Americans who lament the static nature of the two-party system often fail to give that binary factionalism credit for its longevity. Political parties were not preordained institutions; they arose organically and, despite multiple challenges from potent albeit short-lived competitors, have survived two centuries ideological tumult. Much to the chagrin of partisan ideologues, both parties are subject to frequent philosophical redefinition. This is as true concerning domestic matters as it is for foreign affairs. Only now, as Barack Obama’s presidency meanders directionless toward its final days, has it become clear that the president led his party down the path of one such radical redefinition on foreign affairs. In doing so, he has buried the legacy of his liberal predecessors.
It is within living memory that the Democratic Party’s most prominent members condemned realism as a viable approach to foreign affairs and essentially won the argument. Though the term has less universally settled meaning than is customary in a school of thought related to foreign affairs and statecraft, realism commonly describes the approach to geopolitics adopted by scholars like George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and Henry Kissinger. It was Kissinger-style realism – or, perhaps more compellingly, his involvement with the Nixon administration – that led late 20th Century Democrats to embrace a more ideological approach to foreign affairs over the simple Machiavellian dynamics that had previously characterized great power politics.
“I will not hide the fact that I thought there was some instrumental utility in our pursuit of human rights vis-à-vis the Soviet Union,” recalled Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. “And raising the issue of human rights pointed to one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Soviet system – namely, that it was a system based on oppression.” This utilitarian view of ethics was a paradigm-altering departure from past practice. Matters such as human rights were once considered an obstacle to the effective pursuit of statecraft. Effectively turning the matter into another tool with which to box in foreign adversaries was revolutionary. From Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, who both made democracy promotion a central pursuit of their administrations, to George W. Bush, whose post-9/11 strategy attempted to midwife democracies into existence in the Middle East and Central Asia, the GOP happily abandoned realism.
The Iraq War marked the end of the consensus bipartisan foreign policy on matters like human rights and democracy promotion. The professorial Barack Obama postured as an ideologue, and he even surrounded himself with advisors who seemed to confirm that predisposition, but his behavior in office stood in marked contrast.
The Obama administration passed on what might have been the greatest opportunity in a generation to promote the collapse of the theocratic regime in Iran amid the so-called “Green Revolution” of 2009. The president had already made overtures to the Iranian regime seeking rapprochement even before the disputed election that led to the spontaneous uprising. A similar rebellion in Venezuela that threatened to topple the regime of Hugo Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, prompted only lukewarm condemnation from the White House. The president’s Treasury Department sanctioned a handful of those Venezuelan leaders implicated in the violent and bloody suppression of those protests well after they had succeeded in quelling any rebellion capable of regime change.
A Democratic president in the mold of Carter or Bill Clinton might have extracted some concessions in the form of domestic reforms from Raul Castro in exchange for the invaluable gift of normalized relations with the United States of America. Barack Obama pursued no such course. The detached and pedagogic president simply absorbed what Time Magazine called a “vivid display” and CNN’s Jim Acosta dubbed an anti-American “rant” from the Cuban dictator while attending the 2015 Summit of the Americas. Presumably, he told himself that such passionate displays were packaged purely for domestic consumption. Perhaps the president simply believed that pressing Washington’s human rights concerns with Castro would be counterproductive. Maybe he thought that a unilateral thaw in Havana’s relationship with Washington in order to offset the threat posed by creeping influence in the Caribbean from Moscow or Beijing was worth the cost. Perhaps Obama simply desired a legacy achievement. Whatever his thinking, it doesn’t resemble those of an earlier generation of Democratic presidents.
From China to Turkey, from Moscow to Riyadh; the stewardship of human rights has grown worse over the course of the Obama presidency. In 2014, the China-based Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch warned that the nation’s domestic security apparatus has become its most oppressive since Beijing violently cracked down on democratic protesters in 1989. “China’s repression of political activists, writers, independent journalists, artists and religious groups who potentially challenge the party’s monopoly of power has intensified since Xi took office nearly two years ago,” The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall reported in December of 2014. Not only have the benefits of engagement apparently outweighed the costs of imposing repercussions on China over its human rights violations for the American government, private institutions in the West are reportedly also turning a blind eye toward Beijing’s abuses.
According to a report in Foreign Policy, the Chinese activists and author Teng Biao was shocked recently to discover that an offer to publish his book on Chinese rights violations by the American Bar Association was rescinded. The explanation Biao received explicitly stated that backing the book and its author would “run the risk of upsetting the Chinese government.” Such self-censorship is apparently commonplace, particularly involving American firms that jealously guard their access to China’s emerging market. The tone for this manner of deferential engagement is set by the administration.
In Europe, Russian opposition leaders are now shot in the streets – brazenly, and within eyesight of the Kremlin. The flood of refugees streaming out of the Middle East has led to the disintegration of the treaties that once wove the Eurozone into a borderless tapestry of disparate cultures. Anti-Muslimism and anti-Semitic sentiment are on the rise, as are the acts of violence and intimidation so often associated with those sentiments. This fracturing of Europe and the rise of reactionary nationalistic political movements on the continent did not occur in a vacuum. The Obama administration surely deserves condemnation for allowing Islamist movements to flower in the chaos that developed in Syria and Libya after the Arab Spring revolutions — chaos that eventually swallowed an abandoned and defenseless Iraq — but they should not escape blame for the consequences of those failures spreading into Europe.
It’d be criminal to call any of this realism. It may do a disservice to consider any of the above the outgrowth of a coherent grand strategic vision on matters related to foreign affairs. Rather, this is more likely the result of a haphazard approach to foreign policy that had no greater aim than of correcting what were seen as the flaws of the Bush administration. What is most certainly is not is a liberal or even a constructivist approach to international affairs. The Obama doctrine appears to be grounded in expediency and the achievement of the president’s short-term political goals. By definition, that is a policy Obama’s successors cannot emulate. As such, they will necessarily repudiate it. Obama-ism will not be missed. It is a doctrine that subordinated the pursuit of peace and natural rights to solipsism and hubris.
The Washington Post columnist Don Oberdorfer described Carter’s 1979 summit in Vienna, which produced only the generally ignored and unanimously reviled SALT II treaty, “a warp and woof of light and darkness” that was likely to characterize the entirety of the 39th President’s approach to geopolitics. He was not wrong, but the Democratic Party Carter bequeathed to history was one dedicated to human rights, often to a fault. The party Barack Obama will dedicate to posterity has abandoned that pursuit. What he replaced it with remains a mystery.