Varieties of Realism and Idealism in the Obama Administration:

The Iran crisis is perhaps signaling, so far as I can tell watching from the outside, divisions within the Democratic Party and possibly within the Obama administration, not just between idealists and realists, but among an increasingly complicated set of normative foreign policy positions.

A couple of years ago I mentioned the rise, as a consequence of the Iraq war, of what I called the ‘New Liberal Realists’ (it was in this review essay of Francis Fukuyama’s After the Neo-Cons and Peter Beinart’s The Good War), urging caution against democracy promotion agendas as foreign policy. Hillary Clinton exhibits something of this tendency, at least when in the mode that early on dismissed concerns about human rights in China out of hand, as, well, befits relations between debtor and creditor.

Distinguished from the New Liberal Realists are the transnationalists, the liberal internationalists who, in Fukuyama’s useful categories, seek to use international law and institutions to overcome the international power politics that the realists, including the New Liberal Realists, take for granted. It is also the home of universalist human rights. The default position for many in the Democratic Party’s intellectual and academic wings – Harold Koh, for example – it is a form of foreign policy idealism, of course, but exists in some tension with the New Liberal Realism. It has not been very apparent which tendency is ascendent, or whether they will simply exist in tension within the administration.

But there is another form of idealism – one which has been distinctly disfavored recently in the Democratic Party, even though formerly quite popular, until Bush embraced it and then the Iraq war: democracy promotion. Universal in one sense – universal not in the liberal internationalist sense, however, but instead in the sense of a universal form of internal governance – by consent of the governed through elections – within sovereign states. It is not universalism in the sense of embracing global governance, but the assertion of a value as being universal for application within sovereign nation-states.

This democracy-promotion idealism is not necessarily inconsistent with liberal internationalism, and that has generally been the position of its Democratic Party supporters, who have embraced both. Still, if you are a liberal internationalist, for whom a principal commitment is hostility to sovereignty as such, in favor of global institutions, then this democracy promotion is not really what interests you, because this democracy-promotion is about political order and values within a sovereign state, not about reducing the importance of sovereignty as such.

Democracy-promotion has had very important intellectuals and supporters within the Democratic Party – some of whom have gone into the Obama administration. Michael McFaul of Stanford University is the most important among the intellectuals and academics. But it is not very clear to those of us on the outside how much influence the ideal of democracy promotion has within the administration, notwithstanding that it has a pedigree in the Democratic Party quite separate from neoconservatism.

Update: My reservations about the “new liberal realism,” in a piece from 2006 (slightly revised from publication form). I have about the same reservations today.

The new liberal realism is profoundly unattractive–as though liberal idealists, long constrained by their
moral Calvinism to worship at the altar of severe Wilsonian idealism, were suddenly freed, through the
failure of conservative idealism, the failure of neo-conservatism, to celebrate a Carnival of realism, petit
moralistes, catechists of the Categorical Imperative, until now sternly watched over and instructively
smacked on the head to prevent dozing off in the Church of Human Rights by the likes of Michael
Ignatieff, Kenneth Roth, Samantha Power, Geoffrey Robinson, Jimmy Carter, Claire Short, Louise Arbour, but
the seminarians of human rights idealism are suddenly freed to dance drunk in the avenues of dubious virtue, to
party in the sinful precincts of hard realism usually reserved to the morally benighted Brent Scowcroft and