Now that he is the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama is going to face increasing criticism that he is naïve on foreign policy. His willingness to talk with “enemy states” defies the prevailing political realist view that nation-states should act to maximize their own power and self-interest. The doctrine of political realism makes no room for a politics that is oriented toward changing relationships among parties in a way that furthers the larger good. It cannot conceive of anything even like a larger good, except perhaps for some kind of balance of power that allows one’s own state to retain the upper hand. In short, the politics of political realism is a politics of bellicosity and power-as-stick.
If indeed Obama is rejecting this kind of politics, is he being naïve? Only if political realism is truly effective. But the fact is that it is not. Throughout the world over the past two generations, at the domestic and international levels, productive change has resulted from a politics geared toward creating better relationships between parties. Ethnic divisions heal better when the parties find common ground, not when one party vanquishes the other. International relations improve after years of dialogue at all levels, from governmental, to unofficial (like the old Dartmouth conferences), to people-to-people exchanges. The lesson is that power-with is much more formidable than power-over. If we want to be truly realistic about making the world a safer place, and maintaining a respected role as an international leader, we need to reject political-realist bellicosity in favor of a politics of relationship building.