America under Obama is not in retreat. Critics who make that claim confuse “internationalism” with “interventionism.” Obama is more skeptical about the use of military force than the last President, but he is manifestly more internationalist in his embrace of the wider spectrum of partnerships, institutions, and diplomatic engagements that make up the American-led order. Indeed, military interventionism can erode internationalism, as the Iraq misadventure shows—a war that damaged American leadership and its reputation for power, undermined the willingness of other countries to work with us on shared interests, generated nearly a trillion dollars of debt, and left the American people less eager to act abroad.
In fact, in rhetoric and action, the Obama Administration embraces the core internationalist convictions driving American foreign policy over the past half-century:
• The United States has and should advance its interests—economic, political, security—by building and leading an open and liberal-oriented international order.
• This international order is unique—different from past imperial and balance-of-power orders—in that it is organized around support for the rule of law, open and reciprocal trade, and a commitment to democratic government and human rights.
• The United States has unique responsibilities for leading and upholding this order: generating public goods, providing security, opening markets, fostering political transitions.
• Alliances, partnerships, and institutional commitments do not hinder American power but make it more effective, legitimate, and durable.
• Deep engagement in all regions of the world—through forward defense, trade, diplomacy—are necessary to sustain this order and protect American interests.
Obama’s restraint, including his decision not to intervene militarily in Syria, should not be mistaken for weakness. America’s image in the world has improved under Obama, and U.S. leadership is more welcome. What critics see as retreat is actually the United States coming off its post-9/11 war footing and, just as importantly, Obama learning the strategic lessons of the past decade. Permanent wartime mobilization and eagerness to engage in unwinnable military interventions are not the metrics for measuring American strength or leadership. They have more often made it harder to sustain the postwar liberal order that has been at the center of our foreign policy successes for the past several decades, and that will continue to be going forward.
Does the Obama Administration have a grand strategy? If we are looking for something resembling Kennan’s doctrine of containment or Kissinger’s strategy of détente, it will not be found. Neither can one find the soaring rhetoric of the last Administration with its war on terror and grandiose goal of “ending tyranny in our world.” Indeed, perhaps surprisingly, Obama has not built a foreign policy around a grand strategic doctrine. As he told David Remnick of the New Yorker, “I don’t really even need a George Kennan right now.” This is true, even though the Kennan of American Diplomacy would have very good things to say about Obama.
To be sure, the circumstances Obama faced in coming to office reinforced this strategic humility: a global economic meltdown, soaring budget deficits, and two costly and unpopular wars. Obama has also faced a Republican opposition that is determined not to give Obama any “wins” and, for the first time since the 1950s, it contains leading political figures—such as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul—who question the basic terms of the postwar, American-led international order. It is a Republican opposition that has been willing to risk default on the American debt—and a global financial crisis—to pressure the President on partisan issues. Obama also faces a war-weary American public—wearied, it is worth pointing out, by the poor decisions of a more interventionist Administration. This public is rightly skeptical, as he is, about the ability of military force to shape political outcomes in the Middle East.
The best description of Obama’s strategic orientation is pragmatic internationalism. It is an internationalism that is more world-weary than aspirational, more transactional than transformational. It is as much realist as it is liberal internationalist.
You see this pragmatic vision in Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, perhaps his most personal statement on American power and the sources of international order. Obama argued that the United States has both a moral and strategic interest in “binding” itself to the global system of rules and institutions. After all, he noted, “America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.” But he also argued that American hegemony—and America’s willingness to “underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms”—has been an essential source of stable order. In his Oslo speech, Obama quoted from President Kennedy’s famous lines in his 1963 American University address, which called for an “attainable peace” that does not depend on a “sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.” This is a sober intellectual vision that resists the foreign policy of big gestures and grand designs in favor of small steps and the search for achievable gains. Obama is “playing the long game”, seeking to shift global partnerships and alignments in America’s direction.
This full spectrum internationalism can be contrasted with other types of internationalism, as Henry R. Nau’s recent book on “conservative internationalism” makes clear. But it also stands in contrast to the growing body of grand strategic thinking that comes under the labels of “retrenchment”, “restraint”, and “off-shore balancing.” These truly are visions that call for a strategic retreat from alliances and deep engagement, but they are politically and intellectually a world apart from Obama and the people who run his foreign policy. Obama and his colleagues are comfortably in the middle of the American postwar, internationalist mainstream.
While Obama’s internationalism embodies classic American themes, two assumptions about the current global shift also inform his policy, further reinforcing his internationalism. One assumption is that power is diffusing. The unipolar distribution of power is slowly giving way to a world where more states will have capacities and demand a voice. This is not a declinist assumption but a belief that the United States needs to invest in global arrangements that will protect its interests in a more crowded world. Obama’s first national security strategy report emphasized the goal of bringing rising developing states into the international order. This was also a theme of Secretary Clinton’s several major speeches, where she argued that the United States does not seek a multipolar world but rather a “multi-partnership” world. The Administration’s elevation of the G-20 Summit as a venue for leadership dialogue reflects this emphasis. You see it in outreach to India, Brazil, Turkey, and other emerging states. The idea is that the United States needs to find ways to lead through new sorts of coalitions. Some might call this “leading from behind”, but it is closer to an idea that Obama framed in his 2013 UN General Assembly speech: America will lead if others are behind us.
The second assumption is that security interdependence between the United States and other countries is increasing, so new and intensified forms of security cooperation will be needed. Technology and interdependence are making national solutions to security problems increasingly untenable. This has been true in terms of nuclear weapons for half a century. But it is also true because of the longer-term and more recent rise of transnational threats—WMD proliferation, global warming, pandemics, and so forth. Looking into the next decades, the United States cannot be safe alone; it can only be safe through security cooperation with others.
This sort of pragmatic internationalism can be seen in four key Obama foreign policy initiatives. One is the Nuclear Security Summit, an international gathering that epitomizes the Obama approach. In the initial meeting in 2010, Obama hosted the leaders of 47 countries in Washington with the aim of encouraging efforts to secure nuclear materials and prevent nuclear terrorism. The idea is not to promulgate a new multilateral treaty but rather to foster national efforts to strengthen the monitoring and safeguarding of nuclear facilities. Non-nuclear states have been drawn into the process, and China is increasingly an active member of this gathering. The idea is to foster informal cooperation on a preeminent security problem.
A second policy initiative is the rebalance to Asia. In retrospect, it would probably have been best not to wave around terms such as “pivot” and “rebalance.” It raises questions in countries outside of Asia about the future of American security commitments (after all, the pivot is “away” from them), and it focuses scrutiny on American activities inside of Asia. But the underlying idea is clear: The United States is determined to play a counterweight role to the rise of Chinese power. Under Obama, the United States signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and Obama and the Secretary of State have actually showed up at the ASEAN Regional Forum, putting the United States in a position to lead on the South China Sea dispute. The Administration has also showed leadership on Burma—a bigger achievement for human freedom and democracy than anything that happened as a result of the grand gestures of the Bush Administration. Obama is not pursuing a strategy of containment of China but steady reinforcement of America’s far-flung system of security partnerships in the region. In the meantime, the Obama Administration has articulated an agenda for cooperation with Beijing in areas such as energy, the environment, and nuclear non-proliferation. Rather than withdraw from Asia, the United States is allowing itself to be drawn into ever more elaborate and far-reaching relationships.
Third, the two large trade initiatives—the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—are another major effort to extend American economic leadership. Both agreements are still under negotiation and face difficult paths. But they reflect Obama’s strategic vision. In the TPP, the Obama Administration is seeking to undercut more narrow regional trade pacts that favor China with Transpacific rules and arrangements that reinforce global standards and flows. The trade pact with the European Union has geopolitical implications, building integrated markets between Western countries that generate growth and reinforce old political bonds.
Fourth, the nuclear diplomacy with Iran may succeed or fail, but it is emblematic of Obama’s pragmatic internationalist search for deals. The Administration assembled the strongest sanctions regime ever attempted, working with its traditional European partners together with Chinese and Russian support. Obama himself has articulated the interests that the United States has in a settlement that prevents Iran from getting a bomb—but that also offers a pathway for Iran back into the world community. Despite its dangers, this is a diplomatic effort with a potential payoff that dwarfs anything the Bush Administration tried—but failed—to do in Iraq or the wider region. Obama himself has calmly withstood the indignities inflicted on him by an Israeli Prime Minister who has used his connections with politicians in Congress to orchestrate a campaign to badmouth and undermine what the President considers a seminal American national security objective.
The contrast between the Bush Administration’s response to Russia’s military moves in Georgia in 2008 and the Obama Administration’s response to Putin’s moves in Ukraine shows Obama’s pragmatic internationalism at work. The Bush Administration offered declarations of support to Georgia, but it did nothing to build an international coalition to sanction Russia. In the Ukraine crisis, Secretary Kerry has gone to Kiev, canceled the G-8 prep conference, and sought to build a wider coalition to sanction Moscow. The goal, of course, is to make this sort of move by Putin costly and thus persuade him to climb down and think twice about doing this sort of thing in the future. But to do this, a multilateral response is needed, whether with the European Union on economic sanctions or in institutions such as the OSCE. American bluster and muscle-flexing does not help further this multilateral response; if anything, it retards it.
Stepping back, the Obama Administration faces a “hegemonic dilemma” as it seeks to adjust and rebalance America’s global security commitments. On the one hand, after a decade of massive post-9/11 growth in military spending and costly Middle Eastern wars, the United States will sensibly bring down its spending and deployments. Indeed, the Pentagon has recently announced a plan to reduce the size of the standing army, guided by the judgment that it does not need the capacity to simultaneously fight two land wars. It will seek savings and redirect military spending to other priorities.
But downsizing is not retreat. The United States runs the largest military “system” the world has ever seen, with more than sixty countries linked to it. As long as fiscal resources are finite, the United States will need to make choices and trade-offs. The United States cannot be—nor should it want to be—everywhere and do everything. It needs to balance ends with means.
On the other hand, countries in all regions of the world depend on the United States for security. The United States is the linchpin for far-flung alliances and security partnerships. So countries need to know that American security provision is a certainty. If these commitments are not there, they will be forced to make other arrangements. The United States wants to maintain its credibility as a security provider but to do so in a way that does not encourage free riding.1 The Obama Administration has done this by taking steps to increase America’s presence in the Pacific, focusing on long-term, order-bolstering tasks rather than land wars in the Middle East.
So the challenge for Obama is to find ways to make strategic choices that keep defense costs at a sustainable level and encourage alliance burden-sharing, but to do these things without triggering regional security panics or an unraveling of the alliance system.2 As Obama argued in his 2009 West Point speech, keeping costs and commitments in balance is the key to sustaining American global engagement over the long term.
Obama is not engineering a grand strategic turn away from deep engagement. In fact, he is taking small but meaningful steps to move the United States into more intense cooperation with other countries—and not just in East Asia. Ironically, it is often the conservative critics of Obama—quick to question his commitment to strong global leadership—who are reluctant to sign on to internationalist agreements. This reluctance represents the greater threat to the international order than any aversion to intervention on the part of the White House. The Obama Administration favors ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, as does the Pentagon, which thinks it will be useful in countering Chinese maritime claims in the South and East China Seas, but conservatives in the Senate block ratification. The same is true for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which China has said it would sign if the United States does. With the disappearance of Republican internationalists such as Robert Dole and Richard Lugar, conservative support for American deep engagement has weakened.
Can the United States remain internationalist—in the spirit of every presidency since FDR—when key leaders in one of the two major parties doubt the basic premise of American hegemonic leadership? American internationalism and deep engagement with the world may be in trouble. But it is not Obama who threatens this great American postwar global tradition.
1After all, many foreign pundits who question Obama’s commitment to an American-led extended system of alliance security live in affluent Asian and European countries that spend much less of their GNP on defense. Perhaps their attention should be directed toward their own governments.
2Defense spending can come down to pre-9/11 levels—roughly 3 percent of American GNP—without jeopardizing forward deployments and deep engagement. See Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth, “Don’t Come Home, America: The Case Against Retrenchment”, International Security (Winter 2012/13).