Obama, a Fool or a Naif on Foreign Policy

Those who remember 2000 remember George Bush’s quixotic pursuit of “human dignity,” whil Gore talked about “human rights.” The reason was that Bush wanted a non-interventionist foreign policy that would let us stay home. “Human rights” is associated with International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law, and implies obligations. “Human Dignity” is a squishy concept that means nothing, so the Bush 2000 campaign embraced it.

So does the Bush ’08 campaign, incarnated in the form of Barack Obama:

Obama never uses the soaring language of Bush’s freedom agenda, preferring instead to talk about enhancing people’s economic prospects, civil society and—his key word—”dignity.” He rejects Bush’s obsession with elections and political rights, and argues that people’s aspirations are broader and more basic—including food, shelter, jobs. “Once these aspirations are met,” he told The New York Times’s James Traub, “it opens up space for the kind of democratic regimes we want.” This is a view of democratic development that is slow, organic and incremental, usually held by conservatives.

Fareed Zakaria’s latest piece,which includes that piece of Bush IIIism from Barack Obama, is disturbing reading. Either Obama is a fool or a naif, or Zakaria is complicit in deceiving the American people.

I think all three are true.

  • Obama would be a fool if he actualyl believed in “realism,” an economics-ignorant school of foreign policy which is concerned with questions such as how to balance against Germany, what we should do when France begins mining our harbors, etc.
  • Obama is a naif if he supports “realism” because Daily Kos thinks its cool.
  • Zakaria is deceiving the American people if he believes that Obama believes something else — for instance, if he believes in Functionalism or Idealism — and is calling that Realism because Daily Kos thinks its cool.

Obama is so unsure of what he believes with regards to foreign polic that Obama has hired 300 people to tell him what to think. This is a typical mistake of naifs who know they are naive: they think knowledge is like a bucket of water, so the more you have in one room, the more you have. It’s the fallacy of the mythical man month, a concept I expect Obama has never heard about.

Update: Tom is impressed, but does not say why.

22 thoughts on “Obama, a Fool or a Naif on Foreign Policy”

  1. You might be right about Zakaria getting his terminology mixed up. But if you use the term realist loosely, he has a point: Obama talks big on foreign policy, but not as big as McCain or Bush. Glancing through the wikipedia articles you linked suggests that he and McCain would both be better described as following a mixture of two or more of the formal foreign policy philosophies.

  2. I think you are misrepresenting Realism here. The economic basis of power is a core principle of most Realist thought. As for the Daily Kos article, the author seems to start by criticizing an epistomological postion, and then sides into a claimed political-ideological position that is not held by a lot of Realists. He can do that, in part, because Realism is a very broad tradition in foreign policy analyis. There are classical realists, neorealists, offensive realists, defensive realists, constructivists of a realist bent, self-described liberals who lament that they live in a realist world, etc. Realism, besides a focus of “power” and something like “rational” states, covers a lot of ground. To much, probably, since “power” can be defined in different ways and the time horizon for “rational” decisions varies from one analyst to another.

    Reading Tom’s work, I’ve generally pigeonholed him in the broad Realist tradition (rules require secuity, alliances are useful, don’t get hung up on irrelevant cultural differences or levels of democracy, rely on self-interest to promote order, etc.). He can correct me on this, of course. He has a better appreciation of the economic factors than many military analysts do, but in that he’s returning to the center of the Realist tradition.

  3. Thanks for the comments!

    Michael,

    Obama’s talk on foreign policies tends to lack substance, except when he pushes economic unilateralism (not ratifying the trade agreeement with Colombia, renegotiating NAFTA, etc.) [2]

    Dan McIntosh,

    You’re right that international relations is composed of traditions, as opposed to clear definitions. It’s a weakness of the field. They sometimes blur into each other, as with neorealism and neoidealism.

    Still, if I would give a summary of the two major traditions, it would be

    Realism: states are rational
    Idealism: regime type matters

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/07/24/obama-in-berlin-talking-about-nothing-in-particular.html
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/04/03/against-the-new-core.html

  4. Realism: states are rational
    Idealism: regime type matters

    It’s possible to hold both those view simultaneously. I agree completely about the lack of clear definitions. It’s endemic to political “science” as a whole. It’s probably unavoidable.

  5. Dan McIntosh,

    It’s possible to hold both those view simultaneously. I agree completely about the lack of clear definitions. It’s endemic to political “science” as a whole. It’s probably unavoidable.

    Political science has not been fully submitted to the quantitative revolution [1] yet. Many political scientists view their study as “politics” or “international politics” inststead of “political science” or “international political science” [2]. To the extent that the researchers are ‘political science,’ they exist without a strong paradigm and so can’t engage in normal science [3].

    All that they love about working in their field must be overthrown befrore it becomes scientific.

    Michael,

    Recognized. However, the point stands: Obama’s foreign policy is lacks substance except for economic unilateralism. McCain does not have this problem [4].

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/07/07/the-destruction-of-the-academy-in-the-united-states.html
    [2] http://cominganarchy.com/2005/08/17/rmc-courses/
    [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_science
    [4] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/07/06/china-and-the-presidential-election.html

  6. A large part of the problem is that politics is about contesting goals and actions. Another is that the subject can be affected by the act of “explaining” it. This leads the study of politics (including the definition of “politics” itself) to be based on essentially contested concepts.

    Many political scientists don’t want “normal science” because it places out-of-bounds the questions that brought them to the field in the first place. The subfield of political theory, for example, is almost completely normative and philosophical. Other political scientists, starting around the 1960s, engaged in a “behaviorist revolution,” patterned on simplistic view of the natural sciences, that divided the field for years. It essentially involved counting things and looking for patterns. Within its limits, some of it is quite good, and it has gotten better in the “post-behaviorist” period by incorporating a greater sensitivity for the perils of building models of what is sometimes a multi-level non-linear self-reflexive creative process.

    I doubt political science will ever be a normal science so long as it involves people studying (and recreating) themselves. Some areas–such as the application of genetics and game theory–are more promising because they deal with the structural realities that humans have greater difficulty changing. These approaches sometimes provide a larger context for the interesting questions. But then, I’m the sort that believes there is a “real” world than we can understand better (but never perfectly) by critical observation and abduction. In political science that statement is itself controversial. I can’t “prove” it any more than others can “prove” their worldview to me.

  7. The hope is the funding agencies (National Science Foundation, etc), who have done so much to push the quantitative revolution in the social sciences. When I attended an NSF grant lecture some years ago, two themes were emphasized

    The NSF wants ways to detect and detour IEDs
    The NSF wants objective measures of how good research is

    Destroying the old study of politics is an important goal for the government.

    Relatedly, possibly reversing this makes Barack Obama dangerous [1].

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/05/27/william-ayers-actually-dangerous.html

  8. Its interesting that one would call a graduate of Harvard or Columbia a fool…

    Where McCain graduated from the Naval Academy…which, based on collegeboard.com’s GPA and SAT score statistics are comparable to schools like Northeastern University in Boston, which was recently reviewed by Forbes magazine as one of the top 10 worst colleges in the country.

  9. ATB,

    Your comment is typical of the bigoted faction of the Obama campaign [1]. You responded to specific criticisms by citing group differences. A perfect analogy would be someone responded to an attack on McCain’s stance on science [2], say, by pointing out that Obama is black.

    Sam,

    Very persuasive. 😉

    [1] http://dmhallowell.blogspot.com/2008/08/mccain-showing-his-age.html#idc-container
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2008/04/06/why-i-support-john-mccain.html

  10. tdaxp,

    I am merely comparing the education of both candidates. Why is that wrong?

    You blatantly stated that Obama is a fool or naif, and equally so I am pointing out the irony in the various candidates educations.

    Also in your link 1, he brings up a good point…why elect someone whos biggest issue will be his health?

  11. ATB

    Perhaps you have an article on global warming?

    Any consideration of global warming needs to consider that China and India are each going to add more than the US contribution of green house gases to the atmosphere over the next decade or two. China has already surpassed the United States in green house gas production. India is not that far behind.

    That means that even if the United States reduces our production of greenhouse gases to zero, the world will still get more green house gas added to the atmosphere than is done today.

    What that suggests to me is that more attention sould be paid to sinks than to sources because China and India are not going to keep their populations in poverty in order to achieve some green house gas limit.

  12. Mark,

    You’re absolutely right, but global climate change is a global problem (good name right?). As citizens of the world we need to work together to combat the effects of our technology, and our behavior. This shouldn’t hinder economic growth, it should expand it. Green energy is another industry to introduce, which produces jobs everywhere around the world, non-outsourceable.

    Tdaxp,

    Regardless of whether you believe in global warming or not, you must surely believe in clean air and water, sanitation, and good health? Fortunately, the strategies to support those things correlate with strategies to combat global warming, so regardless of what you believe, we progress toward the same goal.

    Also, one point in the summary of the book compared the costs of preventing a glacier from melting and building a levy system around nations. The thing with that is, if the icecaps melted, we would all undoubtedly be submerged in water…at least along the coasts (where I am)

  13. I was under the impression that the core principle of Realism was simply the idea that States are rational and try to maximize relative power? Because of this, I found the Kos article to be off the mark. The author of the Kos article seems to think that Realism can be applied to health care or so called “civil rights?” I’m not sure how realism fits with domestic issues like these? Perhaps a State would be acting in a Realist manner if its leadership believed it was maximizing power by giving its citizens universal health-care? Again, this seems a little odd, as Realism usually refers to States maximizing power within the anarchical international system.

    Judging by Obama’s rhetoric, past political affiliations, and past voting record, he would seem to fit the Constructivist worldview the best? Most of all, Obama has said himself that “words matter.” To the Constructivist, the words people use are representative of the ideas people share within a socially constructed social structure.

  14. Seerov,

    I was under the impression that the core principle of Realism was simply the idea that States are rational and try to maximize relative power? Because of this, I found the Kos article to be off the mark.

    Exactly right. The Kos kids are having fun by pretending to be knowledgeable, and repeating terms that they have heard educated-sounding people say.

    Judging by Obama’s rhetoric, past political affiliations, and past voting record, he would seem to fit the Constructivist worldview the best? Most of all, Obama has said himself that “words matter.” To the Constructivist, the words people use are representative of the ideas people share within a socially constructed social structure.

    I hadn’t thought about this, but it makes sense.

    I’m not sure if Obama is that knowledgeable or thoughtful in the first place, however.

    ATB,

    Thanks for the link.

    The Obama ad makes claims without offering any support, so on much of it I really don’t know what the Obama campaign is talking about.

    “Lose track” of course is an age-loaded pejorative word. It’s as even a statement as referring to Obama’s shuck and jive routine.

    The Obama ad does not address Obama’s previous support for carbon taxes, including taxing dirty energy. I’m not sure how that wouldn’t be a regressive tax, because of course the poor pay more for energy relative to their total income than the rich.

    (Not that it such can’t be a good idea — Obama, if he still supports it, would just be deceptive in his support for his tax plan).

  15. ATB

    You’re absolutely right, but global climate change is a global problem (good name right?). As citizens of the world we need to work together to combat the effects of our technology, and our behavior. This shouldn’t hinder economic growth, it should expand it. Green energy is another industry to introduce, which produces jobs everywhere around the world, non-outsourceable.

    The genocide in the former Yugoslavia was Europe’s problem but nothing was done to stop it until the United States got involved. The genocides in Rwanda and Darfur were not stopped because the United States did not get involved. So forgive me for thinking that nothing is going to be done about Global Climate Change unless the United States does it. Since China and India are going to improve their economies in order to lift their populations out of poverty. Given current technologies, that means that both countries will be increasing their carbon dioxide output into the atmosphere by more than total US carbon dioxide production, we will have to both develop sources of energy that are both cheaper than petroleum and that produce less carbon dioxide. I think that Robert Zubrin has the most promising suggestion for how to do that. We will also have to develop massive carbon sinks, such as fertilizing the blue water area of the oceans with iron powder to sequester some of the carbon dioxide.

    The other nice thing about Zubrin’s plan is that it makes petroleum less valuable which will make the world a safer place since bad people will have less money to make mischief.

  16. Mark,

    in reference to china and india, why don’t they just introduce green technology as a luxury industry if it is too expensive for the general public? like a gucci bag, or sports car.

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