Progressive Pragmatism

The Obama Administration represents the dawn of a new and superior conception of American foreign policy.

Appeared in: Volume 9, Number 5 | Published on: April 20, 2014
Ganesh Sitaraman is assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. From 2011 to 2013 he served as policy director and senior counsel to candidate and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
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  • It seems to me that the author is simply coming up with a new name for conservative realism with progressive internationalist tendencies. Either that or he is desperately trying to convince the reader that the Obama Administration has NOT been a chicken running around with its head cut off, but rather a cunning and principled power player moving towards ends more actually benevolent than those his forebears pursued. It reminds me of the trope of the lucky prize-winner who receives a prize, befuddled (because he had done nothing to win it) and then upon being asked what his secret to winning was, he begins listing off every piece of self-indulgent advice and starts to believe it, while the crowd of questioners remains entranced by what they see as his wisdom.

    Obama is not a total numbskull. But nor is he a great reformer, or a great statesman. He is a leader who will not do anything against American interests, but who will try desperately to act as though the world he lives in were run by different rules than it has. There is no grand strategy; there is no miraculous new dawn in American foreign policy thought. There are events and reactions to events, nothing more.

    • RTO Dude

      “But just as there have been great successes…”

      Seriously? You quote two non-events (Korea and China) with an abject failure (our current enabling role with Iran) as “great successes”? No. Just no.

  • Tom Chambers

    I see things I can agree with in this article–i.e. the pragmatic aspect. My primary disagreement is terming this approach Progressive. I could not possibly describe Progressives as favoring bottom-up democracy or empowerment of the people. I associate Progressivism with empowerment of the government, enforced regulation of the people. To the extent that Progressivism appears to be bottom-up, as with the Occupy movement, it amounts to a minority trying to institute its own agenda upon the majority, regardless of the majority’s views. Progressives must see themselves differently.

    • Bob

      I had this reaction as well. Presumably Progressives favor a bottom-up approach where the common folk are struggling against fascists, but they prefer the top-down approach when it comes to unruly Americans pursuing their lives unsupervised and unenlightened by Progressive wisdom dispensed by a benevolent government. That’s the only way I can reconcile the author’s interpretation.

      I’m also concerned with another issue which involves pragmatism. To the extent American restraint creates a power vacuum, how does Progressive Pragmatism address the problem of involvement by other players not especially aligned with Progressive interests (see Russia, China, Iran)?

      This approach appears to have some bugs to work out.

  • ShadrachSmith

    The new policy is soft power: obey us or we will cut up your credit cards.

    No matter how much sophistication the author uses to apologize for Obama’s neglect of foreign policy and national defense: neglect of foreign policy and national defense issues remains a very unsophisticated policy. Takes no effort at all, apparently.

  • Ghosts of Benghazi

    Pragmatism will get its arse kicked on the world stage. I guess the Peter principle applies to academics – you can gain degrees until you become stupid again (article author). Barry is a dithering fool – end of analysis, the science is settled!!!!!!!

  • Fat_Man

    This type of spin only makes sense if you are not paying attention. Red Line. I rest my case.

    • Corlyss

      Oh, they’re paying attention: they see all that $$$$ going to the military and lust after it for their slavery-inducing welfare programs. Their “pragmatism” has an agenda and consequently is not pragmatic at all.

  • Boritz

    Teddy Roosevelt’s instep was a better foreign policy analyst.

    • B-Sabre

      I was going to saw “his mustache was a better foreign policy analyst” and then I remembered that TR had one hell of a mustache. I heard it killed a man in a bar fight in Montana.

  • Pete

    “Since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy has struggled with the question of when to intervene abroad. ”

    Where has this guy been? American foreign policy has always struggled when to intervene abroad.

  • Corlyss

    “dawn of a new and superior conception of American foreign policy”

  • S.C. Schwarz

    So now we see the rationale behind Obama’s foreign policy incompetence: It’s not a bug it’s a feature.

    In theory this concept of pragmatism sounds reasonable. Who can argue with prudence, humility and modesty? In practice, in the hands of the left, I suspect it will amount to functional pacifism. Theoretically there are situations where we should intervene, but in practice there will always be a reason not to act. Indeed, as our military capability erodes, and as our allies learn not to trust us, it will become easier and easier to say, truthfully, that there is nothing we can do.

    One other thought: Here we see a man of the left arguing for modesty and humility in foreign affairs. Not an unreasonable case, but where was modesty and humility when Obama was rewriting a sixth of our economy with Obamacare. Where is modesty and humility when Obama wrecking our energy sector? Why is the left so confident that they are right about everything domestically, and so timid about foreign affairs?

  • wigwag

    Calling Barack Obama’s impetuous, meandering and confused foreign policy “progressive pragmatism” is a lot like watching an epileptic seizure and convincing yourself that yourself that you are witnessing ballet.

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