Even before his presidency began, Barack Obama articulated a foreign-policy course markedly different from that of his immediate predecessors. Not only did he present himself as the anti-Bush, but he also indicated that his administration would take a different approach to national security than had the Clinton administration. He was to be, in his aides’ terms, a “realist,” much in the mold of George H. W. Bush. As his then–chief of staff Rahm Emanuel put it in 2010: “Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist. If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41.” Nor has this view been confined to the White House; many commentators across the political spectrum have remarked that the Obama administration epitomized what realism would look like in practice, even under a Republican president.
Nearly halfway through his second term, it is time to take stock. Is President Obama actually a realist? The answer matters, particularly for Republicans and conservatives, who traditionally have claimed the mantle of realism in foreign affairs. Potential 2016 presidential candidates are beginning to think through what line they will take on foreign policy, and the notion that Obama’s approach has been realist would no doubt lead many to recoil from realism.
More from CNAS
CommentaryTwo Cheers for Esper’s Plan to Reassert Civilian Control of the Pentagon
The longest-ever gap in civilian leadership atop the Department of Defense came to an end on July 23, when Mark Esper was sworn in as secretary of defense. His presence in the...
By Loren DeJonge Schulman, Alice Hunt Friend & Mara Karlin
PodcastCNAS experts break down Trump's new National Security Strategy
CNAS Deputy Director of Studies dives into the Trump administration's National Security Strategy, talking strategy development, messaging, and implementation with CNAS experts...
By Loren DeJonge Schulman, Jerry Hendrix, Ilan Goldenberg & Daniel Kliman
Shaping U.S. Policy on Islamic State Amid Shifting Politics
An ABC News-Washington Post poll conducted after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks found that 73% of Americans support increased airstrikes against Islamic State and 60% favor increas...
By Richard Fontaine
Introducing Agenda SecDef
One year from now, somewhere in a small suite of offices at the Pentagon, a team of civil servants, military officers, and a smattering of outside civilians will be hard at wo...
By Loren DeJonge Schulman & Shawn Brimley