Obama: The Conversation -VOX

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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.

Question:
“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?

Barack Obama:
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.

Quesion:
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?

Barack Obama
“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.”

http://www.vox.com/a/barack-obama-interview-vox-conversation/obama-foreign-policy-transcript

Overlapping contests and Middle East international relations: The return of the weak Arab state – pomeps.org

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Interesting article examining the gaps in realist explanations of Middle Eastern international relations exposed by the Arab Spring.
“The popular uprisings intensified the interplay between the domestic and regional levels in the making of Middle East international relations. Security and ideational threats are intertwined as regimes scramble to defend both their geopolitical interests and their domestic political order from a mix of domestic, regional and transregional actors and ideologies. Whether this long enduring interplay has found itself into IR theory is another matter, however.”
Overlapping contests and Middle East international relations: The return of the weak Arab state – See more at: http://pomeps.org/2015/08/12/overlapping-contests-and-middle-east-international-relations-the-return-of-the-weak-arab-state/#sthash.wA4XWIiC.dpuf

India and China’s geopolitics at play amidst Nepal’s ruins -Globe and Mail

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The earthquake in Nepal last week killed at least 5,800 people. As Nepal struggles to recover, it also “finds itself jammed between India and China in the geopolitical sense. Like the Himalayas themselves, Nepal lies between the two hulking giants of Asia that, from the days of Mao and Nehru, have historically had competing ideological visions for how to lead the poorer parts of the continent toward economic and political development.” Not surprisingly, both India and China are using the opportunity to try to extend their influence in the country. Once again, humanitarian aid has a political purpose.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/india-and-chinas-geopolitics-at-play-amidst-nepals-ruins/article24201619/

Why the Iranian Purchase of the S-300 Should Worry the Gulf States -RUSI

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The “security dilemma” in action: Iran wants S-300 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to defend itself against potential US or Israeli airstrikes. At the same time though, the S-300 systems make the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states feel insecure because they threaten GCC-based civilian and military air traffic. Undoubtedly the GCC will appeal to the United States for more/better air-power and support, creating more tensions between Iran and the US. In the end, everyone is less secure….

https://www.rusi.org/publications/defencesystems/ref:A554385A7EAF10/#.VUOl_pOrHSg

Scared By Russia, Sweden And Finland Make War Pact -IBTimes

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A blast from the past, balance of power politics in Europe:

“The defense ministers of Sweden and Finland announced Thursday a new military cooperation agreement that could see the two countries go to war together in the event of an attack. The new relationship comes amid ongoing aggressive behavior from Russia in the region. Neither country is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, whose charter stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack on all, mandating a reaction from every allied nation.”

http://www.ibtimes.com/scared-russia-sweden-finland-make-war-pact-1821906

Book Review: ‘World Order’ by Henry Kissinger -Wall Street Journal

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A review of the always controversial Henry Kissenger’s book, ‘World Order’ with an interesting discussion of the uber-realist’s view on the Westphalian system, IS and the G.W. Bush. Most notable is Kissinger’s position on morality and prudence. While it’s critics often argue there is no moral center to realism, Kissinger makes the argument that prudence is an issue of morality, not just cynical self-interest. Then again,the idea of Henry Kissinger talking about morality will strike some people as odd…

http://online.wsj.com/articles/book-review-world-order-by-henry-kissinger-1409952751
World Order
By Henry Kissinger
Penguin Press, 420 pages, $36
Recent years have not been kind to those who believe in America’s missionary role abroad. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001 upended our sense of the world, the United States has been governed by a conservative idealist who tried to impose American values on the Middle East, and failed calamitously, and a liberal idealist who invited America’s adversaries to re-engage with us on the basis of a new humility and mutual respect, and found his hopes dashed.
It is, in short, a moment for Henry Kissinger, the un-illusioned analyst who has spent more than six decades putting American foreign policy on the couch—and eight enormously consequential and controversial years executing it. Mr. Kissinger is now 91 years old. The fact that he has written yet another book, the succinctly titled “World Order,” is impressive in itself. What is more remarkable is that it effectively carries on his campaign to undermine the romantic pieties of left and right that have shaped so much of American foreign policy over the past century. Mr. Kissinger bids fair to outlast many of the people who hate him and make others forget why they hated him in the first place.
What is distinctive about “World Order” is not the argument itself, which will be familiar to anyone who knows anything of Mr. Kissinger’s work, but rather the idea of providing a natural history of the concept in question. World order as we understand it, he argues, is neither a monolithic entity nor an inevitable consequence of statecraft but a cultural, historical artifact shaped by the character and experiences of specific people. It is a descendant of the Westphalian system that developed in 17th-century Europe in response to the brutal religious violence of the Thirty Years War (1618-48).
For Mr. Kissinger, Westphalia is not simply one system among many but the most morally, intellectually and even aesthetically pleasing of all such systems. The story begins with France’s Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), who articulated a doctrine that “the state was an abstract and permanent entity existing in its own right,” holding interests peculiar to itself—raison d’état. When the religious wars of the mid-17th century exhausted all parties, the diplomats who gathered in the northwest German province of Westphalia in the mid-1640s agreed that they would not seek to impose their own religious principles upon one another. States would no longer interfere with the domestic order of other states. “The Westphalian concept took multiplicity as its starting point,” Mr. Kissinger writes, and thus incorporated “multiple societies” into “a common search for order.”
Mr. Kissinger narrates the history of the challenges to this secular or agnostic order. The French Revolution (and then the French empire under Napoleon) sought to propagate republicanism across Europe, much as German princes had sought to impose Protestantism on their Catholic neighbors during the Thirty Years War. Russia threatened the system with its rival vision of Christian orthodoxy and autocratic control. Then the expansionism of a united Germany further upset the delicate balance of forces at the heart of Europe.
The villains of Mr. Kissinger’s account are the totalizers, like Napoleon and Bismarck; the heroes are the deft manipulators of an ever-shifting equilibrium among states— Talleyrand and Metternich. There is something in Mr. Kissinger’s mitteleuropean soul that thrills at Westphalian statecraft, which in his hands sounds like a combination of fluid dynamics and jazz. The balance-of-power statesman, he writes, “must act at the outer edge of the possible, bridging the gap between his society’s experiences and its aspirations. Because repetition of the familiar leads to stagnation, no little daring is required.” Mr. Kissinger is at pains to assert that balance-of-power diplomacy arises not from cynical indifference to moral principles but from the deeply moral imperative of keeping states from destroying one another over irreconcilable conceptions of national interest or the supreme good.
The Westphalian system was the ordering principle only of Europe; very different, and far less supple, conceptions of order appeared in China, Persia, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and, of course, the United States, each of which Mr. Kissinger describes in historical terms before turning to its contemporary incarnation. In Iran, Mr. Kissinger argues, Ayatollah Khomeini grafted upon an inherited Persian sense of cultural greatness an Islamic worldview that sees states as impediments to the transcendent obligation to convert unbelievers. Today’s Iran endangers world order both as the legatee of an empire and as a revolutionary project. In Westphalian terms, the Islamic world seems to have reached only the early stages of the Thirty Years War, which would so exhaust the combatants as to recommend the virtues of noninterference.
Of all the universalizing dogmas that have threatened the house Richelieu built, the one Mr. Kissinger finds the most appealing is the American one. The New World beckoned believers: Mr. Kissinger makes the nice point that at the very moment when Europeans recognized that their “ideal of a continent unified by a single divine governance would never be achieved, America provided a place to do so on distant shores.” America emerged on the world stage in World War I with the explicit goal of substituting its liberating vision of global democracy for the balance-of-power politics that Woodrow Wilson believed, with good reason, had led Europe down the terrible spiral of war.
In “Diplomacy” (1994), Mr. Kissinger acknowledged that all American presidents since that time have been Wilsonians; leaders who cannot touch those resonant chords will not inspire the American people to leave their continental fortress and risk their comforts abroad. Nevertheless, Mr. Kissinger argues here, as he has so often before, that Wilson was a deluded soul who naively imagined that the world could be made good by collective action. His heirs have propagated that delusion.
“The tragedy of Wilsonianism,” Mr. Kissinger writes, “is that it bequeathed to the twentieth century’s decisive power an elevated foreign policy doctrine unmoored from a sense of history or geopolitics.” It is hard to argue with the claim he makes here that Americans find it easier to see foreign policy as a teleological struggle for justice than as a “permanent endeavor for contingent aims.” The idea that history is tragic does not come naturally to Americans.
Mr. Kissinger, nonetheless, lavishes praise on the most reckless Wilsonian of them all, George W. Bush, claiming that “his objectives and dedication” in Iraq “honored his country even when in some cases they proved unattainable within the American political cycle.” President Bush and his chief advisers were Kissingerian realists right up to Sept. 11, 2001; the terrorist attacks persuaded them that Westphalian agnosticism was a dead letter. Since events had shown America to be terribly vulnerable to ideologies that incubated in failed and repressive states, as the president said in his second inaugural, it was plain that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Noninterference, that is, was not only morally suspect—as it has always been—but strategically unaffordable.
Was Mr. Bush right? Or is promoting liberty abroad a Wilsonian chimera, no matter how deeply it might be in America’s interests to do so? Mr. Kissinger does not say so in “World Order,” though elsewhere—in his 2001 book “Does America Need a Foreign Policy?,” for example—he has made short work of both democracy promotion and humanitarian intervention. The dismaying trajectory of the Arab uprising of 2011, and especially the terrifying rise of the apocalyptic army of ISIS, does not offer much encouragement to those who would like to tinker with the insides of Middle Eastern states.
Westphalia may well be an antiquated metaphor for world order at a time when America is menaced not only by classically aggrandizing states like Russia but also by nonstate actors like al Qaeda and ISIS. Nevertheless, given the terrible intractability of world affairs, the precept of diplomacy as a permanent endeavor for contingent aims feels almost inspiring. Secretary of State John Kerry, barely staving off exhaustion as he sprints from crisis to crisis in pursuit of what look like unattainable goals, could scarcely find a worthier motto.

Democracy, Freedom, and Apple Pie Aren’t a Foreign Policy -Foreign Policy

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A short critique of liberal idealism’s influence on American foreign policy by Stephan Walt.

  • “The central problem is that liberalism does not tell us how to translate its moral absolutes into clear, effective strategies for bringing them about. Liberalism identifies a set of moral objectives — a blueprint that all societies are supposed to follow — but says little about what a liberal state should do if some foreign country or leader refuses to “do the right thing.”

Democracy, Freedom, and Apple Pie Aren’t a Foreign Policy