrations from Bush to Obama would do relatively little to change American foreign policy. And in many ways, they have been proven right.

Indefinite detentions continue at Guantanamo. There have been noises to close the detention center there, and to be sure, there has been pushback against Obama administration efforts to close the center, but Team Obama has never really made it that much of a priority to end detentions there. Military tribunals have been brought back into service by the Obama administration. And as we now know, Team Obama has taken Bush administration surveillance programs and ramped them up a notch or several.

Now, we learn that the Obama administration has also endorsed spying on American allies–France and Germany, to be precise. To be sure, the French objections to American spying are more than a bit Captain Renaultesque (and if readers will be so kind as to forgive this lapse into pedantry, it is “Renault” and not “Reynaud”), but the German ones seem a bit more sincere:

German and French accusations that the United States has run spying operations in their countries, including possibly bugging Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, are likely to dominate a meeting of EU leaders starting on Thursday.

The two-day Brussels summit, called to tackle a range of social and economic issues, will now be overshadowed by debate on how to respond to the alleged espionage by Washington against two of its closest European Union allies.

Representatives of both Merkel and French President Francois Hollande said the two would hold a one-on-one meeting ahead of the 1500 GMT start of the summit to discuss the espionage issue.

For Germany the matter is particularly sensitive. Not only does the government say it has evidence the chancellor’s personal phone was monitored, but the very idea of bugging dredges up memories of eavesdropping by the Stasi secret police in the former East Germany, where Merkel grew up.

Now, I am willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that none of the Germans who showed up for Candidate Barack Obama’s speech in Berlin back in 2008 thought that President Barack Obama would be spying on the Germans, bugging the German chancellor’s mobile phone and evoking memories of the Stasi. They probably thought that was more of a Bush administration thing, and heck, Candidate Obama probably thought that was more of a Bush administration thing–which he may have aimed to bring to an end once he became president.

But here we are in 2013, and in the eyes of many Germans and French, Barack Obama is doing a fantastic imitation of George W. Bush.

He also appears to be doing a fantastic imitation of George W. Bush in the eyes of some in the Middle East. Consider this story by David Ignatius, which discusses how the Saudi-American relationship is fraying. And consider some of the reasons why–from the Saudi perspective–the relationship with the United States has hit hard times:

What should worry the Obama administration is that Saudi concern about U.S. policy in the Middle East is shared by the four other traditional U.S. allies in the region: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. They argue (mostly privately) that Obama has shredded U.S. influence by dumping President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, backing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, opposing the coup that toppled Morsi, vacillating in its Syria policy, and now embarking on negotiations with Iran — all without consulting close Arab allies.

Yes, realists are probably a bit confounded by the Obama administration’s policy on Egypt; they/we might have expected the Obama administration to have backed Hosni Mubarak more strongly, and to lend at least tacit support to the coup that ousted Morsi–supporting Mubarak and opposing the Muslim Brotherhood have traditionally been in line with the thrust of American policy vis à vis Egypt. But note the “without consulting close Arab allies” bit of the excerpt above. That sounds an awful lot like . . . unilateralism. And am I dreaming, or didn’t Candidate Obama tell us that he would end unilateralism, work more closely with our friends and allies, and make America more liked around the world?

I could, in fact, swear that he told us just that. And it’s not happening when it comes to Saudi Arabia.

Clearly, American policymakers–including those that remain at their posts or advance to new ones no matter which administration or which party is in charge of the White House–have determined that a robust national security state and pronounced displays of unilateralism are in the interests of the United States. Whether they are right or wrong to think so is beside the point; what is important is that these particular policies transcend partisanship and ideology, and are practiced with roughly equal enthusiasm by both Democratic and Republican presidents. And this confirms just about everything that realists have said about the conduct of foreign policy.

The people who have to be really, enthusiastically ticked off about this entire state of affairs are Obama supporters. They voted for their man thinking that he would bring Change We Can Believe In to foreign policy just as surely as he would bring it to domestic policy. Somewhat inconsistently, some members of the Obama Fan Club also maintained that they are realists and that the 44th president is a realist as well. I don’t quite see how this latter group have kept from having their heads explode over the last five years.

7 Replies to “The Obama Administration’s Foreign Policy Confirms Realist Expectations and Should Utterly Frustrate Obama Supporters”

  1. I don’t see what”s realistic about Obama’s foreign policy.He’s alienated most of his allies in the Middle East. Today’s Wall Street Journal has report that Prime Minister Abe of Japan as said that his country will be ready to protect the region if China is aggressive.Something the U.S. has done traditionally.

    Neither the Israelis,nor the Saudis nor others in Middle East, are looking to the Obama Administration for leadership,any more than the government of Japan is. Putting one’s relationship with Putin and the régime in Tehran about that with the United States, traditional allies may represent a new sort of realism.In that case Obama’s Nobel Prize winning efforts for peace are to be applauded.

    1. While I certainly have plenty of problems with this administration’s foreign policy, I will say that if the Japanese are taking on more responsibility for their own defense, that is fine with me, and it has been a longstanding American objective in order to get them to do so.

      1. Of course this is bot ha positive and a negative development. The taking more responsibility is healthy.Japan’s doing so because they don’t have much confidence in the Obama Administration ,not so much so.

        This is kind of like the French intervening in Mali.A good thing .but France is the old colonial power. In the case of China and Japan ,the Chinese can complain that Japan hasn’t even apologized for its actions in World War 11.In both these cases,allies taking more initiative is a good thing as long as American foreign policy isn,t one of retreat from the region.

        The same is also true of the Middle East.

        1. Does the WSJ actually say that the Japanese are doing what they are doing because they are concerned that the administration either can’t or won’t balance against Chinese power?

  2. Mr. Abe didn’t explicitly said that. Here’s what he said:

    Abe made clear that one important way that Japan would “contribute” would be countering China in Asia. “There are concerns that China is attempting to change the status quo by force, rather than by rule of law. But if China opts to take that path, then it won’t be able to emerge peacefully.”

    By clearly indicating that Japan would use force and not referring to Japan and its allies, he announced a major change of policy. One I doubt he would have taken if he were confident that the U.S. would stand behind the countries of the region in case of a confrontation with China.

    I doubt that either China or Japan really wants such a confrontation.But they could always slip into conflict by accident if the U.S diminishes its effort to maintain stability in the region.

    1. Thanks for the quote. I don’t see any evidence that the Obama administration is pivoting away from Asia, having pivoted to it. I agree that there is a lot about the administration’s foreign policy that gives allies pause, but again, we have been encouraging the Japanese to take more responsibility for their own defense for decades now, and we have done it through Republican and Democratic administrations. So in a sense, this represents a welcome development, even as we ought to be concerned about the general feeling among allies that they are being left in the lurch by this administration.

      1. We are agreed that Japan’s being more self-reliant is a good thing. .

        It always hard to know why nations take the stands that they do.It ‘s hard to believe however, that any U.S. ally would not find Obama’s inconsistent Middle East policy worrisome ,and feel that they had to more to assure their own security.

        If the President didn’t respect his own redline on Syrian chemical weapons use ,or set out an effective policy to back up his earlier statement that Assad had to go,what’s to say that he will stand behind his commitments in Asia?

        Obama missed a summit in Asia because of domestic considerations. How would he react in a crisis where a lot more was at stake?

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