In a little-noticed passage in Robert Gates’s new memoir, the former defense secretary recounts a trip he took to Azerbaijan in the spring of 2010. His mission was to hand the reigning dictator, Ilham Aliyev, a note from President Barack Obama, hailing the importance of the two countries’ relations. Aliyev had been grousing about the U.S. military using his land as a stopover along the supply route to Afghanistan. Just “showing up” brought him back in line, Gates writes, adding, approvingly, “Neither the letter nor I mentioned human rights.”
More than five years into Obama’s presidency, the single word that best sums up his foreign policy is “realist”—in some cases, as one former adviser told me, “hard-nosed,” even “cold” realist.
Like all postwar presidents, Obama speaks in hallowed terms about America’s global mission. But his actions reveal an aversion to missionary zeal. He has ended the regime-changing wars he inherited, and done much to avoid new ones. He rarely hectors foreign leaders about their internal affairs, at least in public. He suffers no ideological hang-ups about negotiating with dreadful rulers or sworn enemies, such as Iran, for the sake of national-security interests. To ease America’s way out of Afghanistan, he has cozied up to Central Asian autocrats and tolerated Pakistan’s duplicity. With almost clinical detachment, he has reassessed U.S. relationships in East Asia, embracing authoritarian regimes in Myanmar and Vietnam to promote trade and check an expansive China.
Obama’s belief in American values isn’t entirely rhetorical; he will sometimes place ideals above interests, though rarely when the two collide. He seems unmoved by the triumphalism that animated George W. Bush’s foreign policy, in part because he sees the bloody, futile legacy it left in the sands of Iraq—but also because it’s just not his style. During his first presidential campaign, when he said he had “enormous sympathy” for the foreign policy of President George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft—ultimate realists—many thought Obama was just taking a whack at his predecessor, H.W.’s son. Maybe he was, but he also meant it. Perhaps more than any president since Dwight Eisenhower, Obama defines the national interest narrowly and acts accordingly. And in following this course, he has been much more successful than his critics allow. In fact, his deepest failures have occurred when he has veered off his path.