Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Obama U.S.-Russia Nuke Partnership Belies 'Realist' Foreign Policy Creds

We've heard much applause of late for "Obama's Realism on Iran."

Stephen Walt, perhaps our most important contemporary realist scholar,
recently praised President Obama's "measured tone" on Iran as "sensible."

Daniel Larison, whose foreign policy I recently critiqued,
adds this:
Obama does seem to understand that foreign policy is a matter of state interests, and that Iran and America have some shared interests regardless of the shape of the government in Tehran. His foremost responsibility is to secure American interests, and reasonably enough this involves rapprochement with Iran, so you’d better believe that he is not going to put the cause of Mousavi ahead of that of the United States.
It's unfortunate, but from my perspective the current rage for a realist orientation to foreign affairs is simply a cover for those inclined to pacifist isolationism (with sprinklings of Israel-bashing for good measure). This new realism is adopted to "provide academic cover to a postmodern epistemology of appeasement and weakness."

I'm a student of realism as well. I've always loved the theory's parsimonious rationalism. We've seen the paradigm expand in the last couple of decades to include all kinds of emendations and offshoots, but the fundamentals of practical realism endure.

I'm thinking about this in reading Henry Kissinger's interview at Der Spiegel, "
Obama Is Like a Chess Player." To Kissenger, one of the 20th century's greatest realist policymakers, President Obama is less the realist than a potential Wilsonian idealist. And hence, his foreign policy could promote the same crises and disasters that the country saw in earlier decades of international politics. Here's Kissinger on Obama's current moves in world politics:

SPIEGEL: Do you think it was helpful for Obama to deliver a speech to the Islamic world in Cairo? Or has he created a lot of illusions about what politics can deliver?

Kissinger: Obama is like a chess player who is playing simultaneous chess and has opened his game with an unusual opening. Now he's got to play his hand as he plays his various counterparts. We haven't gotten beyond the opening game move yet. I have no quarrel with the opening move.

SPIEGEL: But is what we have seen so far from him truly realpolitik?

Kissinger: It is also too early to say that. If what he wants to do is convey to the Islamic world that America has an open attitude to dialogue and is not determined on physical confrontation as its only strategy, then it can play a very useful role. If it were to be continued on the belief that every crisis can be managed by a philosophical speech, then he will run into Wilsonian problems.

Well, if Cairo was Obama's "first move," it's not in Iran where we can measure the administration's foreign policy acumen. It's in Russia. And it's there where we're seeing Obama running into those "Wilsonian problems" of which Kissinger warns.

President Obama is now wrapping up this week's
U.S.-Russia summit. He signed yesterday, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a rough draft of a new nuclear arms-control treaty. In a speech today, the President said:
America wants a strong, peaceful, and prosperous Russia. This belief is rooted in our respect for the Russian people, and a shared history between our nations that goes beyond competition ....

So as we honor this past, we also recognize the future benefit that will come from a strong and vibrant Russia. Think of the issues that will define your lives: security from nuclear weapons and extremism; access to markets and opportunity; health and the environment; an international system that protects sovereignty and human rights, while promoting stability and prosperity. These challenges demand global partnership, and that partnership will be stronger if Russia occupies its rightful place as a great power.

Yet unfortunately, there is sometimes a sense that old assumptions must prevail, old ways of thinking; a conception of power that is rooted in the past rather than in the future. There is the 20th century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another. And there is a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another.

These assumptions are wrong. In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries. The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chess board are over. As I said in Cairo, given our independence, any world order that -- given our interdependence, any world order that tries to elevate one nation or one group of people over another will inevitably fail. The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game -- progress must be shared.

That's why I have called for a "reset" in relations between the United States and Russia. This must be more than a fresh start between the Kremlin and the White House -- though that is important and I've had excellent discussions with both your President and your Prime Minister. It must be a sustained effort among the American and Russian people to identify mutual interests, and expand dialogue and cooperation that can pave the way to progress.
In both words and tone, the president's speech evinces the same Wilsonianism that led to the disastrous institutional paralysis of the interwar era. It is the same kind of happy talk that we might find in the text of the Kellogg-Briand Pact. And for President Obama, this is not the talk of a president seeking to increase a momentary burst of bilateral comity and opportunity. It's not a Reykjavik moment marking a great thaw in decades of Cold War hostility, paving the way for a epochal change in the international system. We're at no crossroads to the end of great power competition. No, with this administration's strategic moves in Moscow, we're seeing the beginning implementation of Barack Obama's plan for a nuclear-free world.

Recall the New York Times article published over the weekend, "
Obama’s Youth Shaped His Nuclear-Free Vision." According to the piece, President Obama ...
... has begun pushing for new global rules, treaties and alliances that he insists can establish a nuclear-free world ....

.... no previous American president has set out a step-by-step agenda for the eventual elimination of nuclear arms. Mr. Obama is starting relatively small, using a visit to Russia that starts Monday to advance an intense negotiation, with a treaty deadline of the year’s end, to reduce the arsenals of the nuclear superpowers to roughly 1,500 warheads each, from about 2,200 ....

But reducing arsenals, he insisted, would be the first step toward giving the United States and a growing body of allies the power to remake the nuclear world.
It's extremely difficult for me to fathom how anyone can praise the adminstration's quest for universal disarmament as "realist." As any student of international politics will tell you, there are no permanent friends or enemies in foreign policy, only permanent interests. In one of the seminal pieces of literature from last three decades, Joseph Grieco hammered neo-institutional idealism in world politics. He noted that "the fundamental goal of states in any relationship is to prevent others from achieving advances in their relative capabilities." Indeed, states cannot be indifferent to changes in the relative material position of their potential adversaries. Even if mutual understandings toward armament reductions produce absolute gains, who actually gains more? As long as internatioanal anarchy holds, one actor may take advantage of a gap in relative capabilities to seek advantage and ultimately enslave those states now newly disadvantaged.

Moreover, the goal of a nuclear-free international system is sheer fantasy. As Kenneth Adelman remarked recently, "
If they’re dreaming of a world with no nukes, why not one of no war? Peace on earth, everywhere, forevermore."

here's Ralph Peters on Obama's new preliminary arms control agreement:
PRESIDENT Obama went to Moscow desperate for the appearance of a foreign-policy success. He got that illusion -- at a substantial cost to America's security.

The series of signing ceremonies in a grand Kremlin hall and the litany of agreements, accords and frameworks implied that the United States benefited from all the fuss. We didn't.

We got nothing of real importance ....

President Obama even expressed an interest in further nuclear-weapons cuts. Peace in our time, ladies and gentlemen, peace in our time . . .

We just agreed to the disarmament position of the American Communist Party of the 1950s.
This discussion puts the lie to all of the fawning accolades for Barack Obama's careful restraint and keen discernment of American national interests.

The fact is that this president is selling out U.S. national security. This is not surprising, of course: "
For the first time in US history, we have a president who hates his own country. A president who is on the side of America's enemies, not on the side of America."

See also, Atlas Shrugs, "
Media Laps Up Obama's Weak and Hopelessly Naive Capitulation to Russia." See also, Memeorandum.


Steven Givler said...

These days, "Realism" is just a code word for lack of principle. As practiced these days, "Realism" is so divorced from reality that no it longer appeals to anything but one's sense of irony.

AmPowerBlog said...

Thanks Steven!

courtneyme109 said...

Realpolitik hooked up with Wilsonian wonderlust may be best described as binding treaties, alliances and carefully crafted treaties that attempt to design, define and fulfill hopes and dreams -- not concrete interests.

44 may be getting a crash course that happy happy joy joy thoughts and talk RE: Weltpolitik - are just that - lofty ideals with little hope of manifestation.

Amazing too that Realists praise 44 - who actually seems to have a very limited agenda of compromise, containment and satus quo when compared to 43 - who foresaw the day that all tryannies and despotries would be dust.

Dave said...

"No, with this administration's strategic moves in Moscow, we're seeing the beginning implementation of Barack Obama's plan for a nuclear-free world."

I am wondering if Obama's "plan" has more to do with a nuke free America than with a similarly constrained world.

You can destroy the weapons all you like, and theoretically you might convince your potential adversaries to do likewise.

You cannot, however, destroy the technology from which they sprang.

The required materials are fairly easy to obtain, and, thanks to 5-plus decades of mere lip service to nuclear proliferation, so is the most crucial element of all, the high-precision tooling.


Anonymous said...

One can be a realist and not be an appeaser. The key is grasping what your adversary/opponent's objectives are and setting limits to your own compromises. With Obama, it is not at all clear that he is prepared at some stage to stop compromising, stop dialoguing, and stop making concessions. He appears to value the process more than the outcome -- and that is what is so very dangerous.

Rusty Walker said...

This is an important post to read through, Donald. Good essay and overview.

When Obama makes statements such as “America wants a strong, peaceful, and prosperous Russia,” it is either disingenuous, or dangerous inexperience on his part. Russia is not pro-American, are we suddenly pro-Russia? Based on what? There has never in history been a “peaceful” Russia that was “strong,” nor a “prosperous” Russia/Soviet nation that was not interested in expansion on the order of East Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Georgia, et.al.

This 1988 paper from Grieco could be writing about current misconceptions about relativism, or realism even today.

Wilson had the same educator’s isolated delusion that just by showing up with passive forbearance in the interests of currying favor, he will make gains. Russia needs energy more than any other resource. Iranian oil and natural gas supply plays heavily into that equation - not Obama’s expensive green, renewables, but rather, crude oil from Iran.

Nuclear free world? And how does Obama’s charm work that out? We might be able to envision a nuclear free and defenseless America at this rate. But, count on a belligerent selection of states very well armed with nuclear capacity.

I will give him scant credit for not agreeing to withdraw the BMD system from Poland at the summit – because that is still on the table. I don’t agree that Obama “hates his own country,” but that emotion isn’t necessary in order for his policies to render us just as helpless under the very real possibility of being attacked.