I’m not sure I’m with Jordan Michael Smith on this:
[I]n international relations theory, “realism” actually means something quite specific. Realism holds that the world is anarchical, that states are always out to maximize their power regardless of their rhetoric or internal composition, and that if one country becomes too powerful, the others will gang up on it no matter how well-intentioned it is. Canonical realists including John Mearsheimer, Kenneth Waltz, Samuel Huntington, Barry Posen, Robert Pape, and Stephen Walt all opposed the Iraq war, and they all prioritize solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the best way to ameliorate America’s terrorism threat.
Today’s Democratic Party is overwhelmingly a party of realists. And in the current presidential race, realist positions are most often espoused by Obama. This is why Zbigniew Brzezinski, the foremost realist statesman in the Democratic party, is advising Obama, not Clinton. Look at the breakdown: Richard Clarke, Bruce Reidel, Robert Malley — all prominent realists, all Obama supporters. Clinton has more idealism-oriented people such as Richard Holbrooke, Martin Indyk, and Michael O’Hanlon, who all supported the Iraq War or strongly favor Israeli actions against the Palestinians. Her initial support for the Iraq war and her positions on talking to hostile foreign leaders and on nuclear weapons have much less attraction to realists than Obama’s. Obama is not a by-the-book realist by any means, but of all of the contenders for the presidency, he is the closest thing.
I have some minor quibbles; I think Huntington’s too idiosyncratic to be labeled a realist, for one thing, and Pape is really not as concerned with IR theory as he is with studying the efficacy of certain tactics (like air power or terrorism). But more importantly, not all advisors are created equal. Yeah, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Malley are advising Obama, but he hired Samantha Power as an advisor right after entering the Senate. And Power’s life mission is getting the US to take genocide seriously as a problem often necessitating military intervention, a concept which probably gives Waltz, Mearsheimer, and Walt heart palpitations. Susan Rice is probably Obama’s second most trusted foreign policy advisor after Power, and she has stated very clearly that she wants NATO troops in Darfur; she was an advisor to Bill Clinton on African affairs when the Rwandan genocide occurred, something that’s obviously affected her deeply. That Obama’s “not a by-the-book realist” is a major understatement; when the two women he’ll likely choose between for National Security Advisor are open and enthusiastic supporters of a moralistic foreign policy, it’s safe to say he’s close to the polar opposite.
As someone who finds realism empirically indefensible as a descriptive theory and morally indefensible as a normative philosophy, I don’t think this is a bad thing. The problem with the Bush administration’s foreign policy isn’t its inclusion of moral principles; it’s that he has pursued these moral ends in a tactically inept and strategically ham-handed way. For example, I think democracy promotion is an entirely worthy pursuit for the US government to engage in. But multi-trillion dollar invasions and occupations are really inefficient, and ineffective, ways to go about it. Diplomatic and economic pressure has consistently been a more effective tool; it was instrumental in pushing Marcos out of the Philippines in 1986 and in the success of the color revolutions in the former USSR. A realist would say that invading Iraq and ousting Marcos were both wrong. I, and by all indications Obama, think there’s a world of difference between the two.