Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Interests in Terms of Power

In this week’s Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria wrote the cover article titled “The Post-Imperial Presidency.” Zakaria details Obama’s realist world view in several key aspects. A few quotes:
  • “More than any president since Richard Nixon, he has focused on defining American interests carefully, providing the resources to achieve them, and keeping his eyes on the prize.”
  • “It is now clear that Obama is attempting something quite ambitious – to reorient American foreign policy toward something less extravagant and adversarial.”
  • “The history of great powers suggests that maintaining their position requires, most crucially, tending to the sources of their power: economic growth and technological innovation.”
  • “Obama’s realism is sure to be caricatured as bloodless and indifferent to human rights, democracy, and other virtues.”

These assertions indicate Zakaria’s view of a post-imperial realism. But how do they stack up with regard to Hans Morgenthau’s principles of political realism?

Key to Morgenthau’s definition are the assertions that realism is defined in interest in terms of power, the distinction between what is desirable and what is possible under concrete circumstances of time and place, and the emphasis on rational foreign policy that minimizes risks and maximizes benefits.

While Zakaria’s characterization of the Obama administration’s foreign policy focuses on the practical aspect of political realism, his assertions hold with Morgenthau’s definition.

Obama seeks to avoid imperial overstretch that has weakened previous hegemons. He wants to limit U.S. engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, while still pushing for victory there. His emphasis on stability, peace and prosperity over human rights and democracy promotion reveal a role for the United States that maximizes the effective use of its power while limiting its risks.

Obama’s assertion that the nation he is most interested in building is the United States shows his focus on building America’s traditional source of power: the economic base. America’s economic strength and technological superiority was the backbone of its success in World War II and the Cold War. By building the domestic strength of the United States while limiting its international exposure, Obama is acknowledging the negative effects of interventionism on America’s power.

As Zakaria notes, the real test of Obama’s realist foreign policy will be in 18 months when he is forced to make a decision in Afghanistan. If instability and weakness persist, will Obama insist on removing the training wheels and pulling out American forces to focus on the buildup of U.S. domestic power, or will he commit the United States to a nation-building exercise that saps America’s resources and limits its ability to project power elsewhere?

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