President Obama’s speech yesterday in Cairo was aimed at beginning a new relationship between the United States and Muslims across the world, but it also formally laid out some broader foreign policy principles of his administration. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but Obama has now ruled out the possibility of overthrowing foreign governments simply to promote democracy:

I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years ... So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.


The Bush administration had previously announced a policy that they would not simply promote stability at the expense of democratic reform. Foreign policy experts saw this as a departure from traditional Republican Party realism and a shift toward neo-conservatism. Similarly, they now argue that the Obama administration is adopting realism (with rhetorical idealism) as a cornerstone of his foreign policy.

I think this is misstated; Obama’s administration is unlikely to be a purely realist protagonist. While Obama shares realism’s pragmatic bent, he also believes the United States should serve at least a limited role in promoting more democratic states. In his speech, Obama laid out a thin conception of what basic characteristics a responsible and responsive state should possess. Obama specifically mentioned protection of religious freedom, respect for women’s rights and minorities and regular democratic elections. These aren’t consequential considerations for realists.

While Obama believes the United States should promote these liberal ideals, he does not believe that overthrowing a dictatorial government will do much to advance these goals. Just War theorists like Michael Walzer have argued — I believe correctly — that intervening on behalf of citizens to establish a desirable political system is neither itself desirable nor likely to succeed. A political community must win its own freedom without the help of an outside force for it to be truly successful. Political freedom is something that needs to be achieved from the people within their own state. This is a process that gives the new political community a collective history and character that can carry it forward as a cohesive and stable state.

The Obama administration hopes that outside of exercising military force, the United States can still can promote reforms by reprising America’s role as a beacon of freedom (closing Guantánamo, ending torture) and nudging governments forward to give their people enough political space so they can achieve freedom for themselves. Unfortunately, even if states were to acquiesce to Obama, democratic reform is still likely to be painfully slow for Americans and reformists alike.


The views expressed in this blog do not represent the views or opinions of Generations United.