Whether Barack Obama is at heart a Wilsonian idealists or “progressive realist,” as Nikolas Gvosdev put it in his recent piece for WPR, is one of the key questions about the incoming administration’s foreign policy.
Early in the campaign, I worried that some of Obama’s foreign policy advisers’ rhetoric about “dignity promotion” and a “transformative agenda” indicated the then-candidate was disposed to a brand of idealism that Walter McDougall has called “global meliorism.”
In our expression of support for the President-elect in the wake of his election victory earlier this month, the WPR editors again voiced the worry that Obama would have “an instinct for interventionism in the name of well-meaning and admirable ideals at a time when America might best succor the world through an embrace of modesty and an acceptance of the limits of its power.” At the same time, we pointed to the pragmatism and steady hand he demonstrated during the campaign as evidence that he might swing the U.S. foreign policy pendulum back toward realism.
It is very early yet, of course, but the few moves Obama has made toward defining his foreign policy agenda provide hope for those who see realism as the right policy for the current moment. The Wall Street journal reports on the most convincing evidence yet that Obama is likely to take a realist approach: his connection to George H.W. Bush National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Obama’s apparent plans to appoint several Scowcroft protegés to senior foreign policy positions.