March 17, 2016 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week’s Reads – On Interests and Ideals


President Barack Obama stands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during an arrival ceremony at the White House in Washington September 25, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In foreign policy, there is often a fundamental tension between a nation’s interests and its ideals. Should a nation deal with the world as it is, or as it wishes it to be? Should it seek to maximize power, or strive to pursue moral goals? These questions are at the heart of many of today’s foreign policy debates.
Take the United States, where we’re told President Obama often views its role in the world with a cold-blooded realism, and at other times with a missionary zeal. Or look at Europe, where leaders are balancing the moral, economic, and political implications of the refugee crisis. Then there’s Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has fully embraced power politics; and Saudi Arabia, where its attempts to do likewise have been met with peril.

These tensions are not new—realism and idealism, interests and morality, are bound to come in to conflict. This week’s reads help to contextualize some of these issues, and show how they color foreign policy decisions.

The Obama Doctrine

Jeffrey Goldberg/The Atlantic

Goldberg has written the most revelatory piece on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, yet—aided in large part by the most revelatory set of on-the-record interviews by a sitting president ever published. If you want to understand what Obama really thinks—of Russia’s Putin, of our allies in Europe and the Middle East, of the Washington foreign policy establishment, and about his decisions on Syria, Libya, and a host of other issues—this article has the answers.

How America’s Political Decay Has Fueled Trump’s Rise

David Ignatius/The Washington Post

David Ignatius contends that the United States’ political system is in decay and is responsible for the rise of Trump. Ignatius says that political decay occurs when the government has been tainted by elites, special interest groups, or has been mishandled by elected officials and stops serving the public. He believes voters are angry at the government due to a lack of action on key issues such as immigration, jobs, and wages, and in Trump they see a forthright leader who is devoted to the action they aren’t seeing in Washington.
See also: On March 23, the Council welcomes David Ignatius for a discussion on Syria and lessons for US policymaking.

Dogs, Cats and Leadership

David Brooks/The New York Times

Brooks presents his hypothesis on dogs, cats, and leadership styles. He compares the leadership styles of President Obama, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. Brooks argues that President Obama exhibits a cat-like leadership style because he is self-assured and understands that he can’t fix all problems, whereas Sanders and Trump exhibit dog-like leadership styles because they believe they can change everything, and often seek the validation of others.

Facing Migrant Crisis, EU Makes a Dubious Deal With Turkey

Stephen Erlanger/The New York Times

Erlanger argues the European Union’s deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to help control the influx of migrants from Syria to Europe is questionable. It is reminiscent of a previous deal that Italy had with former Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who received large sums from Italy to help police its shores and keep migrants out. In exchange for holding migrants in Turkey and then returning them back to Syria, President Erdogan will receive €3 billion, the prospect of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, and a hastening of Turkey’s application to join the European Union. This deal is contingent upon approval from European leaders.

Lev Gumilev: Passion, Putin and Power

Charles Clover/Financial Times

When Vladimir Putin gave his 2012 annual address to the federal assembly, he referenced Soviet historian Lev Gumilev’s passionarnost ideology. This Kremlin “dig whistle” was a subtle signal used to communicate his support to select groups within Russia: New ideas—that previously might have been considered crazy—were suddenly an anchor of Putin’s annual address. Fifteen months later Russian soldiers seized Crimea. In the Financial Times, Clover shows how the ideas of Gumilev are influencing a new generation of Russian politicians.

Competing Goals Make Saudi Oil Policy Hard to Predict

Meghan O’Sullivan/Financial Times  

O’Sullivan argues that Saudi Arabia’s decision to freeze oil production was geopolitical, not economic, because the freeze would only occur if other oil producing nations, specifically Iraq and Iran, agreed to halt their own production. Because of Iran’s refusal to halt oil production, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was able to align strong allies of Tehran—Russia and Venezuela—as opposition to Iran, while successfully escaping the blame for low oil prices.

How Saudi Arabia Turned Its Greatest Weapon on Itself

Andrew Scott Cooper /The New York Times

Cooper believes that Saudi Arabia decided to flood the oil market to hammer the economies of Iran and Russia. But Cooper says their attempt to control the oil market and deter Iran from funding Shiite militia groups in the region has backfired. Saudi Arabia did not anticipate oil prices falling below $60 a barrel, or losing favor with OPEC. As a result of these actions, the IMF warns the country may go bankrupt by 2020 unless it can control government spending.

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