My September Diplomat Essay: “After Six Years, Is there an Obama Doctrine? Kinda, Sorta”


This is a re-post of a piece I just published at The Diplomat this week. And that picture is Clausewitz. I attended a strategy training seminar this past summer at Columbia (apply for it if you’re in a PhD track; it’s excellent). So this stuff has been on my mind a lot recently. And what would a blog about security be without ostentatiously name-dropping Clausewitz once in awhile so I look smart?

Actually I am kind of skeptical of these big ‘doctrinal’ or ‘grand strategy’ statements. Is it really even possible to burn down the complexities of US foreign policy all over the world into some kind of pithy statement, or a few paragraphs? I doubt that is even possible. I suppose if you are a micro-state like Panama or Tuvalu, these exercises are manageable. But for large states like the US, I think it is easy for such debates to become scholastic, how-many-angels-can-dance-on-a-pinhead sorts of things. And frequently, these sprawling, meta-statements fly out the window when events don’t follow the ‘strategic’ guidelines or expectations. This has certainly been the case in dealing with North Korea, where I have repeatedly defended the Obama line of ‘strategic patience’ against the critique that its lacks a ‘strategy.’ Just look at how many big ideas for dealing with North Korea have crashed and burned. It makes one wonder what the point is at all. Keeping deterrence firm and not getting rooked by the Norks is pretty good without elaborate, fanciful power-points on to disarm the KPA in 20 years.

So give Obama break. The most important thing is making the world a little more liberal, a little more democratic, a little more capitalist from presidency to presidency. There is no huge need for some major, complex intellectual edifice for that, because events will often invalidate anything more detailed than that. Just look at how President Bush more from anti-Clintonian realist to uber-Wilsonian democracy promoter overnight. Ultimately, it is US behavior that matters, not some paragraphs in the NSS that only Washington think-tankers read.

Anyway, here’s that essay:


“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. US 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 the US’ place in it sounds like herculean metaphysical task, and changing events often dictate large swings in policy. President Carter famously came in determined to focus US 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. George W Bush may have wanted global democracy in his heart, but this was simply impractical for the United States to achieve. In order to force a level of realism and clarity on presidents’ foreign policy behavior, the US 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.

Looking instead at the actions of President Obama, four ‘doctrinal’ elements stand out:

1. Restraint – but not decline

The president genuinely seems wants to husband US 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 causing the relative decline of the US, when in fact, it 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 US to push its preferences on them. This is not a question of US 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 US is not in absolute decline; it is not Rome in the 5th century. Instead it is more like Britain after WWII – reasonably strong, but facing a wide, restive, nationalist, and increasingly capable world. As the former third world mobilizes and modernizes, the US will no longer overawe as it did in the 1990s. Obama sees this and is husbanding US 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 US ‘leadership’ as an excuse for US 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 US now accounts for 75% of NATO defense spending, while that figure was 50% during the Cold War. There are similar problem in East Asia and in the Middle East, where allies are happy to push China and ISIS onto the US. But as the ‘Rest’ rises, as the global system fills up with capable states outside the West, US global room to move will naturally diminish. In such a dense environment, it will be impossible for the US alone to continue as post-Cold War globocop without serious overextension.

Obama’s reticence to commit US 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 US 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 US will need more allies to do more. The unilateralism of the Bush administration backfired badly even back then, before financial crisis and 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’ big idea from this administration. I have actually been fairly skeptical that the US can pull off the ‘rebalance.’ Elsewhere I have argued that US cultural ties with Europe make it hard to escape NATO free-riding, while the theological interest of US 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 US assets, not just in the navy but other branches too, that the US 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 US 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 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.


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 US national power for the real challenge of the future – not Putin, not ISIS, but large, wealthy, nationalist Asia.”

1 thought on “My September Diplomat Essay: “After Six Years, Is there an Obama Doctrine? Kinda, Sorta”

  1. It is nice to read this sober account of what we have been doing recently.

    However, I looked around the site and found an excited criticism of an apparently dopey account of visiting North Korea. My daughter and I took a one day bus trip to Kaesong at about the same time as that. My impression was different from both of yours. You could learn quite a lot about what the North Korean guides wanted to show you, not to speak of what the South Korean guides had to say. A guy in a windbreaker who attached himself to me said he was a Korean from Japan. He wanted me to know that the “north side” people were showing us only what they wanted us to see. I could not figure out who sent him, but got tired of hearing this. I told him … Most people do.
    Then I told him I had read a book by the first British man to work in Pyongyang, who got mad when after two years people who were friendly with him still always told him lies. He disappeared and never turned up again.
    My daughter whose dad is Korean also had her special person, we thought. The guides looked very narrowly at this product of a Korean American marriage. Hum…. She reported that when the more agile visitors got up behind the famous waterfall, the guides hit them up for money and our south side person shielded her from them.
    Oddest to me was the earnestness with which one guide tried to get our bus load of mostly Korean housewives to sing songs like you might at camp. It seemed as if the North Koreans might actually have some willingness to join in singing, presumably about the kim family virtues, but these ladies were impossible to cajole.

    I really understand irritation at people who repeat North Korean lines, but there was more to do up there than rattle against the bars of the cage…


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