On a trip to Asia last month, President Obama was asked by a reporter if his foreign
policy doctrine (what some describe as a policy of disengagement, soft power and “leading from behind”) was still relevant given the inability of the United States to shape world events. Initially taken aback by the question, the president then offered a broad defense of his use of American influence.
“That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows,” Obama said, referring to the use of economic sanctions and international institutions to shape world events. “But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”
“Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force,” Obama added. “And the question I think I would have is, why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?”
Obama’s defense of his own doctrine comes at a time when the effectiveness of U.S. actions is in question. Around the world, the United States is perceived as failing to influence events in ways it once did.
For instance, it is not yet clear whether Obama’s strategy to check Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine will work. A new round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians - initiated by the State Department - has fallen apart completely. China is making new territorial claims, despite America’s “pivot to Asia.” The future of Afghanistan remains in doubt. NSA Spying revelations have left transatlantic relations in tatters, in particular with Angela Merkel in Germany.
“The overall Obama doctrine is based on the view held by many of the left that the United States should let others lead,” said Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
When asked how history would judge the doctrine, Gardiner said, “Very harshly. I think the last few years have been very damaging for the United States on the world stage. It’s a period in which America’s adversaries have grown stronger while American leadership has been in retreat.”
Misunderstanding the world
Christian Whiton, a former Bush administration State Department senior advisor, said that Obama has used soft power and yielded the international stage so often that it is easy to define his doctrine. “Given his remarkable if tragic consistency, it’s actually easier to discern an Obama Doctrine than a Bush or Clinton Doctrine,” he said.
He attributed Obama’s failure of this doctrine to a misunderstanding of how the world works.
“Beginning with his inauguration, where he called on enemies to “unclench your fist,” Obama has sought breakthroughs by embracing adversaries and pushing away traditional allies,” Whiton said. “Behind this is the belief that came out of the peace movement during the Cold War that most international conflicts were just misunderstandings made worse by corrupt American power.”
“Fundamentally, the Obama Doctrine is about replacing American power with a benevolent and behavior-improving international community,” he added. “Unfortunately for Obama, only one of those two things is real."
Playing the Long Game?
However, others within the foreign policy community believe that the Obama doctrine has had its successes. For instance, they argue that Obama has used sanctions to effectively check Putin, who - for now - has softened his rhetoric in the Ukraine crisis.
“It may very well be fair to say that the sanctions have worked to stop further advances. Certainly the strategy of creating a consensus with Europe has worked because we are now presenting a generally unified front,” former Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs Robert Shapiro, now an advisor to the International Monetary Fund and the co-founder of consulting firm Sonecon, told The Fiscal Times recently.
Edward Goldberg, a professor at Baruch College and the New York University Center for Global Affairs, echoed this view. He said that in a globalized economy old hard power approaches to foreign policy are no longer effective.
“States might be rivals but today they are also each other’s joint venture partners,” he said. “Putin's foreign policy, which is not so much different form [former Vice President Dick] Cheney's view, calls for a bombastic headline making policy based on the idea that loud noise will be a deterrence and protect a nation's interest. But the loud noise is irrelevant … if your economy is not strong. I believe Obama fully understands this.”
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