Obama's Incremental Realism

By Couloumbis, Ahlstrom & Weaver

President Obama's foreign policy of incremental realism is more complex than most commentators realize. It is not simply about maximizing military power to provide security and protect the nation’s interests. Nor is it mainly about relying on diplomacy and international organizations. 

The Obama version of realism takes a case-by-case approach combining soft and hard power to protect and project American interests while seeking stability within the wider framework of the overall international system. There is no conflict between a willingness to negotiate and a readiness to use force when there is no acceptable alternative.

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Traditional realists usually define power in terms of the prudent use of diplomatic leverage and military might -- unilaterally and/or multilaterally -- in order to promote national interests. Obama is certainly a realist, as he has demonstrated by defending American use of military force in his Nobel acceptance speech, and by his willingness to use both drones and troops. But his realism is based upon context -- each situation must be evaluated on its own and judged against both American and collective interests and values. 

The president’s unique background and multi-cultural experiences bring another lens to his view of the world, more nuanced than most. He is willing to "go the extra mile" to achieve diplomatic agreement, but is also willing to "draw the line" when situations must be forced to conclusion. Hence the extensive use of drones to attack and eliminate known enemies, and the painstaking orchestration of international sanctions to help persuade Iran to stop its march toward nuclear weapons. Both are tools of pragmatic, incremental realism.

Unanticipated events sometimes mangle or warp policy, and usually require policy modifications. Yet the direction of Obama’s foreign policy is clear --maintaining American super-power advantages with unmatched military and intelligence technologies, encouraging the major European and other regional powers such as Australia, Turkey and India to play larger roles, a re-emphasized American presence and leadership role in Asia and gradually decreasing military engagement in the Middle East. 

All elements of this overall framework are evident in the current Hamas-Israel conflict. The new Egyptian president’s role in brokering a ceasefire was supported actively by the U.S. and aided by another regional power, Turkey. All have an interest in countering Iranian adventurism through its Syrian, Hezbollah and Hamas clients. 

The U.S. also encouraged Egypt to assume a leadership role in guaranteeing the ceasefire and potential agreements to stabilize Gaza and limit re-arming, for a potential multilateral guarantee of the outcome will be both stronger and more acceptable regionally than would be a solely American guarantee.

In Libya and in the current Gaza situation, the U.S. encouraged others to play significant roles. Critics attack this as abandoning American leadership responsibilities. A more careful reading would see the longer-term value of expecting and helping others shoulder more responsibility so that the U.S. need not carry the full load. Facilitating the engagement of third parties is not a sign of weakness, but rather one of strength.

In the Syrian civil war, Iran is clearly trying to defend its Syrian presence that enables it to supply rockets and other arms to its Hezbollah and Hamas clients in Lebanon and Gaza. Turkey tried unsuccessfully to broker an exit for Bashar al-Assad, and is nervous about the effects of a Syrian collapse on the region’s Kurds (as is Iraq’s government).


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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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