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  • The SAIS Review Interviews Professor Marvin Ott
  • Michael Sutherland (bio), Devan Kerley (bio), and Marvin Ott (bio)

Can you briefly take us through your background in government and how you got to SAIS?


When I came to SAIS, the prevailing orientation of the institution was realpolitik, and it was embedded in the way everything was approached. Over the years that focus became more variegated, but the way I was taught to think about foreign policy was very much in that tradition, and I’ve never lost that. One reason is that the area of the world that I’m interested in, East Asia, I would argue, is a realpolitik arena. Do a mind game and imagine one of the seminal practitioners of realpolitik—someone like Bismarck—and what it would look like if they were to go around the world today and talk to world leaders. Bismarck wouldn’t recognize something like the European Union, or other transnational organizations. He and Angela Merkel would be on completely different wavelengths. But if Bismarck went to Beijing and talked to the Chinese, or went to Singapore or New Delhi and talked to the leadership there, they would speak his language. And so the realpolitik set of imperatives work very well in East Asia, in a way that for example, in contemporary Europe, they do not always work. [End Page 87]


Do you think that realpolitik strain of policymaking and political thinking is still present in US policy circles today?


What we have today in US policy circles is highly anomalous. If you broaden it out a bit to recent history, to figures like Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, and Brent Scowcroft, sort of seminal figures of modern American strategy and foreign policy, most are considered very much steeped in the realpolitik tradition. Now, the relationship between ethics and values in foreign policy, in my view, is both complex and interactive. For example, during the second Bush administration we had someone like Paul Wolfowitz, the former dean here at SAIS—at that point number two in the Pentagon—who by my standards, was not a realist or practitioner of realpolitik at all. He was in fact driven by a set of ethical imperatives that one could label “neoconservative,” where you take American power as a reality alongside moral values that America represents that, in the neoconservative’s mind, should be internationally current all over the world. America has the power to basically ram those values down the throat of a place like Iraq, and so Paul Wolfowitz was the architect of a values-driven policy that set out to do that, with huge consequences. This is a measure of the complexity of the subject—if we say “values” in foreign policy, the typical default is, “Well, we’re talking about Woodrow Wilson and liberal values running up against the realities of foreign policy.” But, it also plays on the conservative side: Wolfowitz was equally values-driven, but operating from a different premise.


Do you see US foreign policy since the Bush administration as primarily values-driven?


Well, you’re talking about two administrations. My quick summation of the Obama administration, particularly during the period when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, was a realpolitik policy. It was tempered to some extent by the instincts of the President, who was instinctively cautious. Obama was clearly constantly asking himself: “What could go wrong? What are the risks, and what are the potential unintended consequences if we do this?” He was smart enough to come up with a pretty long list in every case, and that caused him to be very careful. My impression is that if Secretary Clinton had been left to her own devices, she would have been more proactive, so there was a bit of a tension there. So, what was Obama? I would say a “cautious realist.”

In the current era, we have something entirely anomalous. In my view, Trump’s “America First” slogan is really “Trump First.” It’s all about the ego and narcissism of a single personality, and that places him outside of the traditional categories. Is Trump a realist? Not really...


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