Obama's Incremental Realism

By Couloumbis, Ahlstrom & Weaver
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The major European powers and the U.S. are both struggling with the "responsibility to protect" Syrian civilians and the staying power of the Assad regime, while Russia’s Putin seems cheered by anything that complicates life for the U.S. (In no way is this analogous to Gaddafi’s collapse in Libya, nor to Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt. Each episode of the Arab Spring is unique, and needs to be treated accordingly.)

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A potential Iranian nuclear menace has galvanized international sanctions that have had progressively more debilitating effects on the Iranian economy. Here the U.S. has orchestrated a remarkable consensus through the UN Security Council while simultaneously pressing Israel to refrain from unilateral military action. This two-pronged approach, while successful so far, may run out of time if Iran does not accept a brokered deal or the Netanyahu government believes Iran is unacceptably close to a weapon that can obliterate Jerusalem. As some analysts rightly noted, the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel tested both Iranian missile technology and Israeli missile defenses.

While there are good and sufficient reasons for the U.S. to continue to stay involved in the Middle East, military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan means it will devolve to a more traditional politico-economic and diplomatic role -- barring a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, a contingency clearly being planned for.

The "Asian pivot" reinforces a more traditional role in that region, as the U.S. projects its maritime power and orchestrates regional economic and political collaboration with China’s neighbors who are rightly uneasy about being dominated in all spheres by the giant next door.

The U.S. and China nonetheless share some very specific common interests: China is becoming ever more dependent on Middle Eastern oil as the U.S. is becoming less so. Oil fuels the Chinese economic boom, including mass manufacturing of consumer goods for American markets that are cheaper than if produced in Europe and North America. Its economic boom in turn enables China to purchase American products such as construction and agricultural equipment and airplanes, as well as to invest in U.S. debt obligations. This trade web relies on freedom of the seas and maintenance of complex and far-flung maritime supply chains not easily foreseen even a decade ago. Despite its growing navy, China has to rely on the U.S. keeping the sea lanes open and the Gulf oil flowing.

Yet Obama’s Asian foreign policy is much more than a matter of commerce. China’s strategic and diplomatic relationship with North Korea surely acts as a counterbalance to a government that appears to be unpredictable and dangerous to South Korea, Japan and the rest of the region. An economically and politically stable and strong China is both a positive force for and a challenge to regional Asian stability.

The principles of Obama’s realism are clear: security for the U.S., its allies, friends and partners; economic development and increasing prosperity flowing from a relatively free international economic order sustained by freedom of the seas; continued American military superiority through overwhelming technological advantages; shared responsibilities with other powers for regional stability, and continued promotion of shared values such as freedom and democratic pluralism -- through soft power, not militarily imposed regime change.

How these principles will be applied to a given situation will depend on the facts of that situation, which is what incremental, pragmatic realism is all about.

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Theodore Couloumbis is vice president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy and professor emeritus at the University of Athens, Greece; Bill Ahlstrom is an executive at a U.S. multinational; Gary Weaver is professor at American University’s School of International Service; these views are their own.

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