Cotemporary US Foreign Policy: Realism, Idealism or Something Else?


The modern U.S foreign policy under the Obama administration cannot be purely classified into any singly known international relations theory. There was a sharp and surging contrast between his administration and that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. The hot pursuit to adopt a comprehensive realist/liberalist international relations theory is eminent and cannot be ignored either. The contemporary U.S foreign policy undoubtedly appears to strike a balance between realism and liberalism. It must be something else completely. A critical and more pragmatic argument can be directed towards Osama’s move to move the U.S troops out of Iraq. He has equally been emphatic on the dignity of international organizations alongside weaving and binding together mature democracies. Mixed criticisms have hitherto followed with some perceiving it as a replica of the Bush administration while others feel that this is in favor of U.S capitalistic ideology. To be precise, however, proponents of this powerful strategy may see it as the most adept means of harmonizing foreign policy in a world which is politically at quagmire.

This paper contrasts classic realism and liberalism with U.S foreign policy under President Obama and attempts to answer the question of realism, liberalism, or something else.

What is Realism?

The world political ideologies and especially those concerning foreign policies cannot be debated effectively without embracing the global empirical influence. The exposition of the US foreign policy is a worthy illustration of an international policy deeply infiltrating the intonations of the world. There have been argumentative phrases like the impacts of globalization, climate change, and global warming, terrorism just to mention a few, in which the US government has played an upper hand in what most political analysts would call unrealistic and pre-eminent encroachment on private matters of other countries. In this respect, United States has taken a global dimension in emerging socio-political and economic issues. Moreover, even as the debate on US foreign policies heightens, less has been addressed in modern studies of political science. Is the world conscious of this so-called US foreign protectionist policy towards the less fortunate and disadvantaged nations? Or is the US foreign policy proposition beyond cheap publicity and primacy as purported by the opponents? Can this aggression towards foreign policy be empirically measured?

Realism, so to speak, would focus on the genuine creation of justified, free and open administrative structures void of any form of coercion, intimidation, or corrupted and misinterpreted rule of law. It would also gear itself towards the promotion of such systems politically perceived by the majority as democratic (Lieber 2005). Various forms of power that are encompassed in a democracy are various forms of power that are encompassed in a democracy are exercised here namely cultural, economic, and technological power. The key objective in a realistic structure is to build, enhance and promote rather than overreaching and subduing the weaker ones. The means of harnessing power does not matter whatsoever given that the accrued benefits belong to the state. In sharp contrast though, the Obama administration does not leave an imprint of an indelible mark here.

What is Liberalism?

Liberalism focuses primarily on the initiation, care, and universal promotion of liberal democratic governments which do not abet unjust human practices. there is inevitably a strong foundation for the rule of law as well as in-fights among the mature democracies. According to Walt (2005), the 1980s witnessed serious aggression between the US and the Soviet Union with the eminent enmity that communism brought. The political ideology of communism was a big threat to the Americans at this time. Ronald Reagan, a soldier during the cold war was then implored by the U.S to go to Washington and divert any possible threat that could be posed by communism. Even as this was happening, the United States was highly alarmed at how Japan was growing economically. Unfortunately, Japan’s economic strategies failed and as a result, its economy slumped while the US “…enjoyed eight years of robust economic growth…” (Walt, 2005). In a nutshell, U.S was in a hectic search for allies bearing in mind that it had gained superpower status by this time. It deployed a policy of “fit or quit” by embracing those who gave it support and punishing the “rogue ones”.

Up to date, U.S has tirelessly and consistently attempted to persuade and convince several countries to acknowledge their “liberal capitalist world order” (Walt, 2005).

Recent events have shed more light on this debate. For example, the historical September 11, 2001 attack of the twin towers was a wake-up call in the US probably in the wrong direction altogether. Brzezinski (2004) referred to it as the “power of weakness” in the sense that the weapon that was used to shake this world power was merely a box cutter and a fellow ready to sacrifice his life. This was like an impotent attack that surprisingly left too much pain and terror to this nation. How then did the US react to this? Was the attack a national or global affair? It developed a desire to have full control of the so-called terrorists and terror countries. Besides, it aimed at assimilating technological advancement for the sole purpose of solidifying its power in the pretext of foreign policy. Brzezinski argues that amidst all these happenings, U.S continued to act smart by playing “lip service to democracy” (2004).

Tracing back from history, the US was quite relieved when Communism collapsed. This meant one thing: its expansionist plan would be right on track, spreading its tentacles far and wide and upholding the superpower status. Inevitably, this was about power, influence, control, and dominance well calculated to infer such aspects as protecting global security.

In one of its many foreign policies, U.S has instituted its internal control mechanisms in targeted countries. A case study on modernization and infrastructural development are commonplace. Odom and his co-author Dujarric (2004) in their famous book America’s Inadvertent Empire concur that there seems to be a growing dependency syndrome that has infected most developing and underdeveloped countries. This has been perpetuated and at the same time aggravated by the US foreign policy on matters of borrowing alongside government grants. According to these authors, this foreign policy will not mark any positive difference even in the next decade. Poor countries will persist to be poor while the rich will continue to grow economically. If this is not a paradox, then it will remain to be a long nonending concern.

The U.S invasion of Iraq over the alleged weapons of mass destruction and consequent execution of Saddam Hussein is a vivid example of its foreign policies. As Lieber (2005) notes, many advantages are enjoyed whenever power and supremacy are on board. This is the policy that the United States pursued before its engagement in the War. The writer further expounds that power does not guarantee influence all the time. This is the very reason why the US did not get the simple majority support in the Iraq War. The nine of fifteen votes could not be reached by the United Nations Security Council to allow this superpower to stamp its authority in Iraq. Surprisingly, even those countries that were mostly assisted by the US like Chile and Mexico rejected to support it (Lieber, 2005). This must have been an open lesson especially to the US sycophants and political technocrats that the so-called foreign policies are mere ideologies to harness power, primacy, and influence.

Owing to the bear reason that no country could compare itself with the U.S in military and arms race, she went ahead and attacked Iraq. This was a “foreign policy” that left thousands of innocent Iraqis with dire consequences. The innocent civilians are yet to come to terms with the humanitarian crisis that followed after the war. What about the U.S allegations that Saddam was harboring weapons of mass destruction? Indeed, he was later executed based on these claims. The world is still skeptical over what the U.S targeted in this Middle East country.


This sheds more light on the emerging yet ever-changing conventional practices related to human rights, the sovereign status of democracies, and the application of justice as outlined in the international just practices code. Has the Obama administration been on the persuasive end to solicit for international support as a power pyramid plan? Some proponents of these foreign policies may perhaps be right in their judgments. Nevertheless, strategic foreign policies agenda which is free of political ideologies and witch-hunting is a welcome idea. Lieber argues that “…a grand strategy put into practice can be as important as the substance of that strategy…” (2005). If the U.S foreign policy is anything to go by, then the empirical outcome of these strategies should be applauded by all and sundry. As noted earlier, poor countries are least likely to jumpstart their economies from the “grand” strategies asserted by the western world, and in this case, U.S. Realists have been criticized for overstating the low probability of other countries benefiting from the US foreign policies. To say the least, this may be partially justified. However, it is equally questionable why the U.S has had several grand strategies which have not translated to expected results. There are more questions than answers regarding this. Why just the United States and not continental Europe or the Far East?

All the same, U.S is likely to be overcommitted with international matters at the expense of its affairs. Political analysts argue that this is the very reason why such a flimsy set of weapons was used to bring down a giant superpower in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Mandelbaum (2000) provokes some thoughtful insight when he asserts “if the United States provides useful…services…to the world, why does…foreign policy provoke such frequent, widespread and bitter criticism?” The author further elaborates on the September 11 terrorist act which was overwhelmingly condemned by the U.S. Although acts of terror are as old as mankind, this seemed like the climax. The underlying rationale why Al Qaeda launched this terror attack was to topple the monarch that was reining Saudi Arabia by that time. The U.S was a close associate of this dynasty by “stationing of American troops within the country’s borders (Mandelbaum 2000).

It must be Something Else

It is imperative and inevitable to explore the contemporary U.S foreign policy under President Obama to evaluate and conclude on the past and modern policy genetic traits. To begin with, the Obama administration often reiterated that Islam is not a foe and that the war on terrorism has little to do with U.S engagement. Moreover, the United States needs to have a breathless pursuit over nuclear programs alongside other issues. There is a myriad of foreign policies as stipulated in the current administrative structure. From the previous analysis, however, we wonder why the U.S was interested in controlling Saudi Arabia. Was it a strategy to fight terrorism emerging from the Middle East? But then, is it the only U.S facing the threat of terrorism in the contemporary world? Sincerely speaking, underlying interests contrary to the war against terror is evident here. There is a lot to be desired in the manner in which the U.S has been handling international matters altogether.

The United States government and its people uphold strictly the principle of democracy and rule of law. That is why political leadership is democratically elected into office by the people. Similarly, constitutional office bearers like the Supreme Court judges have to be appointed into office legally by keenly adhering to existing laws and statutes. Moreover, Congress has the mandate to make or amend laws that then become legally binding to all citizens. The leadership synopsis is well understood by everybody and contravening of the law can be challenged through the judicial system.

This is a similar leadership arrangement in most democratic governments. To this end, critics of U.S aggression have always questioned the appointing authority in world governance. In other terms, why has the U.S government assumed total leadership over the world? Who appointed or directed it to do so? It may indeed be a paradox for a country claiming to pursue democracy while totalitarian ideology is the top agenda in its international matters. The basic role of democracy is missing here (Mandelbaum, 2000). The main grievance is that of representation. The U.S has taken a representative role in governing the world. This has led to numerous protests which can be directly linked to U.S “fatherhood” spirit. A clear-cut illustration of this can be traced back to the climate change and global warming debate. As a precaution to reduce greenhouse emissions which are believed to contribute significantly to global warming, countries of the world convened in Japan and unanimously agreed to stick to the Kyoto protocol. Unfortunately, U.S failed to honor the agreement despite being one of the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases. Besides, the recently concluded Copenhagen talks on climate change ended in disillusionment with the U.S not walking the talk as a world leader. Its foreign policies should have been handy at this time when the world is struggling to come to terms with the devastating effects of climate change yet to be experienced.

Such double standard by world leaders has led to widespread protests in the past and which “foreign policies” are yet to address (Hardt & Negri, 2004).

Fukuyama (2006) believes that George W. Bush had become neoconservative by the threshold of his second term. Bush was once quoted to have said that that the U.S military is not meant to build the nation but rather to “fight and win the war” (Fukuyama, 2006). Moreover, his foreign policy advisor Condoleezza Rice added her voice to this matter when she asserted that US troops had no duty escorting children to school. These assertions were coherent enough to brand the U.S as non-committed to the path of democracy. George W. Bush was more than ready to extend his “war and win” agenda to Iraq. As Fukuyama observes, Bush attempted to ideologically justify a war that would have been prevented. This, according to many of his critics, soiled the political governance of his second term. Zakaria (2008) in his book The Post American world wonders whether the posterity will be western. In his submission, he implies that China is a real threat and a big challenger to the US. With a population four times that of the U.S, China boasts of an uninterrupted human resource supply even as it plans to expand its economic boundaries to the western world.

Meanwhile, as the United States is attempting to mold a new world order, its political allies are on the receiving end and not contend with her moves. Both the American and European civilizations are nearing a clashing end. This has been triggered by the U.S aggressions policy to remain politically, economically, and socially strong. The early beginning of the 21st century has witnessed American leadership transgressing in international affairs culminating in conflicts.

The intrigues of U.S foreign policy remain to be debatable as well as eliciting mixed reactions to the world at large. It must indeed be something else. Since Obama took over the oath of a presidential office, he has relentlessly pursued the restoration of U.S authority in Latin America (Sabatini & Marczak 2010). However, critics have a stand that this partnership may not be the central importance to the U.S; there is more than meets the eye.


The contemporary U.S foreign policy has elicited more debate than could be expected by the world today. Critics have argued that the act of the U.S government appointing itself to manage world affairs is uncalled for. This foreign policy is mainly viewed as bait used by the U.S to capture special interests in these countries. This discourse on foreign policy can be traced back from history since the era of the First World War which transcended to the Second World War and later Cold War. The modern expression commonly in use is “foreign policy”. Hence, the entire question of whether this foreign is real, a political ideology, or something else can be fairly judged out from the US political and socio-economic agenda in the rest of the world. Nonetheless, a closer and more intent observation of contemporary U.S foreign policy under President Barrack Obama illuminates a hybrid system where both realism and constructivism seem to dominate the foreign policy agenda.


Brzezinski, Z. (2004).The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership. New York: Basic Books

Fukuyama, F. (2006). America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy. New Haven: Yale University Press

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2004). Multitude War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Press

Lieber, J.R. (2005).The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century. New York: Cambridge University Press

Mandelbaum, M. (2005). The Case of Goliath: How America acts as the World Government in the 21st Century. New York: PublicAffairs publishers.

Odom, E. W. and Dujarric, R. (2004). America’s Inadvertent Empire. New Haven: Vaill- Ballou Press

Sabatini C.and Marczak J. (2010). Restoring U.S Leadership in Latin America. Web.

Walt, M.S. (2005). Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S Primacy. New York: Harvard University Press

Zakaria, F. (2008). The Post American world. New York: W.W. Norton &Company

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