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A Different Take on the “Obama Doctrine”: Is Obama still a realist?

April 2, 2011

So President Obama has his own doctrine now, because Wolf Blitzer tells us so. It is basically what Ross Douhat of the New York Times called the “liberal way of war” in a column on March 20. Libya is the “beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention” – humanitarian, multilateral and limited. This is the same columnist who just six weeks before called claimed that the President’s “foreign policy has owed far more to conservative realpolitik than to any left-wing vision of international affairs.” So which is it? Is Obama a liberal internationalist or a realist, seeing as the two are generally seen as diametrically opposed?

Actually Obama is both, although we have to be careful by what we mean by both terms. Even the most liberal internationalist of American presidents, like Woodrow Wilson, never devoted themselves exclusively to a humanitarian or altruistic course for American foreign policy. Once we cut through Wilson’s soaring rhetoric, we find a President keenly devoted to the American national interest. He simply believed that multilateral cooperation yielded certain mutual gains that were impossible to reach unilaterally in a newly interdependent world. Obama sounded the same notes in his first speech before the United Nations.

Realists do not place nearly as much confidence in multilateral cooperation and have an even more narrow conception of the national interest than liberals. Humanitarianism should not be allowed to play too great a role. Fareed Zakaria has called Obama this kind of realist, but this is not really accurate. Obama is a realist in style but not in substance. His realism is evident in how he approaches decisions, not in the decisions that he makes. This type of realist has what psychologists call “cognitive complexity” – they weigh the pros and cons of a multitude of different considerations before settling on the proper course. This was evident in the recent speech on Libya that has been proclaimed the new Obama doctrine. America will consider both humanitarianism and strategic considerations when it judges whether to use force, just like Wilson did. It will consider whether there are allies to shoulder the burden and how the international community feels, but will act unilaterally if there is a compelling interest. It is cognitive complexity that drives Obama’s favorite rhetorical “tic”, that of the ‘false choice.’ It is not one or another; it is both, when it comes to race relations, abortion, or diplomatically engaging Tehran. Others have called it being an “intellectual.”
One might object that this is not a doctrine at all. In fact, it is the very opposite of a doctrine in that it approaches every situation de novo. Or one could say that this just splitting the difference, a middle course as some have framed it. The doctrinaire quality of it comes through in what considerations enter into the equation. Humanitarianism has never been a strong Republican suit, but this has obviously been a prime Obama consideration, even as he weighs it against other interests. In that sense he is a liberal internationalist. And we can think of cognitive complexity as ‘situationalism,’ a style (doctrine?) of decision-making that takes into account all angles, rather than some expedient to pacify both sides by throwing each a few scraps. So I think I disagree a bit with Dan Nexon’s post below, that the intervention and its justification do not tell us anything about how Obama thinks about foreign affairs as a whole, even if that was obviously not his point in giving the speech.
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Rathbun is a professor of International Relations at USC. Brian Rathbun received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 and has taught at USC since 2008. He has written four solo-authored books, on humanitarian intervention, multilateral institution building, diplomacy and rationality. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in International Organization, International Security, World Politics, International Studies Quartlery, the Journal of Politics, Security Studies, the European Journal of International Relations, International Theory, and the Journal of Conflict Resolution among others. He is the recipient of the 2009 USC Parents Association Teaching and Mentoring Award. In 2019 he will be recognized as a Distinguished Scholar by the Diplomatic Studies Section of the International Studies Association.