In praise of pragmatic foreign policy

US presidents often swing between realism and idealism. Obama should reject both.

President-elect Obama will soon take charge of a government that is materially and morally depleted. One thing he will not be short of, however, is advice on how to run the world. Among those most willing to offer him guidance on foreign policy will be the proponents of realism and idealism. He would do well to ignore both and instead seek an approach that reflects another "ism" – pragmatism.

When not offering advice, the realists and idealists are usually found debating each other. The realists – exemplified by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – say it is anarchy out there so every country must put its own interests first. They see the accumulation of power as essential to ensuring a country's survival, even if that negatively affects other countries.

The idealists – exemplified by President Woodrow Wilson – believe, a bit like Rodney King, that all nations ought to be able to just get along. They say countries should cooperate because all will be better off and that, in today's ever more globalized world, no country can go it alone.

To be sure, the realist/idealist debate is not the only one in international affairs. The experts place themselves in many camps as they do battle over a world with which some of them have had little contact. But they are the two colors journalists and pundits often use when painting a picture of foreign policy.

George W. Bush was described as coming to power as a hard-nosed realist who scorned enterprises such as nation building. Now a common story line has him leaving office as an idealist who believes there is nothing a good dose of democracy – spoon-fed by massive US intervention, if need be – won't cure. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was said to have arrived in Washington as an idealist, only to leave as a realist. Having to confront the limits to which other countries are willing and able to cooperate can make a leader feel mugged by reality.

Can a president's worldview really change so radically? Or is it just a change in tactics and the rhetoric used to disguise them? Regardless, Obama should avoid the grand theories and base his policies on pragmatism. Pragmatism does not rigidly adhere to any ideology, but instead simply asks: Will this work? That does not imply ignoring our principles, but it does require an appreciation for the art of the possible. Pragmatism, like bipartisanship, is promised far more often than it is delivered. Hillary Clinton asserted in her confirmation hearings this week that the new administration will have a pragmatic foreign policy. That won't be easy, as it is more likely to produce results in the long run than sound bites for the next news cycle. And her effectiveness abroad may be limited by the pressure she'll face to respond to interest groups at home. It will also lead to criticism from realists and idealists. Consider missile defense and NATO expansion. Missile defense is popular with realists because it fits their philosophy and because they are often found in think tanks supported by defense contractors. It is a system that does not work, however, to combat a threat that doesn't exist. $10 billion a year is being spent to deploy it in the US, and the Bush team has pushed strongly for sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. That has irritated both our European allies and our potential adversary, Russia.

The administration has also pressed for NATO membership for new democracies such as Georgia and Ukraine. But those two countries have demonstrated that it takes more than an election to make a real democracy. The institutions that are the foundation of democracy cannot be built overnight, and NATO membership is not going to create them instantaneously.

Georgia and Ukraine should therefore undergo a long trial period before they are considered for NATO membership – especially since the former treats its minorities poorly, harasses the opposition press, and started last summer's confrontation with Russia. Contrary to what Senator McCain proclaimed during the presidential campaign, we aren't all Georgians now. If we were, we would either be reduced to making hollow threats or risking a confrontation our military can't afford.

While Russia clearly overreacted in Georgia and is showing antidemocratic tendencies, the US needs Russia's cooperation on a host of issues far more than it needs more weak members of NATO. Some armchair generals would rather confront Russia than let it have its own sphere of influence, but there is little real choice.

The main reason these policies are being pushed is that they are part of Mr. Bush's attempt to set a legacy. Like Guantánamo and torture, Mr. Obama should end them as soon as possible, whether or not the realists or idealists like it.

Dennis Jett, a former US ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs. His most recent book is "Why American Foreign Policy Fails: Unsafe at Home and Despised Abroad."

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