Is There an Obama Doctrine?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Is There an Obama Doctrine?


It is something of a Washington truism that presidents must have a “doctrine” attached to their name. And certainly, as presidents enter their “legacy” years – where Obama is now – pressure grows to find some kind of definitive statement of what the last messy six or seven years were all about. U.S. presidents enjoy enormous autonomy in foreign policy, unlike at home, where they face Congress and long-standing interests groups. So the space for their personal predilections to shape foreign policy are wide.

Nevertheless, it is often hard to figure out what this means – a grand strategy for the whole world and America’s place in it sounds like a Herculean metaphysical task, and changing events often dictate large swings in policy. President Jimmy Carter famously came in determined to focus U.S. foreign policy on human rights, but he morphed into an unexpected hawk due to the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The doctrine that bears his name today sounds nothing like what he says today. Similarly, George W. Bush entered the White House determined to focus on traditional great power politics, but emerged from the 9/11 catastrophe as a global democratic revolutionary.

Strategy is often defined as connecting ends to means. Bush may have wanted global democracy in his heart, but this was simply impractical for the United States to achieve. To force a level of realism and clarity on presidents’ foreign policy behavior, the U.S. Congress actually mandates a yearly “national security strategy” be published by the White House. But presidents rarely meet that goal, and often the NSS is windy and imprecise. The current one, the only one from this president so far, dates to 2010.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Looking instead at the actions of President Barack Obama, four “doctrinal” elements stand out:

1. Restraint – but not decline

The president genuinely seems wants to husband U.S. resources for long-term challenges like China and a war on terrorism that will not seem to go away. He is wary of the quagmires that beset his predecessor. They were costly blunders – hence the president’s line “don’t do stupid stuff” – which America needs to avoid to contend with emerging powers in the future, most obviously China. This is often understood by conservatives and hawks as “embracing decline.” Obama, they contend, is allowing American “leadership” to slip away, because he will not use force more frequently.

But this implies that Obama’s rhetoric and behavior are somehow to blame for the relative decline of the U.S., when the real cause is the continued, long-term growth and maturity of the former Third World. The globe is “filling up” with wealthy functional states outside of the West. As places like the BRICS or G-20 states become wealthier and more politically stable and capable, it will be harder and harder for the U.S. to push its preferences on them. This is not a question of U.S. leadership or national will; it is the long-term structural outcome of globalization, specifically the spread of global capitalism and the management revolution it has brought to previously wasteful, dysfunctional economies like India and China. The U.S. is not in absolute decline; it is not 5th century Rome. Instead, it is more like Britain after World War II: reasonably strong, but facing a wide, restive, nationalist, and increasingly capable world. As developing nations mobilize and modernize, the U.S. will no longer overawe as it did in the 1990s. Obama sees this and is husbanding U.S. resources for what really matters in the future (Asia). Hence his notion that nation-building starts at home.

2. Allied Free-Riding

It is also increasingly clear that Obama sees U.S. “leadership” as an excuse for U.S. allies to duck burden-sharing. This is a well-known problem of course. In an important column recently, Gideon Rachman noted the “learned helplessness” of America’s allies, that the U.S. now accounts for 75 percent of NATO defense spending, compared with 50 percent during the Cold War. There are similar problems in East Asia and in the Middle East, where allies are happy to push China and ISIS onto the U.S. But as the “Rest” rises, as the global system fills up with capable states outside the West, U.S. global room to move will naturally diminish. In such a dense environment, it will be impossible for the U.S. alone to continue as post-Cold War globocop without serious overextension.

Obama’s reticence to commit U.S. force is an effort to push locals to do more. In Ukraine, his foot-dragging makes sense given that the EU is the front-line state to the conflict and will eventually own the outcome whether it wants to admit that or not. Similarly, Obama’s reticence on ISIS and Syria is an effort to avoid tying the U.S. to often parochial, reactionary agendas of local players such as Nouri al-Maliki or Saudi Arabia.

This focus was inevitable. As relative decline erodes the “unipolar moment,” the U.S. will need more allies to do more. The unilateralism of the Bush administration backfired badly even back then, before financial crisis and the rise of China signaled relative decline.

3. Asia (read: China)

Obama also clearly recognizes the growing importance of Asia. The “pivot” is the closest thing we have had yet to a “vision thing” from this administration. I have actually been fairly skeptical that the U.S. can pull off the “rebalance.” Elsewhere I have argued that U.S. cultural ties with Europe make it hard to escape NATO free-riding, while the theological interest of U.S. evangelicals in both Israel and Islam make it similarly hard to pull out of the Middle East.

Nevertheless, it is clear from the inflow of dedicated U.S. assets, not just in the Navy but other branches too, that the U.S. military is ramping up in Asia. Congress may not care for Asia much beyond endless conflicts over trade-rules, but Obama clearly does.

4. The Middle East is a sinkhole of U.S. power

The flip side of that interest in Asia, is Obama’s increasingly obvious desire to stay out of the Middle East. In retrospect, it seems as though he regrets the Afghan surge of his first term. He also seems to have learned from Libya that regime change is a recipe for chaos, even if the dictator is a tyrant. Hence the obvious interest in avoiding intervention in Syria and his strong insistence on no ground troops in the coming clash with ISIS. He has also pushed through the Iraq withdrawal and is doing the same in Afghanistan.

A Doctrine?

Does all this add up to a doctrine, much less a grand strategy? Probably not; it feels more like a collection of post-Bush impulses. If there is a guiding theme, I would say “caution and Asia.” Obama is clearly willing to use force, but he is more concerned about its unintended consequences than much of the Washington establishment. And his restraint is not because he is spineless or a declinist; it is a husbanding of U.S. national power for the real challenge of the future – not Putin, not ISIS, but large, wealthy, nationalist Asia.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief