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Realists Fret That Obama Is Drifting Away

As the President and his staff gear up for a second term, American foreign policy seems to be making a shift. The Obama administration is moving from a realist, in some ways Jeffersonian approach to foreign policy—limiting commitments, looking for compromise solutions with opponents regardless of ideology—to something more Wilsonian: giving democracy promotion and human rights a higher profile in the national security portfolio.

Realists like Stephen Walt are taking note:

It’s a question of balance, and my sense is that the administration’s world-view is getting narrower over time. Realists like Robert Gates have been gone for some time, and Clinton will be gone soon. James Jones left the NSC years ago, and independent thinkers like the late Richard Holbrooke are no longer with us. Instead of vigorous and creative debate and a willingness to rethink past decisions or priorities, we’re likely to get groupthink and a tendency to circle the wagons and defend past decisions…

Under the guise of ‘balance’, Walt may be worried that as Secretary of State, Susan Rice will continue to push towards a more engaged and ideal driven foreign policy—replacing what one could call the conservative internationalism of the neocons with the more traditional but equally ambitious liberal internationalism that many Democrats prefer.

This would mean among other things deeper American engagement in the Middle East when most realists would like to limit our commitments there, and it would definitely mean a greater American concern about the nature of governments overseas.

It’s early days still to be assessing the second term, but if Rice goes to Foggy Bottom, that would be a sign that Woodrow Wilson is back in style. Less clear would be whether the administration fully understands the price tag: Wilsonian foreign policy is expensive. It involves lots of foreign aid, a strong military, and a global capacity for swift and effective military and political action.

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