Washington’s New Realism? Parsing the State of the Union

January 22, 2015

The 2015 State of the Union Address, delivered on Tuesday by President Barack Obama, signaled a consolidation of a steady shift in American foreign and defense policy. The United States has, for over two decades, had its international relations defined by a loose coalition of liberal interventionists and neoconservative foreign policy thinkers, who have dominated Washington, D.C. Gone now, however, are the empty promises of Bill Clinton, who said after the Kosovo war in 1999: “Whether you live in Africa or Central Europe, or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it’s within our power to stop it, we will stop it.” Gone are the idealistic visions of George W. Bush who, in his 2nd inaugural address, said: “…it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Foreign policy realism requires having a clear-eyed sense of the nature of international challenges and aligning prudent policies via solid information and cost-benefit assessments. Policy decisions should not to be shaped by or reflect fear given that America holds most of the cards in the international balance of power and can sustain its power by using it sparingly. Realism means applying restraint and calibrating power for when it is most needed, not always needing to be everywhere in the world, all the time. Instead, priorities need to be set, failed policies examined and changed, and budgets aligned with those objectives. In particular, this means that, while unappealing to ideals, engagement with adversaries is necessary and also effective in spreading values in the long run. Crucially, realism means leading by example in the world and at home, and investing in the domestic foundations of America’s power.

The president framed the need for this realignment by asking, at the outset of the speech: “Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet?” The president added:

When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military, then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do. I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now, and around the globe, it is making a difference.

This worldview is in stark contrast to how Americans all too often see Washington, D.C. debates, which appear to boil down to “do something”. When we’re not rushing to take the most assertive posture, even if potentially self-defeating, then irresponsible political charges of appeasement or weakness often follow. Ironically, it is these liberal and neoconservative impulses which have sparked an isolationist backlash in America. Thus a new realism in Washington, D.C. will allow for a more sustainable American support for important foreign policy priorities.

The benefit of restraint as a guide to foreign policy has been shown over Syria and its chemical weapons. The president appears to have learned, wisely, that the rush to war that his administration considered in summer 2013 would have produced less gains than the outcome that restraint, diplomacy, and weapons inspectors achieved. Likewise, the long tradition in foreign policy of near-term accommodations to advance long-term interests is prevailing, as the United States is shifting away from its demands that Syrian leader Assad “must go” – and instead seeing him as a necessary temporary bulwark against the Islamic State. In taking the fight to the Islamic State, the president reiterated that: “Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.”

In his speech, President Obama also demonstrated how a calibrated and balanced approach has worked with Russia. “…Mr. Putin’s aggression, it was suggested, was a masterful display of strategy and strength. That’s what I heard from some folks. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.   That’s how America leads: not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.” The United States has stood for the important principle of Ukrainian sovereignty, exacerbated Russia’s self-inflicted economic wounds with sanctions, and reassured its allies in NATO. Yet it has also wisely avoided handing Putin any further false pretense for his actions by not over-engaging in Ukraine. This restraint is criticized by many in Congress, yet few of them are willing to write the check for the main thing Ukraine needs – a radical overhaul of its economy that will require many tens of billions of dollars in guaranteed loans. Realism also reminds us that the United States and its allies in Europe hold overwhelming power advantages over Russia, and there was no need to further escalate the situation, for example, with empty promises of further NATO enlargement.

The president also explained the benefits of engaging adversaries. A dominant view in recent decades has been that America must isolate and punish bad actors in the world, or at least certainly not do business with them until they reform. This approach has understandable emotional satisfaction, but regarding Cuba, it completely failed. Thus, the president said: “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new. And our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere and removes the phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba, stands up for democratic values and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.” The president also noted the benefits of engaging with Iran, which has already produced a stay of its nuclear program. He warned that efforts to further isolate Iran with sanctions would set back major gains for American and allied security: “There’re no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. But new sanctions passed by this Congress at this moment in time will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails, alienating America from its allies, making it harder to maintain sanctions and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.”

President Obama signaled a new sense of how America should define its security concerns, by focusing on climate change. Here, however, the rhetoric and reality still lag – as the president offered no real plan for addressing it in working with the new Republican Congress. He did, however, redefine “toughness” by framing climate change as a national security concern. President Obama said: “The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.” The message for those who have obstinately rejected the science of climate change is clear – if you believe in a robust national security, listen to the Pentagon.

Most importantly, the president brought attention to America’s relative international position – which is becoming stronger after two decades of over-stretch abroad and under-investment at home.   He said: “…we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade, our deficits cut by two thirds, a stock market that has doubled and health care inflation at its lowest rate in 50 years.” He noted the significant drop in unemployment, yet also focused attention on the need to invest in the middle class to prepare for the new 21st century demands of international competitiveness. This requires a new sense of urgency in Congress regarding trade deals, but also investments into the equalizer in the land of opportunity – education. “America thrived in the 20th century,” the president said, “because we made high school free, sent a generation of G.I.s to college, trained the best workforce in the world. We were ahead of the curve. But other countries caught on. And in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to up our game. We need to do more.” Whether Congress will simply throw more money at the Pentagon, which does not need it, or look to invest in a new strategic emphasis on education in America to liberate human capital and advance American competitiveness remains to be seen.

Of course, the devil is in the details, and rhetoric in Washington, D.C. often falls into the abyss of politics – which has tragically become one of America’s greatest Achilles heels. It also remains to be seen whether Barack Obama would apply his own test to avoid getting further drawn back into Iraq or Afghanistan rather than insisting on local forces taking responsibility for their future. But there is a strong basis for a new national consensus on how to advance American power in the 21st century. As America continues with its pivot to Asia – aided by restraint and coalitions that put allies out front in places like around the Persian Gulf and Europe and by investing in the domestic foundations of power at home, the United States is well positioned for a new era of sustained and effective international leadership. The question remains whether the president will see these worldviews through, or be buffeted by the political winds and special interests from the left and the right as 2016 approaches. Nonetheless, the foundation for a return to a foreign policy that balances idealism and realism in Washington, D.C. has been firmly established.


Sean Kay is Robson Professor of Politics and Government at Ohio Wesleyan University and an associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. His most recent book is America’s Search for Security: The Triumph of Idealism and the Return of Realism (2014).


Photo credit: Secretary of Defense