A Friend in Need

Benjamin Friedman is pleased with Barack Obama’s observation that “our power grows through its prudent use.” But he objects on realist grounds to this passage:

And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

I think Friedman’s gone too far here. Realism doesn’t require Americans or America to adopt an actual posture of indifference to the fate of human rights and human security around the world. John Quincy Adams famously spoke for the realist tradition when he said that the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” But that passage was surrounded by Obama-esque notes:

Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.


But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.

She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

Adams is striking here exactly the notes that Bush never seemed capable of grasping — namely that the mere observation that freedom and democracy are good does not justify the idea that our foreign policy should be oriented around an effort to coercively re-order politics in foreign nations. Adams observed that a policy along these lines undertaken with even the best of intentions would eventually become corrupting as the “fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.” It’s a fitting coda to the Bush years, but not at all at odds with Obama’s insistence that we are friends to those who seek “a future of peace and dignity.”