The United States has “too many doctrines”, the eternal Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko once carped. “Proclaimed at different times”, these could not serve a “coherent and consistent policy.” That was a few decades ago. Yet under Barack Obama’s watch, doctrinal surfeit has turned into dearth—a first in the history of America.
Where in America’s creedal pantheon would we seat Obama? He is not an “exemplarist” who, like John Winthrop or Thomas Jefferson, would let the country shine forth as model (“cittie upon a hill”) for the rest of the world, but strictly stay out of it (“no entangling alliances”). Indeed, meddling in the world would contaminate this “novus ordo seclorum.” Yet, Obama is no exemplarist. He has pooh-poohed the idea of American exceptionalism, arguing that every nation celebrates its own special character.
Bill Clinton was a kind of Hegelian exemplarist. The United States was on the right side of history, which would soon reach liberal-democratic perfection without America’s helping hand. In the 1990s, the world was indeed going America’s way, what with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Empire, as well as the demise of despots all round.
The 44th President is not an isolationist like John Quincy Adams, who warned the nation against going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Indeed, Obama’s emissaries keep their fingers in every foreign pie. Neither is Obama a human-rights idealist like Jimmy Carter; he hardly uses that kind of lofty language. He is certainly not an idealist-interventionist, or “liberal imperialist” like Woodrow Wilson, who liked to “teach the Mexicans how to elect good men”, or George W. Bush, who went off to slay modern-day monsters like Saddam to implant the blessings of democracy in the Middle East.
Nor is No. 44 a “realist” in the vein of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton deployed the language of realism, a.k.a. “balance of power”, like a Nevis-born Richelieu. He saw the fledgling country as a new Britain, which would pit the Continental powers against one another and so “dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world.” Neither is Obama a Richard Nixon, who kept invoking a “multipolar world” while playing China against Soviet Russia, and both against North Vietnam, as if he were Palmerston redivivus. Obama is certainly not in the straight-imperialist tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, who saw the United States as a “young giant” standing “on a continent and clasp(ing) the crest of an ocean in either hand.” Then he went off to grab Cuba in a little war that also netted the Philippines.
So where in the American ideology is Barack Obama? There is only one clear answer: Obama’s America is in withdrawal mode. The United States has left Iraq and will leave Afghanistan. Interventionism is out; hence Obama’s relief when the Russians, who know a vacuum when they see one, offered him a way out of a bombing campaign against Assad’s chemical arsenal. Hence the President’s reluctance to join the French air force when Paris led the charge against Libya’s Qaddafi. Unlike Bill Clinton, who dispatched, if ever so briefly, combat troops to Somalia, Obama will not entangle the country in Central Africa. Likewise, he let the European Union play first fiddle in the duel against Russia over Ukraine. He has cut the U.S. military presence in Europe down to rock bottom, without really executing a men-and-steel “pivot” toward the Pacific.
What, then, shall we call Obama? Maybe a “liberal domesticist”, an awkward term. The moniker would certainly be justified by his oratory, which is replete with the stock phrase “it’s time for a little nation-building at home” under social-democratic auspices. He is cutting the military and the defense budget. Apart from “nation-building at home”, there is no doctrine and no grand design, which every modern American President felt compelled to promulgate. “Containment” (Truman), “Atlantic Partnership” (Kennedy), or “Freedom Agenda” (Reagan, Bush) are defunct shibboleths. Grandiloquent oratory is out.
This is a clear and distinct rupture of the American ideological tradition that reaches back to Washington’s Farewell Address. It is, so to speak, “un-American.” It is present-day “European.” Contemporary Chancellors and Prime Ministers may discourse on this or that foreign policy; they don’t issue theories or doctrines. Palmerston and Castlereagh did, dwelling at length on Britain’s eternal role on the balance-of-power stage. Cameron no longer does.
If Obama has a design, he does not divulge it. He seems to be floating in the here and now. He does not articulate a sense of America’s purpose in the world. He does not seek out friends, nor does he chastise enemies. It is neither interventionism nor isolationism, neither idealism nor realism, neither commitment nor reclusion, neither exemplarism nor liberal imperialism.
To unearth what American policy “really” is, we should look at the Obama record since 2009. Offhand, patterns are hard to discern. At first there was the “politics of goodness”, as manifested in the “reset” with Russia and the “let’s make up” speech to the Islamic world in Cairo. The extended hand was grasped by neither Moscow nor Tehran. Then a bit of the opposite—a bout of power politics: the troops surge in Afghanistan, followed by the ongoing drawdown. In 2011, there was again the assertion of American power when Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in Pakistan. But two years later, Obama famously announced that the war on terror, like all wars, must end.
More of “anything goes.” The President pledged to work for a “global zero” world free of nuclear weapons, while asking Congress to appropriate $70 billion for the modernization of the U.S. arsenal. The “goodness factor” was on the low side when it came to climate policy. Thus, too, when the “Tehran Spring” erupted in the summer of 2009 and the United States would not commit to the “Green Revolution.”
In Egypt, the Administration wavered and wiggled. There was a bit of realpolitik, the attempt to prop up our man Mubarak. And a dollop of democracy promotion that ended up bringing another unsavory regime, the Islamists, to power. In the aftermath of the counter-revolution that reinstalled military control, the Administration oscillated between sanctions, like cutting military aid, and tacit acceptance. After all, wasn’t General Sisi the lesser evil compared to the Islamists? Friendship with Israel? Yes, but… Enmity toward Iran? The “military option” against Tehran’s bomb remained on the table, of course, but the Administration was eager to avoid it like AIDS and the plague rolled into one. And so it went, a grand strategy with neither keel nor compass.
And yet there is a pattern. Call it “indifferent unilateralism” plus “diffident realism” whose contours remain unarticulated. The best example is the Middle East. A year into his second term, the President went by the textbook on balance-of-power politics. He widened the distance between the United States and its traditional allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the small Gulf states. Conversely, he launched a systematic rapprochement with Iran. Obama’s Washington, presumably, intends to play one side against the other, and so exert pressure on both. It is a tricky game that depends on the United States staying in the saddle.
A similar game unfolds in the Pacific. No, no “containment”, no new bases or new contractual commitments. It is “over-the-horizon” policing laced with alliance politics. The alliance part uses Japan, South Korea, et al. to weave a fine-spun net around the Chinese Gulliver. The outcome of this game depends on commitments loose enough to wiggle out of them—and tight enough to reassure America’s Asian allies so that they keep “bandwagoning” with Washington. They did not teach that fine art in Harvard Law School.
The “indifferent unilateralism” motif is best exemplified by two items. One is the systematic use of tightly targeted power, a.k.a. “drones” and “special forces.” The other is the global digital surveillance of billions of emails and phone calls, including the tapping of foreign leaders’ cellphones. These were not amused when they found out, yet the Obama Administration has refused to curb its planetary snooping, whether that entails gathering meta-data or listening in on friendly governments. Such use of American power requires no allies and no friends. It is unalloyed unilateralism. Recall that going it alone has always been the flip side of isolationism. The Obama version might be called “smart isolationism.” Like “smart sanctions” or “smart power”, to recruit two shibboleths du jour, “smart isolationism” isn’t the real, full-scale thing, but a mindset compatible with both intrusion and indifference. A bit of this and a bit of that, as the wind blows.
Recall also that America has gone through withdrawal phases before, usually after a great war: World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Some were longish, like the retreat between 1919 and the late 1930s. Some were brief, as after 1945, 1954, and 1975 (when the Vietnam War ended). In each case, war-weariness translated into “Come home, America”, as George McGovern famously proclaimed during the 1972 presidential campaign. In each case, the rebound eventually followed because the world wouldn’t quite accommodate itself to America’s reflexes. Fresh and old threats demanded American attention because others proved unable to fashion and secure a new balance of power.
Though America’s longest wars, Afghanistan and Iraq do not add up to “great wars” like World Wars I and II. The entanglements in the Greater Middle East were very expensive, and with little to show. No wonder the nation wants to go home. Since 1919, though, History whispers that the “concert of nations” will degenerate into a cacophony of trumpets and kettledrums unless America wields the baton. Yet conductors keep the orchestra in line only when they read from a compelling score and stay onstage 24/7. Barack Obama, alas, is a reluctant and distracted maestro. Deep in his heart, one fears, he would rather be like Greta Garbo: “I want to be alone.”