In the second part of an in depth interview with VOX (the first part dealt with domestic politics) Barak Obama discusses foreign policy. There are a number of interesting dimensions to the interview. In this post I am highlighting his discussion of realism in US foreign policy.
“This is a really sort of big-picture question, but over the years, I’ve heard a number of different members of your team refer to your kind of philosophy in foreign affairs as “realism.” 1 Is that a term you would use?
You know, traditionally, a lot of American foreign policy has been divided into the realist camp and the idealist camp. And so if you’re an idealist, you’re like Woodrow Wilson, and you’re out there with the League of Nations and imagining everybody holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” and imposing these wonderful rules that everybody’s abiding by. And if you’re a realist, then you’re supporting dictators who happen to be our friends, and you’re cutting deals and solely pursuing the self-interest of our country as narrowly defined. And I just don’t think that describes what a smart foreign policy should be.
You seemed to resist the realist label earlier, but when you talked about your goals earlier, you seemed very concerned about disorder, and you didn’t mention anything like democracy and human rights. And the countries you mentioned partnering with, it’s places like Egypt, where they came to power in a military coup; Saudi Arabia, with public beheadings; Bahrain, where during the Arab Spring they were beating nonviolent demonstrators and repressing that violently. Do you have any concerns about the sort of long-term sustainability of those kind of partnerships?
“This is a perfect example, Matt, of where the division between realism and idealism kind of breaks down. I think any realist worth their salt would say that any society that consistently ignores human rights and the dignity of its citizens at some point is going to be unstable and not a great partner. So it’s not just the right thing to do; it’s also very much in our interest to promote reforms throughout the Middle East. Now, the fact that we have to make real-time decisions about who are we partnering with and how perfectly are they abiding by our ideals, and are there times where we’ve got to mute some of our criticism to get some stuff done, are there times where we have an opportunity to press forward — that doesn’t negate the importance of us speaking out on these issues.”