Realism and Liberalism in U.S. Foreign Policy

Stephen Walt poses an interesting thought experiment on his blog. He asks, “What if Obama delivered Bush’s second inaugural address?”  In the speech, Bush advances all the claims of a liberal foreign policy, emphasizing the role of the United States in promoting democratization and liberty around the world. Based on this exercise, Walt arrives at three conclusions:

First, when you like a political leader, you’ll tend to like what he or she says no matter what the actual words are. Conversely, if you’ve already decided you don’t like someone, there’s little they could do to convince you. Second, liberal values are deeply infused into American political culture, which is why either Bush or Obama could use a lot of the same phrases and invoke the same sweeping language and get a lot of heads to nod in assent. Third, as long as the United States is very, very powerful, there will be a strong outward thrust to its foreign policy, even when vital interests aren’t at stake and even when meddling abroad could make things worse rather than better.

I think Walt’s conclusions are correct as far as they go. But he stops short of the most important (fourth) conclusion. U.S. foreign policy has often engaged in naked power politics, pursuing realist objectives couched in the rhetoric of liberalism. Throughout the Cold War period, the United States frequently justified foreign policy decisions in the name of “protecting democracy” and “promoting liberty” blended with concerns of fighting communism. This blending is certainly not unique to U.S. foreign policy, but Americans are perhaps distinctive in the degree to which we emphasize the role of the United States as the “city on the hill,” occupying not just a powerful position, but also representing a powerful moral force for good in global geopolitics.

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