Obama's Incremental Realism

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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.

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).



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.)

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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