Obama Burma Trip: Obama Tries to Promote Democracy, Tame China

Is President Obama's foreign policy realist? During the 2008 campaign, Obama distinguished himself from neo-conservatism by arguing that the war in Iraq derailed the U.S. from pursuing its interests in the region. As president, he would make sure that quixotic attempts to spread democracy would not distract him from protecting American power. 

As President Obama did fulfill his promise to pull out troops from Iraq, refocused the intelligence community on those that attacked America on 9/11, and refrained from entering the quagmire in Syria — policies which fit within the framework of realism. But his realism was diluted by liberal initiatives. Obama deepened the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, quickly distanced himself from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and, most uncharacteristically for a realist leader, led an international coalition to intervene in Libya when no U.S. interests were at stake. Barack Obama has proven that he is willing to risk damaging American interests to spread liberal values. And by alternating between his realist and liberal foreign policy hats, he has projected two opposing narratives of foreign policy.

The opposing narratives of Obama foreign policy have most recently come into relief in his visit to Burma (or, as its oppressive generals renamed it decades ago, Myanmar). Today President Obama became the first U.S. President to officially visit Burma, in order to "extend the hand of friendship," and maintain that the “flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished" — in short, to buffer the countries path towards democracy and international progress. Yet there is an underlying reason for the visit. As Peter Baker of the New York Times wrote on November 8, "the trip fits into a larger geopolitical chess game by the Obama administration, which has sought to counter rising Chinese assertiveness by engaging its neighbors." Human rights agencies have accused the president of prematurely praising the regime and endangering the liberalization process there. The agencies maintain that if human rights were his central focus he would not be in Burma so soon.

So why is Obama really going to Burma? Is he a realist or a liberal on foreign policy? The truth is that ideological purity isn't a virtue in an American president. While a coherent worldview is important, Obama's flexibility served America well in the first term. At this moment, promoting human rights in Burma parallels an important American interest: to counterbalance Chinese influence in the Far East. As long as these two goals continue to overlap, Obama should pursue both.