Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Obama Doctrine

After the decision was made to intervene militarily in Libya, some pundits made the case that an Obama Doctrine was evident and called it "leading from behind." I'd suggest that is a small part of an emerging Obama Doctrine - but not the heart of things. As the President openly takes the lead on responding to the situation in the Ukraine, we can see how flawed it was.

Watching President Obama deal with various foreign policy challenges over the last year, a much more comprehensive view of how he approaches these things is evident. His North Star when it comes to evaluating situations and developing a strategy to deal with them is three-fold.

First of all, he bases his reaction on international laws, principles and ideals. This is where so many people misjudged his intentions in Syria. As we saw, he routinely rejected the advise of many (including those in his cabinet) to get involved militarily in that country's civil war. The pragmatist in him knows there's no workable solution there. But when Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, it was a serious breach of international law. That was the basis for his attempts to rally the international community to respond. When Putin realized that the President was serious, he counseled his ally Assad to give up those chemical weapons. Syria is in the process of doing that as we speak.

When it comes to the current situation in the Ukraine, here's how President Obama articulated that yesterday in Brussels:
...our enduring strength is also reflected in our respect for an international system that protects the rights of both nations and people -- a United Nations and a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international law and the means to enforce those laws.

But we also know that those rules are not self-executing.

They depend on people and nations of good will continually affirming them.

And that’s why Russia’s violation of international law, its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, must be met with condemnation, not because we’re trying to keep Russia down, but because the principles that have meant so much to Europe and the world must be lifted up.
Secondly, when it comes to a strategy to uphold those international laws and principles, President Obama continually affirms the power of partnership. Whether it involves military action to stop a genocide in Libya or economic sanctions that bring Iran to the negotiating table, President Obama has taken the lead in bringing the weight of a united global community to bear on the offenders of international norms. As he said in Cairo, that is a strategy particularly suited to our interconnectedness in the 21st century.
For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes -- and, yes, religions -- subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.
Thirdly, as the weight of global pressure mounts on the offenders of international law, President Obama continually affirms that it is in their own best interests to change course. In other words, he always offers a way out. Here's how he talked about that with respect to the negotiations with Iran.
I think it's entirely legitimate to say that this is a regime that does not share our worldview or our values. I do think...that as we look at how they operate and the decisions they've made over the past three decades, that they care about the regime's survival. They're sensitive to the opinions of the people and they are troubled by the isolation that they're experiencing. They know, for example, that when these kinds of sanctions are applied, it puts a world of hurt on them. They are able to make decisions based on trying to avoid bad outcomes from their perspective. So if they're presented with options that lead to either a lot of pain from their perspective, or potentially a better path, then there's no guarantee that they can't make a better decision.
And here is how he described the message to Russia yesterday.
But with time, so long as we remain united, the Russian people will recognize that they cannot achieve the security, prosperity and the status that they seek through brute force.

And that’s why throughout this crisis we will combine our substantial pressure on Russia with an open door for diplomacy.

I believe that for both Ukraine and Russia, a stable peace will come through de-escalation, a direct dialogue between Russia and the government of Ukraine and the international community, monitors who can ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, a process of constitutional reform within Ukraine and free and fair elections this spring.
Those three steps encompass the Obama Doctrine as it relates to U.S. involvement in global affairs. It is a total rejection of the isolation espoused by libertarians and the reliance on military dominance of the neocons. In other words, it is a strong, principled foreign policy that can be embraced by any Democrat/liberal/progressive.


  1. in addition to the high-falutin principles stuff, there's a 4th - something along the lines of: if he sees an opening for a knockout ninja punch, he won't shy away from taking it. see also bin laden, somali pirates, stolen libya oil tanker

    not as hello kitty warm fuzzy as the other stuff, but real and gives credibility to the stick half of the "carrots and sticks" balance game.

    1. When I was writing this I thought about adding a qualifier that when our own national security is threatened, a whole different paradigm comes into play.

    2. Please insert "directly" in my comment above between "is" and "threatened." Thanks ;-)

    3. Good point, sheriff. I like the way Obama uses the stick. When it can come out of nowhere and it's effective, that's got to make America's enemies think twice.

  2. Thank you for this. It makes very clear how vastly different this president is compared to all his predecessors who followed the Cold War directives and too often acted unilaterally. It is precisely our march AWAY from imperialism - a conscious, calculated means of avoiding conflict AND settling serious problems - that heralds our entry into a new era of foreign policy. I am stunned at how many people never see it, don't want it (Condi Rice wants us to re-engage in war again), or think it's meaningless when it's actually revolutionary. I appreciate your clear and concise assessment.

  3. Thanks for this spot on analysis of President Obama's foreign policy, Nancy. I wish every American c/would read it because it would provide them more insight into the way this president envisions the role of the U.S. in the world, and how he is trying to resolve conflict instead of inciting it. Whether many Americans realize it or not, this is a very fiscally responsible approach to conducting foreign relations---something which republicans in particular should embrace because it aligns with the GOP's claim to support fiscal conservatism, but it seems that these days, anything this president is for, the GOP is against. They might not appreciate President Obama's approach to conducting international relations, but I do, and I think the other nations do, too. It's well past the time that the U.S. stops acting like other nations don't exist and set an example, and hopefully, a precedent, for resolving conflict through international cooperation.

  4. Hi Sp
    This truly is "speak softly and carry a big stick"! My own analogy that my friends and I joke about is-PBO is a coiled, patient cobra and he has friends in the area!


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