Despite His Claims, Obama Was Not A Realist On Russia, Syria, And Libya

March 12, 2016
President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during the G20 Summit, Monday, June 18, 2012, in Los Cabos, Mexico. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Obama, in the twilight of his career, did what every US President is expected to do, give a legacy defending interview. He defended his primary foreign policy ideas including the Syrian inaction, the inability to deal with the Ukrainian crisis, the Iraq fiasco and Russian revanchism while describing himself as a Realist. Obama does mention some specific points of foreign policy which sound like Realism — and his description of Arab and European allies “freeriding” on American hard power will have grudging bipartisan support in the foreign policy community — his claim to be a Realist himself falls flat on further scrutiny.

I am not the first one to say Obama is not a Realist. Better men wrote this long before me.  Soon after the interview was published, The Atlantic itself pushed back on Obama’s claim to Realism. However, with his self-description as a Realist, it is the duty of the Realist school of International Relations (IR) to come clean on his actions, just like some conservatives are now busy denouncing their current Presidential nominee front runner for not being conservative.

Before I go into details, here are a couple of points I should clarify. My own research follows a Neo-Realist theoretical framework, so by definition, I am a Realist. And just as in every school of IR theory, I am sure there will be other scholars who will happen to disagree with my assessment here. I don’t have the audacity to speak on behalf of the entire Realist foreign policy community, and I obviously don’t claim that Mr Obama is lying about his motivations at any point. My simple assertions are these: his actions don’t reflect Realism in foreign policy, or he seems not to understand and grasp what Realism is.

Secondly, I am not trying to provide any alternative policy principles. At this point, without being privy to the State Department memos, it is not logical to provide an alternative policy, but I am just trying to point out that what Obama said and what he did is contradictory on several levels. If Realism is judged by the future, with Obama being an example, then it is not fair for the Realist school of thought, and someone needs to set the record straight.


Any school of Realism, whether classical, neo-classical or structural, would start with a couple of basic principles. While accepting that the World is a deeply anarchic, Hobbesian place, where every actor is playing solo, Realism would suggest every power should act according to their interests, and interests only. It doesn’t make Realism a cynical pessimistic theory; it just suggests that actors should be prudent in understanding their limits. While Realism, just like any other theory has internal debates which will give rise to different policy prescription, every Realist will admit that prudence is the key word, as it helps an actor understand not just the adversaries, but the allies as well. Also, Realism doesn’t necessarily stop cooperation, as cooperation also can be due to an understanding of mutual interests, nor does Realism oppose multilateralism. Realists just say that when push comes to shove, every great power stands for itself and looks to survive, in this dog-eat-dog world.

A Realist would have reservations against toppling not one but two brutal-but-secular dictators in a historically divided and volatile region, the dictators being allies in the “War on Terror”. We’re talking, of course, about the Mubarak government in Egypt which Obama encouraged to leave and the Gaddafi government in Libya which NATO airstrikes helped depose. A Realist wouldn’t try to have an internationalist multilateral coalition that allowed smaller allies to dictate the game, all while claiming to “lead from behind”. It is a risk no realist would take. While there might be difference regarding how to deal with Libya and Egypt, every realist would agree, that firstly, they were not direct threats to United States interests, secondly, the regional dictators though brutal, were off late, allies in the war on terror, thirdly the intervention in Libya was hurriedly operationalised and managed, without any end game to Washington policy which resulted in the utter chaos we are seeing now.

The failure of Obama here is immense: firstly he didn’t understand how divided Libya is, secondly he had no idea of the hard power capability and limitations of his primary allies Britain and France, thirdly his intelligence misunderstood the domestic factors in his alliance’s partners, as well as the adversary against whom his forces are employed, and finally he allowed the mission to expand out of control from protecting civilians to the murder of Gaddafi and the resulting total chaos. That’s not Realism, that’s incompetence. For someone to claim the mantle of George H. W. Bush, the last Realist president in US history, Obama didn’t know when to stop and get out. There were situations when the Gaddafi regime was trying via backchannel, both before and during the intervention, to come to a negotiating table and leave Libya, or have a power-sharing mechanism with the rebels dividing the country. It was not paid any attention whatsoever. That’s not an application of smart power, that’s idiocy.

On to Syria, a much closer and direct threat to US interests in Israel and Middle east, no Realist would ever mention any “red line” and then fail to follow through when that line was crossed. Realism in foreign policy hinges on ambiguity and unpredictability in times of conflict as a policy of deterrence — the entire Madman Theory of Richard Nixon was built on that premise, among others. Obama has not only time and again, before every negotiation, taken some aspects of hard power off the table, thus removing the ambiguity, caging the “madman,” and defining the limits of American power. The only instance he mentioned a red line was with regard to Syria, but he refused to follow through. Perception of power is important in a great power’s foreign policy, and Obama repeatedly failed to show the resolve.

A Realist wouldn’t call Russia a regional power and then justify his inactions in Ukraine and Syria because of Russia being a Great power; that’s a circular logic. While acknowledging the need for negotiations with Russia in both these instances, a Realist would still prefer power balancing, than the “reset” Obama tried. A realist will talk about compromise and negotiation, but also suggest the negotiation from a superior position, instead of giving away power to others, including traditional adversaries like Iran and Russia that were given a free ticket to ride in their spheres of influence. Frankly never in history has one great power voluntarily given up so much, in face of constant probing. A Realist would understand the need to have a strong ground fighting force, without investing one’s own blood and treasure, and would understand that arming the Kurds and Ukrainians are imperatives as that would ratchet up the cost on competing powers in the region and bring them to negotiation table, while maintaining an upper hand. Arming the Kurds could also have been used as leverage against erratic allies like Turkey and the Saudis, all while providing a ready force to battle ISIS. Finally a Realist would understand the need to solve the migrant crisis, which is tearing up the fabric of European Union and emboldening ultra-right wing and pro-Russian forces.

British and Dutch forces under Admiral Pellew during the Barbary wars stopped the human trafficking and dealt with slave trade with “shots and nothing but shots.” India, during the Bangladesh war, formed a safe zone for refugees with force. A Realist is not shy to use force when needed, and wouldn’t stay away from patrolling the Mediterranean and hunt down human traffickers, as well as to carve out and form a safe zone in the massive, practically ungoverned land in North Africa to provide refuge to people fleeing war — a zone backed by air cover, if necessary.

Strangely enough, Obama’s doctrine of allowing a regional great power to look after its own backyard falls flat when it comes to Obama’s dealing with China. For all his talk of allies “freeriding,” and balancing being a burden sharing mechanism, Obama seems, so to speak, pretty gung-ho with regards to the South China Sea. Again, I am not saying balancing China is a wrong policy, but I am just pointing out the contradiction of his rhetoric. Realists would advise that Obama administration would make India, Australia and Japan be much more active and share the security burden in Asia.

Realism talks of a uniform grand-strategy, something this administration lacks. You cannot pick and choose to be a Realist. Justifying specific inactions and talking of Realism doesn’t make one a Realist — it makes one an opportunist.

It is true that Obama highlights some nagging foreign policy problem for the US. Americans don’t want to spend their money in distant, open ended wars. Americans don’t want to be a mercenary force to do the bidding of others who themselves are either incapable or unwilling to look after their own safety, and the US should reconsider its traditional role as the offshore balancer in both Asia and Europe.

However, to justify a shabby, halfhearted, and clearly contradictory foreign policy, pulled in different directions between cold hard power politics on one hand and moral obligations with an internationalist humanitarian outlook on the other, is anything but Realism. It also does a serious disservice to the IR discipline.

  • Sumantra Maitra is a Doctoral researcher of Russian Foreign Policy, at the University of Nottingham, UK. He can be found on Twitter, @MrMaitra.