Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Obama Doctrine’s First Term

ASPEN – Public-opinion polls in the United States indicate a close presidential election in November. While President Barack Obama outpolls the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, on foreign policy, slow economic growth and high unemployment – issues that are far more salient in US elections – favor Romney. And, even on foreign policy, Obama’s critics complain that he has failed to implement the transformational initiatives that he promised four years ago. Are they right?

Obama came to power when both the US and the world economy were in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Indeed, some of Obama’s economic advisers counseled him that unless urgent steps were taken to stimulate the economy, there was a one-in-three chance of entering a full-scale depression.

Thus, although Obama also inherited two ongoing wars, nuclear-proliferation threats from Iran and North Korea, and the continuing problem of Al Qaeda’s terrorism, his early months in office were devoted to addressing the economic crisis at home and abroad. His efforts were not a complete success, but he managed to stave off the worst outcome.

Obama’s rhetoric during his 2008 campaign and the first months of his presidency was both inspirational in style and transformational in objective. His first year in office included a speech in Prague in which he established the goal of a nuclear-free world; a speech in Cairo promising a new approach to the Muslim world; and his Nobel Peace Prize speech, which promised to “bend history in the direction of justice.”

In part, this series of speeches was tactical. Obama needed to meet his promise to set a new direction in foreign policy while simultaneously managing to juggle the issues left to him by George W. Bush, any of which, if dropped, could still cause a crisis for his presidency. Nonetheless, there is no reason to believe that Obama was being disingenuous about his objectives. His worldview was shaped by the fact that he spent part of his youth in Indonesia and had an African father.

In the words of a recent Brookings Institution book, Obama had an “activist vision of his role in history,” intending to “refurbish America’s image abroad, especially in the Muslim world; end its involvement in two wars; offer an outstretched hand to Iran; reset relations with Russia as a step toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons; develop significant cooperation with China on both regional and global issues; and make peace in the Middle East.” But his record of achievement on these issues has been mixed.

“Seemingly intractable circumstances turned him from the would-be architect of a new global order into a leader focused more on repairing relationships and reacting to crises – most notably the global economic crisis,” the report continued. And while he eliminated Osama bin Laden and weakened Al Qaeda, some counterterrorism policies ended up undercutting his appeal in places like the Middle East and Pakistan.

Some of the half-empty glasses were the result of intractable events; some were the product of early naiveté, such as the initial approaches to Israel, China, and Afghanistan. But Obama was quick to recover from mistakes in a practical way. As one of his supporters put it, he is a “pragmatic idealist.”

In this sense, though Obama did not back away from rhetorical expressions of transformational goals regarding such issues as climate change or nuclear weapons, in practice his pragmatism was reminiscent of more incremental presidential leaders like Dwight Eisenhower or George H. W. Bush. Despite his relative inexperience in international affairs, Obama showed a similar skill in reacting to a complex set of foreign-policy challenges. This was demonstrated by his appointments of experienced advisers, careful management of issues, and above all, keen contextual intelligence.

This is not to say that Obama has had no transformational effects. He changed the course of an unpopular policy in Iraq and Afghanistan; embraced counter-insurgency tactics based on less costly uses of military and cyber power; increased American soft power in many parts of the world; and began to shift America’s strategic focus to Asia, the global economy’s fastest-growing region.

With respect to Iran, Obama struggled to implement United Nations-approved sanctions and avoid a premature war. And, while the Arab Spring revolutions presented him with an unwelcome surprise, after some hesitation he came down on what he regarded as the side of history.

In a new book, Confront and Conceal, David Sanger describes what he calls an “Obama Doctrine” (though he faults the president for not communicating it more clearly): a lighter military footprint, combined with a willingness to use force unilaterally when American security interests are directly involved; reliance on coalitions to deal with global problems that do not directly threaten US security; and “a rebalancing away from the Middle East quagmires toward the continent of greatest promise in the future – Asia.”

The contrast between the killing of Bin Laden and the intervention in Libya illustrates the Obama Doctrine. In the former case, Obama personally managed a unilateral use of force, which involved a raid on Pakistani territory. In the latter case, where national interests were not as clear, he waited until the Arab League and the UN had adopted resolutions that provided the legitimacy needed to ensure the right soft-power narrative, and then shared the leadership of the hard-power operation with NATO allies.

The long-term effect of the Obama Doctrine will require more time to assess, but, as he approaches the November election, Obama appears to have an edge over his opponent in foreign policy. Obama has not bent the arc of history in the transformational way to which he aspired in his campaign four years ago, but his shift to a pragmatic approach may turn out to be a good thing, particularly if voters continue to have doubts about the economy.

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    1. CommentedJohn Brian Shannon

      Professor Nye nicely sums up President Obama's first term challenges and successes.

      I do think that some of Obama's successes will only be seen in the proper light by future historians for the inspired policy that it is.

      Taking the U.S. out of Iraq sooner rather than later, and soon to be leaving Afghanistan, as well as a slow entrance initially into Libya and a quick withdrawal there, has moved American policy towards an ultra-responsible position on the world stage. And frankly, a more mature position.

      Not that America shouldn't stand up for itself and stand up for worthy causes around the world. But hard power isn't always the best answer. In fact, it is almost always the worst way to deal with international tensions. The most cursory look at war, the economic costs of war and other repercussions of war in the 20th century proves this.

      The seeds of the worldwide recession were set long before Obama came to power, therefore to blame him for it is disingenuous in the extreme. Rather, this president acted pragmatically once there was some amount of agreement on the scope of the problem and possible solutions.

      It is not 'leading from behind' when even the economic experts themselves couldn't at first agree on what the problem was and what to do about it.

      Once a consensus formed, Obama acted. What more do you want from a President?

      As for the pivot to Asia, which continues to grow exponentially is a part of the world that even the U.S. can't afford to ignore. Growth is the only way out for the U.S. economy and domestic growth doesn't have that capacity and likely won't for some time to come.

      President Obama sent the right signals to the markets by indicating American acceptance of strong relations with China and India. The moment that began to occur, the recession's days were numbered.

      In short, this President has acted in the best long-term interests of the U.S.A. by profoundly coordinating America's interests with the rest of the world, in a way which will benefit U.S. citizens firstly and the rest of the world, secondly.

      For America, swimming against the tide is no longer an option. Not only has President Obama changed that sometimes annoying facet of American policy, he has made U.S. and world economic progress a team effort.

    2. CommentedShernnel Thompson

      The Obama Administration has done an excellent job of refocusing the direction of the United States. Whilst, the presidency could have gone in a much greater direction, had the cooperation between the democrats and republicans been greater. From this outsider's point of view, the American global image has greatly improved thanks to Obama and his focus. It has not been perfect, but is better when compared to the eight years before him!

    3. CommentedAndré Rebentisch

      The refocus on Asia is quite a bit strange because no one knows what to do there and what to achieve. There are strong tensions - but who is going to take sides? Plus there is a chance of a Chinese break-up.

    4. CommentedRobert Shea

      I've certainly been disappointed in Obama's mild leadership on so many issues. From continuing two wars, expanding the imperial presidency with extrajudicial killings, to pre-emptive surrender on health care and failure to prosecute Wall Street thieves, the President failed to leverage his mandate. Why? Perhaps it doesn't matter at this point. Sadly, he's become the moderate Republican in the upcoming election. And, because he's facing the sociopathic front men Romney and Ryan, he'll get my vote as the lesser of two evils.

    5. Commenteddan hitt

      Had Obama made a serious effort to end the wars he could indeed have bent the "arc of history". He did not, and, as we can see from the egregious war against Libya, he will not in any second term.

      For us in the US, the arc of history continues to point straight down. We've never been much troubled by moral considerations, but our continued mutiple multi-trillion dollar wars and foreign bases are destroying our economy, and with it, our science and technology. The future of science and technology presumably now belong to the country which understands the value of peace, and whose military is only 10% the size of ours --- China.

      Obama will be at most a footnote in the story of our decline, as will Romney should he be elected.

      I think the most we can hope for is that in 2016 we'll have an option to vote for peace.