Naïve Idealism Has Caused Havoc as America Makes the Same Mistakes Over and
May 27, 2016
How do you distinguish a foreign policy
"idealist" from a "realist," an optimist from a pessimist?
Ask one question: Do you believe in the arrow of history? Or to put it another
way, do you think history is cyclical or directional? Are we condemned to do the
same damn thing over and over, generation after generation -- or is there hope
for some enduring progress in the world order?
For realists, generally conservative, history is an endless
cycle of clashing power politics. The same patterns repeat. Only the names and
places change. The best we can do in our own time is to defend ourselves,
managing instability and avoiding catastrophe. But expect nothing permanent, no
essential alteration in the course of human affairs.
The idealists believe otherwise. They believe that
the international system can eventually evolve out of its Hobbesian state of
nature into something more humane and hopeful. What is usually overlooked is
that this hopefulness for achieving a higher plane of global comity comes in two
flavors -- one liberal, one conservative.
The liberal variety (as practiced, for example, by the Bill
Clinton administration) believes that the creation of a dense web of treaties,
agreements, transnational institutions and international organizations (like the
U.N., NGOs, the World Trade Organization) can give substance to a cohesive
community of nations that would, in time, ensure order and stability.
Skit shows Barack Obama struggling with post-presidency
The conservative view (often called neoconservative and
dominant in the George W. Bush years) is that the better way to ensure order and
stability is not through international institutions, which are flimsy and
generally powerless, but through the spread of democracy. Because, in the end,
democracies are inherently more inclined to live in peace.
Liberal internationalists count on globalization,
neoconservatives on democratization to get us to the sunny uplands of
international harmony. But what unites them is the belief that such uplands
exist and are achievable. Both believe in the perfectibility, if not of man,
then of the international system. Both believe in the arrow of history.
For realists, this is a comforting delusion that gives high
purpose to international exertions where none exists. Sovereign nations remain
in incessant pursuit of power and self-interest. The pursuit can be carried out
more or less wisely. But nothing fundamentally changes.
Barack Obama is a classic case study in foreign policy
idealism. Indeed, one of his favorite quotations is about the arrow of history:
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
He has spent nearly eight years trying to advance that arc of justice. Hence his
initial "apology tour," that burst of confessional soul-searching
abroad about America and its sins, from slavery to the loss of our moral compass
after 9/11. Friday's
trip to Hiroshima completes the arc.
Obama lifts arms embargo on VietnamPlay!00:56
Unfortunately, with "justice" did not come peace.
The policies that followed -- appeasing Vladimir Putin, the Iranian mullahs, the
butchers of Tiananmen Square and lately the Castros -- have advanced neither
justice nor peace. On the contrary. The consequent withdrawal of American power,
that agent of injustice or at least arrogant overreach, has yielded nothing but
geopolitical chaos and immense human suffering. (See Syria.)
But now an interesting twist. Two terms as president may
not have disabused Obama of his arc-of-justice idealism (see above: Hiroshima
visit), but they have forced upon him at least one policy of hardheaded, indeed
hardhearted, realism. On
his Vietnam trip this week, Obama accepted the reality of an abusive
dictatorship while announcing a warming of relations and the lifting of the U.S.
arms embargo, therebyenlisting
Vietnam as a full partner in the containment of China.
Barack Obama's best on-screen momentsPlay!01:37
This follows the partial return of the U.S. military
to the Philippines, another element of the containment strategy. Indeed, the
Trans-Pacific Partnership itself is less about economics than geopolitics,
creating a Pacific Rim cordon around China.
There's no idealism in containment. It is raw, soulless
realpolitik. No moral arc. No uplifting historical arrow. In fact, it is the
same damn thing all over again, a recapitulation of Truman's containment of
Russia in the late 1940s. Obama is doing the same, now with China.
He thus leaves a double legacy. His arc-of-justice
aspirations, whatever their intention, leave behind tragic geopolitical and
human wreckage. Yet this belated acquiescence to realpolitik, laying the
foundations for a new containment, will be an essential asset in addressing this
century's coming central challenge, the rise of China.
I don't know -- no one knows -- if history has an
arrow. Which is why a dose of coldhearted realism is always welcome. Especially