The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
object(WP_Session)#187 (5) { ["session_id:protected"]=> string(32) "731945560d78ee5b16d36d83394058eb" ["expires:protected"]=> int(1414849116) ["exp_variant:protected"]=> int(1414848756) ["container:protected"]=> array(1) { ["ai_visit_counter"]=> int(0) } ["dirty:protected"]=> bool(true) }
The Perils of Wishful Thinking
Published on January 1, 2010

Hans Morgenthau years ago warned a generation of American idealists against imagining that at some point “the final curtain would fall and the game of power politics would no longer be played.” Yet such hopes are hard to quash for children of the Enlightenment, who believe fervently in human progress and perfectibility. Similar hopes ran rampant at the dawn of the 20th century, in the decade before World War I. They revived again in Morgenthau’s day, as the peace following World War II segued into Cold War confrontation. And they were reawakened at the end of the Cold War, when Francis Fukuyama gave powerful expression to the idea that an era of ideological confrontation and great power competition had finally, and with finality, given way to an era of triumphant liberalism and great power peace.

Today that same idealistic conviction informs the Obama Administration’s foreign policies. The fundamental assumption is that the great powers today share common interests. Relations among them, therefore, “must no longer be seen as a zero-sum game”, as President Obama argued in July 2009. The Obama Doctrine is about “Win-Win” and “getting to Yes.” The new “mission” of the United States, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is to be the great convener of nations, gathering the powers to further common interests and seek common solutions to the world’s problems. It is on this basis that the Administration has sought to “reset” relations with Russia, to embark on a new policy of “strategic reassurance” with China, and in general to seek what Secretary Clinton called in a July 15, 2009 speech a “new era of engagement based on common interests, shared values, and mutual respect.”

For an Administration that prides itself on its pragmatism, there would seem to be a great deal of wishful thinking in this approach. Neither the President nor his advisers acknowledge that, along with common interests, the great powers also have divergent and sometimes directly conflicting interests that cannot necessarily be reconciled through better understanding. The Administration and its defenders react against any suggestion that great powers might have clashing interests that could hamper cooperation. This axiom of realist thinking is what a fervent Obama supporter like Fareed Zakaria calls “phony realism.”

They also reject the notion that ideological distinctions among the great powers might obtrude on great power harmony. Princeton’s G. John Ikenberry, whose writings provided the intellectual foundation for Secretary Clinton’s important July speech, barely acknowledges such differences. He has argued that a more cooperative international order is possible precisely because “the most powerful and rich countries in the world are now all democracies” and “the great powers themselves are democracies.”1 The President and his advisers presumably do not harbor such illusions, yet neither do they acknowledge the problems posed by the fact that the great powers are, in reality, divided between democracy and autocracy. Their statements and their policies seem to ignore the possibility that China’s and Russia’s autocratic governments may see the world differently, and calculate their interests differently, precisely because they are autocracies.

One gets the sense that the Obama Administration is fashioning a global strategy for a world that no longer exists, or, more accurately, that never existed. The post-1989 expectation was of a world in which geopolitical competition had given way to geo-economic cooperation. The old laws of great power politics, as Morgenthau understood them, had been rewritten by the universal triumph of liberalism. It was to be an age of convergence. All that was required was an America wise enough to guide the world toward agreement on the important matters on which all the powers must naturally agree. According to the Obama Administration’s narrative, George W. Bush then came along and destroyed this great opportunity with his belligerent and unilateralist policies. Now that Bush was gone, the world could resume its convergence under the inspirational direction of the new American President.

Missing from this narrative are two major developments of the past decade: the re-emergence of great power competition involving the United States, China, Russia, India, Japan and others; and the surprising resilience of autocratic capitalism as a viable alternative to liberal, democratic capitalism. In Russia the combination has produced a great power nationalism and revanchism that make cooperation difficult and at times impossible. Russia’s insistence on a geopolitical sphere of interest in its former imperial domain makes it hard to avoid “zero-sum” situations in Eastern and Central Europe and the Caucasus. Russian and American interests diverge in Iran, where Moscow’s understandable desire for money and influence, which would be undermined by any genuine Washington-Tehran rapprochement, may well trump the common interest in non-proliferation. Great power politics intrudes even on that most hallowed of common interests: climate change. The Chinese, who perceive the United States as bent on preventing their rise to dominance in East Asia, cannot help but see Western pressures for reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as part of this effort—no matter how hard the Obama Administration tries to offer reassurance.

These are just a few examples of a world in which there is as much divergence as convergence, and where even the common interests enumerated by President Obama and Secretary Clinton can be overwhelmed by the clashing interests of great powers with competing ambitions and differing worldviews. One can add other failures of the “new era of engagement”: Iran’s refusal to accept the outstretched hand sincerely proffered by President Obama; the breakdown of the Middle East peace process, despite the administration’s strenuous efforts; the failure to gain any meaningful Chinese help in North Korea. These also ought to be signs that international relations have not really entered a new era—and that some of the “old formulas” that Secretary Clinton insists “don’t apply” today may have more applicability than the Obama team would care to admit.

It is no condemnation of the Obama Administration to note that it came to office with an approach to the world that may not survive contact with reality. This is frequently the way things go in the first year for a new President. It was certainly the case with the last Administration. The question is, how quickly can this Administration adjust and devise an approach more attuned to the world as it is?



1Ikenberry, “Liberal International Theory in the Wake of 9/11 and American Unipolarity”, paper prepared for seminar on “IR Theory, Unipolarity and September 11th—Five Years On”, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), Oslo, Norway, February 3–4, 2006.

Robert Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of, most recently, The Return of History and the End of Dreams.