President Obama defended his foreign policy during a far-reaching interview, published by Vox on Monday.
In the second part of the interview, Obama told Vox’s Matthew Yglesias that foreign policy was a balancing act between realism and idealism when it comes to developing relations with countries with a history of abuses of democracy and human rights.
In one exchange Yglesias asked the president dealing with countries with a history of abuses when it comes to human rights:
Matthew Yglesias: You seemed to resist the realist label earlier, but when you talked about your goals earlier, you seemed very concerned about disorder, and you didn’t mention anything like democracy and human rights. And the countries you mentioned partnering with, it’s places like Egypt, where they came to power in a military coup; Saudi Arabia, with public beheadings; Bahrain, where during the Arab Spring they were beating nonviolent demonstrators and repressing that violently. Do you have any concerns about the sort of long-term sustainability of those kind of partnerships?
Obama replied that this was a “perfect example” of “where the division between realism and idealism kind of breaks down,” but that sometimes we need deal with such countries in the interest of promoting reform:
Barack Obama: I think any realist worth their salt would say that any society that consistently ignores human rights and the dignity of its citizens at some point is going to be unstable and not a great partner. So it’s not just the right thing to do; it’s also very much in our interest to promote reforms throughout the Middle East. Now, the fact that we have to make real-time decisions about who are we partnering with and how perfectly are they abiding by our ideals, and are there times where we’ve got to mute some of our criticism to get some stuff done, are there times where we have an opportunity to press forward — that doesn’t negate the importance of us speaking out on these issues.
The president went on to explain, using China as an example, that there are times we can achieve great success with attaining “international goals… that are of great national-security importance,” but “that doesn’t mean it’s not smart for us to speak out” about human rights abuses such as “censorship and political prisoners.”
Obama elaborated that:
Barack Obama: [T]he same is true in the Middle East and elsewhere. But I am a firm believer that particularly in this modern internet age, the capacity of the old-style authoritarian government to sustain itself and to thrive just is going to continue to weaken. It’s going to continue to crumble that model. My argument to any partner that we have is that you are better off if you’ve got a strong civil society and you’ve got democratic legitimacy and you are respectful of human rights. That’s how you’re going to attract businesses, that’s how you’re going to have a strong workforce, that’s how ultimately you’ve got a more durable not just economy but also political system.
Acknowledging that “progress in such countries is going to be happening in steps as opposed to in one big leap,” Obama concluded his response by noting that
Barack Obama: I think, the goal of any good foreign policy is having a vision and aspirations and ideals, but also recognizing the world as it is, where it is, and figuring out how do you tack to the point where things are better than they were before. That doesn’t mean perfect. It just means it’s better. The trajectory of this planet overall is one toward less violence, more tolerance, less strife, less poverty. I’ve said this before and I think some folks in Washington were like, “Oh, he’s ignoring the chaos of all the terrible stuff that’s happening.” Of course, I’m not ignoring it. I’m dealing with it every day. That’s what I wake up to each morning. I get a thick book full of death, destruction, strife, and chaos. That’s what I take with my morning tea. [emphasis added]
You can watch the relevant portion of the Vox interview, below, and you can go here to view other portions.