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 enduring progress in the world?
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.
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 believes that treaties, agreements, transnational institutions and international organizations (like the U.N.) can, in time, ensure order and stability.
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.
Barack Obama is a classic study in foreign policy idealism. One of his favorite quotations is about the arrow of history: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Hence his initial “apology tour,” that burst of confessional soul-searching abroad about America and its sins. Friday’s trip to Hiroshima completes the arc.
Unfortunately, the policies that followed – appeasing Vladimir Putin, the Iranian mullahs – have advanced neither justice nor peace. On the contrary. The consequent withdrawal of American power 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, 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, thereby enlisting Vietnam as a full partner in the containment of China.
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. 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.
This belated acquiescence to realpolitik will be an essential asset in addressing this century’s coming central challenge, the rise of China.
I don’t know if history has an arrow. Which is why a dose of coldhearted realism is always welcome. Especially from Obama.