In short, Obama did not in fact run a “realist” foreign policy, because he doesn’t fully embrace a realist worldview, didn’t appoint many (any?) realists to key positions, and never really tried to dismantle the bipartisan consensus behind the grand strategy of liberal hegemony. As I’ve noted before, a genuinely “realist” foreign policy would have left Afghanistan promptly in 2009, converted our “special relationships” in the Middle East to normal ones, explicitly rejected further NATO expansion, eschewed “regime change” and other forms of social engineering in foreign countries such as Libya or Syria, and returned to the broad strategy of restrained “offshore balancing” that served the United States so well in the past.
Now I may be just a simple country international relations scholar, but I know that dog won’t hunt. You can’t argue that Trump isn’t a realist because Obama is a realist in Column A and then disavow Obama’s association with realism in Column B. Indeed, Walt’s assessment of Obama focuses on the noisy aspects of his foreign policy (Libya) at the expense of his more long-lasting moves (the rebalancing to East Asia). It’s a surprisingly non-realist assessment.
In both of his columns, Walt makes the perfect the enemy of the good when it comes to realism. By his extremely stringent criteria, there will only be a realist president if that elected official got a PhD in international relations from the University of Chicago and then hired the ghost of George Kennan to be secretary of state. It’s too restrictive. By these criteria, George W. Bush was not a neoconservative and no president has been a liberal internationalist. The world is a messy place, and no politician will ever pursue a policy that is fully consistent with a theoretical paradigm. Yet that appears to be the realists’ threshold for labeling a leader a ‘realist.’
Both Trump’s campaign staff and Obama himself have made statements averring their sympathy with the realist worldview. Other commentators have also noted that, in their own ways, Trump and Obama seem pretty realist. So why, in a world when realists constantly bemoan their marginalized influence over American foreign policy, aren’t realists embracing these politically powerful patrons?
I don’t have a definitive answer to this question, but let me offer three possible hypotheses.
The first is theoretical. Realists have spent a century building up a theoretical edifice to explain how the world works. Indeed, one of the problems with discussing whether someone is a realist is that there are so many academic variations of realism — classical realism, offensive realism, defensive realism, structural neorealism, neoclassical realism — that one begins to wonder whether anyone is a realist anymore. At the same time, realists also offer normative prescriptions of what to do about American foreign policy. But sometimes these two approaches to realism do not mesh well. Both Trump and Obama’s realist-friendly statements expose this contradiction.
The second is anthropological. In my close field observation of modern academic realists, I’ve noticed that their favorite intellectual position in the world is to be ostracized and right. That is to say, realists like to believe themselves to be speaking deep powerful truths at the same time that no one actually listens to them. It’s the ideal intellectual posture to hold, because it means that a realist can make bold pronouncements that have no real world impact because, ostensibly, no one cares what they say. If, God forbid, real-live politicians started doing what they advocated, they’d have real power and responsibility on their hands, which is scary. Better to remain cloistered and right and to get one’s hair mussed.
The third is political. As I’ve said before, the most realist-friendly politicians in recent years have not been the most admired leaders. True, Obama is pretty popular at this point, but that has little to do with his foreign policy. And to be fair, it seems that non-realists have been the most eager to label Trump as a realist. So there are good and valid political reasons that realists want to disassociate themselves and their worldview from these individuals.
I don’t doubt that realists disapprove of either Trump or Obama. I just don’t think they’re doing it for realist reasons.