As my colleague Shannon has noted, President Barack Obama gave a commencement address at West Point today as part of the White House’s “we still care about national security” week. Shannon analyzed the speech from an Asia-Pacific standpoint, or lack thereof.
I was struck primarily by two aspects of the speech. The first was the lack of novelty in it. The White House had been marketing the speech as an effort to better explain President Obama’s broader vision of U.S. foreign policy, which many pundits have rightly criticized this administration for lacking. As Politico reported earlier this week: “President Barack Obama will use his speech at the West Point commencement Wednesday to lay out a broad vision of American foreign policy.”
In one sense, the speech succeeded in articulating a vision for foreign policy and, in particular, national security. However, if the speech was meant to better explain the Obama doctrine, it almost certainly failed. Nothing in this speech differed substantially from countless foreign policy-oriented speeches Obama gave earlier in his presidency. For example, his rationale for when America will use force—unilaterally when the U.S. is directly threatened, and multilaterally when indirectly threatened—was taken from the speech he gave justifying the intervention in Libya in 2011. If critics did not understand what Obama’s vision for foreign policy was before the speech, it’s hard to see how they would better comprehend it from this speech.
The second part of the speech I was struck by was how much Obama continues to be committed to implementing a Nixon Doctrine, particularly when it comes to fighting terrorism and other types of instability in places like the Middle East in Africa. The Guam or Nixon Doctrine, of course, was based on the notion that while the U.S. would meet its treaty obligations, in general it would expect states facing aggression to take the lead in defending themselves. This more or less amounted to an expectation that the local nation would provide the bulk of the ground forces to fight the aggression, with the U.S. aiding them through arms sales, training and advising.
This is the type of arrangement Obama alluded to when discussing how the decentralized nature of al Qaeda was forcing America to reorient its strategy from one where Washington invades countries or takes direct action to one where it builds up local partners to do so. As Obama explained, “Earlier this year I asked my national security team to develop a plan for a network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel. Today, as part of this effort, I am calling on Congress to support a new counterterrorism partnerships fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.”
While this seemed to mostly apply to counterterrorism missions, later in the speech Obama referred to the need to better support UN peacekeeping forces and NATO allies so that they can handle other types of instability. In explaining the rationale behind greater support for UN peacekeepers, Obama stated: “We are going to deepen our investment in countries that support these peacekeeping missions because having other nations maintain order in their own neighborhoods lessens the need for us to put our own troops in harm’s way.”
This was quintessentially what the Nixon Doctrine was hoping to achieve, although it was reinforced by reducing the scope of U.S. ambitions abroad and more active diplomacy. For example, Nixon and Kissinger recognized America’s reduced capacity to use force abroad after Vietnam and therefore set out to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union and effected a rapprochement with China. With the possible exception of Iran, Obama administration has not made a serious effort to reduce tensions with perceived adversaries or greatly reduced U.S. ambitions abroad. Indeed, in this speech he again pledged that the U.S. would revamp its efforts to topple the Assad regime in Syria and gave no indication of trying to come to a solution with Russia. Similarly, even as the U.S. military budget has been reduced and America is in the process of rebalancing to Asia, the Obama administration has passed up few chances to deepen America’s military footprint in Africa often for goals of at best indirect importance to the United States.
It bears noting that Obama’s articulation of a Nixon Doctrine is not particularly new. His administration has repeatedly identified a desire to build up partner capacity to reduce the need for the U.S. military to take on various challenges. One of the earliest articulations of it was the spring 2011 article then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates published in Foreign Affairs magazine, which was properly titled, “Helping Others Defend Themselves.”
Another example of Obama’s Nixon Doctrine was the 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism. At the time I wrote of that new strategy: “The second and more difficult element is the administration’s goal of shifting a greater share of the burden of fighting al-Qaeda onto other countries. Although the United States has long collaborated in prosecuting the war against al-Qaeda, the new strategy envisions other states taking the lead in their respective regions for the first time.”
The desire to implement a Nixon Doctrine-esque strategy in certain areas makes sound strategic sense given prevailing conditions in the U.S. and abroad. Nonetheless, that is by no means a guarantee it will work. To begin with, it didn’t always work as intended when Nixon and Kissinger did it. In the Middle East, the Nixon administration put the Shah of Iran at the front and center of U.S. strategy. This proved disastrous when the Shah was toppled. Similarly, U.S. assistance to Pakistan during the 1971 wars with Bangladesh and India was viewed in Islamabad as being so insufficient as to constitute betrayal. This motivated Pakistani leaders to strengthen ties with China and, most notably, pursue a nuclear weapon.
So far, the Obama administration’s desire to implement the Nixon Doctrine 2.0 has also seen a number of failures. The Iraqi military the U.S. spent so long building up has failed to maintain security in that country. Similarly, the North African forces the U.S. and its EU allies have spent so much time training and equipping continue to perform miserably in combat.
This doesn’t mean that the general notion should be abandoned. But the president must be realistic about how much this can actually accomplish especially in places like Somalia and Yemen where the local governments are particularly weak or non-existent. Setting expectations too high in a speech like the one in West Point today will inevitably empower the administration’s critics tomorrow.