Obama the Realist vs. Obama the Idealist

To follow up a bit on Barack Obama’s Berlin speech, Nikolas Gvosdev flags something that caught my eye as well:

[Obama] lays out an ambitious agenda for cooperation, including on dealing with climate change, but no real sense of the burden sharing and, more importantly, on leadership questions. Is the implication that U.S. and European positions will naturally converge? Or does this presage that an Obama administration would be more comfortable accepting European initatives. . .?

Here’s the passage in question from the speech (transcript here):

. . .True partnership and true progress requires constant work and sustained sacrifice. They require sharing the burdens of development and diplomacy; of progress and peace. They require allies who will listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.

That is why America cannot turn inward. That is why Europe cannot turn inward. America has no better partner than Europe. Now is the time to build new bridges across the globe as strong as the one that bound us across the Atlantic. Now is the time to join together, through constant cooperation, strong institutions, shared sacrifice, and a global commitment to progress, to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Now, I think there’s some signalling going on here: the need to listen and learn from each other, for instance, but especially the reference to strong institutions (ie. multilateral legitimacy). But it’s not quite clear, when push comes to shove, who will listen to whom. Is it America who will listen to Germany before launching another unilateral intervention? Germany who will listen to Obama and double down in Afghanistan? A tacit understanding that once reasonable people are back in charge of American foreign policy, the one will dovetail with the other?

Obviously, this is loaded territory for Obama, who is already taking incoming from the usual suspects for giving the speech to begin with. So while a period of restraint in American foreign policy might be advisable, it would have been political suicide for him to openly call for one, especially in front of a overseas audience.

But beyond that, these are the kinds of questions that don’t get answered in speeches, but through actions. What’s fascinating about Obama’s foreign policy vision is that while he has repeatedly expressed a realist bent, his rhetoric fits squarely into the tradition of American exceptionalism that is almost irreconciliable with the idea of restraint. (That’s I meant when I said I’m uncomfortable with his recurring theme of “remaking the world.”)

Gvosdev directs us to an article he wrote for Atlantic Community, in which he wonders whether an activist France under Sarkozy that pursues compatible but independent foreign policy initiatives presents more of a problem for America than the obstructionism of Chirac. Now, I happen to think that this is precisely how America can achieve its objectives while still exercising restraint: by using the dynamism and agility of its allies and partners to do move the ball forward, secure in the knowledge that we will remain indispensable for sealing the deals and doing the heavy lifting.

The question surrounding an Obama presidency is whether his realist actions will speak louder than his exceptionalist words.

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