More Obama in Berlin: The Meliorist Bit

To follow up briefly on Judah’s post on realism vs. idealism in Obama’s policies and character, I just wanted to point out the passage from the Berlin speech that perhaps provides the most cause for worry that an Obama administration might fail to recognize that, as Judah says, now is a moment for restraint in American foreign policy:

Will we lift the child in Bangladesh from poverty, shelter the refugee in Chad, and banish the scourge of AIDS in our time?

Will we stand for the human rights of the dissident in Burma, the blogger in Iran, or the voter in Zimbabwe? Will we give meaning to the words “never again” in Darfur?

Here (via Andrew Sullivan) is Reason’s David Weigel on that passage:

That’s not pablum. I count at least four extensions of American foreign policy here: increased foreign aid, increased funding for PEPFAR, sanctions, and maybe a little bit of ol’ fashioned humanitarian intervention. (That’s what he’s occasionally suggested for Darfur, at least.) It’s proof, if any more was needed, that Obama is not wary of foreign engagements. He’s a progressive realist who thinks America hasn’t done enough to police the world and to stave off future threats by doing whatever NGOs say we should be doing.

Daniel Larison of the American Conservative (also via Sullivan) doesn’t think this is going to play well with voters fatigued of American adventurism:

If voters think that electing Obama President will mean doing a lot of heavy-lifting with foreign aid, sheltering refugees in Africa and protecting Burmese dissidents and the Zimbabwean opposition party, they will not be terribly interested in putting him in that office. I would have thought that he would have understood the public’s weariness with the Iraq adventure better than this. Does he not understand that one important source of discontent with the war is its costliness and the diversion of resources to Iraq rather than having them used and invested here at home?

I’ve expressed worry about this strain of meliorism in Obama’s foreign policy before. What I have not yet determined is whether this stuff has really been thought through thoroughly by Obama, or whether on foreign aid and humanitarianism in particular he’s being influenced significantly by his team of advisers. Most of those advisers seems to be kind of orthodox liberal internationalists, and being suckers for the transformational possibilities of humanitarian projects has, IMHO, been a weakness of liberal internationalism in recent years.

What makes me sometimes, when I’m feeling generous, suspect that this is largely adviser-driven, and that Obama’s policy if elected won’t be so utopian as his rhetoric, is that the evidence of his pragmatism keeps piling up. Although foreign policy is not much mentioned much, Ryan Lizza’s profile of Obama in the New Yorker provides more evidence for that kind of pragmatism. Granted, Obama’s pragmatism seems most often to be purely political in its motivation. But if the mood of Americans really is one of foreign policy restraint, political pragmatism will serve as a break on the meliorist temptation.

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