U.S. Foreign Policy: Back to Realism

As new currents affect U.S. foreign policy, a Realist perspective is regaining ground.

By Sumantra Maitra
January 13, 2013

A tectonic shift of American foreign policy over the last couple of years is distinctly evident under President Barack Obama. The march of Idealism to edge out Realism as the dominant paradigm or perspective defining contemporary U.S. foreign policy is slowly coming to an end. In political discourse, it is often claimed that the glasnost and perestroika policies instituted by Gorbachev were instrumental in beginning the end of the Cold War. More specifically, Reagan’s Brandenburg speech in 1987 marks the direct shift from a foreign policy of confrontational brinkmanship at worst, and defensive detente at best, to the start of the absolutist promotion of the rhetoric of “freedom.” It was the beginning of the all-encompassing idea of liberal democracy, more specifically Romanticism in foreign policy. Over the next two decades, foreign policy of major Western powers had two different directional approaches, neither of which can be defined clearly under Liberalism or Realism. For example, the immediate aftermath of the Cold War and most of the nineties was marked with optimism of epic proportions fueled by the belief in the inevitability of the Western value system and liberal democratic governance as the ultimate way to the future, multilateralism, and the emerging concept of humanitarian intervention. The benefits of globalization were for everyone to see, and the state-based power structures were seemingly diminishing and on their way to obscurity.

The first decade of this century shattered the superficial sense of optimism with the 9/11 attacks, one of the most audacious attacks in the history of mankind. Multilateralism, as a multilateral coalition or consensus formation with UN mandate, was gradually discarded and traditional UN skepticism and unilateralism returned to American political thought, as was seen in the Iraq war. Multilateralism faded even though this time there were major rifts within the Western coalition unlike the immediate post-Cold War days. The dark sides of globalization, the rise of non-state actors and agents, lobby groups, and the long suppressed under a cultivated amnesia but never totally forgotten theory of the clash of civilization increasingly started to dominate the global narrative.

The belief in the superiority of the Western value system, capitalism and liberal democracy, and its inevitability to survive as the ultimate way was shaken, but not discarded. It was still seen as the rightful way; not as something inevitable, but something that should be fought for, a victim of the clash of civilization. The rhetoric still by and large remained the same, and the promotion of democracy was still seen as the ultimate miraculous solution to all global problems. However, the limits of the solutions were seen throughout the decade, and the vague and extremely maneuverable idea of the global “war on terror” was hijacked by different actors across the globe to promote their personal agendas.

Tremors were felt from 2008 due to some sudden and radical changes across the world. The global economic meltdown, which resulted in the massive, unprecedented and ongoing protests around the world, the failure of the “global war on terror,” and finally the Arab Spring movements forced the west to take a sharp, long look in a mirror. The subsequent actions by Western powers indicate a different direction and ideological platform. We saw fewer declarations of major wars with massive troop mobilizations, an increase in “amoral and realist” drone strikes and the spread of shadow wars and covert operations such as “leading from behind” in Libya. The non-involvement in Syria so far, avoiding confrontation with Russia at any cost, even in the face of domestic and international provocation, and the declared policy of “Asia Pivot,” while encouraging Japan, India, Australia and ASEAN nations to “bandwagon” and “balance” a rising China, points to a different level of maturity.

While the world around us is becoming more Hobbesian everyday with the rise of different actors joining the fray, the foreign policy of major powers is leaning back on its realist roots. With the advent of pro-Islamist parties in both post-revolution Tunisia, and Egypt as well as post-intervention Libya, the Obama administration seemed to realize that hope of a blooming Middle Eastern democracy must be given up, and a policy of careful businesslike partnership with the new regimes should be the goal. The new approach will be based on rationality, and not the export of values. Containment of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, without society and nation-building, is the second core of the same approach. The Kissingerian realist in Obama understood that nothing spells peace like Russian delivered SAMs in Syria. U.S. efforts in engaging India in Afghanistan, encouraging Burma, and prodding Japan, India, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand and Philippines to bandwagon and normalize relations between Japan and South Korea underlines a careful “offshore balancing” role. It exemplifies a classic return to Realist tendencies, as China faces a “security dilemma” in the South and East China Sea.

Romanticism in art and literature is a movement that emphasizes the irrational, emotional, and liberal. It is a spontaneous movement that rejects order, balance, and rationality. Perhaps we can find all of these aspects in U.S. actions. Irrationality is exhibited in dealings with post-Soviet Russia, treating it more like a defeated adversary that is markedly different than post-Second World War treatment of Japan or Germany. There was an emotional reaction in Afghanistan in which huge numbers of troops were mobilized, and the U.S. commenced fighting a bricks and mortar war against a shadowy non-state actor in an asymmetric warfare. There was also the liberal promotion of democracy in Iraq and Libya without understanding the ground realities in either situation. The rejection of order in Egypt gave way to anarchy, and the rejection of a sense of balance was evident in the highly debatable NATO expansion which diluted the alliance and paved the way for Russia to be more revanchist.

Obama’s win might be seen as a mandate and vindication of the ongoing hands-off attitude. Although, foreign policy developments are often unexpected, and one might argue that a lot also depends on the major actors such as Iran and Russia, those in the fluid, volatile Middle East, and those in the Asian flare-up zones. The romanticized notion about the world, democracy and nation-building is slowly dying. The state of foreign affairs is still mutating and fluid, and like any analysis there is always a scope of error with the possibility of sudden changes. However, one can argue that an all-encompassing idea which was a part of both liberal and neo-conservative discourse, termed here as Romanticism, is presumably on the way to be discarded completely. Only with the benefit of hindsight will we be able to clearly analyze the directions of the predominant military power in the world, but one thing is for sure, broad adventurism or troop mobilization and confrontation is no longer a rational choice for Washington. Even though the forces of geopolitics are far too strong to let America go back to the isolationist days of the post-First World War, it is the same forces of geopolitics, the unknown and uncharted actors, that led to the death of the Romantics, and return of Realists in the United States. From my perspective, they are here to stay at least for the foreseeable future.

Sumantra Maitra is a freelance journalist and currently a tutor of New Zealand Foreign Policy, at the University of Otago, New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter @dailyworldwatch.

Photo courtesy of jbachman01 via Flickr.

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