The Obama doctrine

In a 20,000-word essay, Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg has offered the best explanation yet for U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. “The Obama Doctrine” reveals a cool-headed thinker, a realist— someone with a true understanding of the limits of power — who both appreciates and somewhat resents the role of the United States as the world’s “indispensable power.”

The first key point to take away is that Obama thinks long and hard about foreign policy and, most importantly, about the appropriate use of power and the meaning of leadership. His is not a reflexive approach to U.S. engagement with the world; it reflects deep thought about, continued grappling with and considerable skepticism toward the guiding principles of American foreign policy.

For Obama, “real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.” He does not believe in posturing, chest-thumping or bullying. Instead, he seeks to unite governments in pursuit of shared interests and concerns. Washington leads by marshaling coalitions, setting agendas and making it possible for diverse nations to work together, each contributing its own perspectives and resources. This is the classic application of “soft power,” Harvard Professor Joseph Nye’s notion that power reflects the ability to get other countries to join your efforts willingly, in the belief that what you want is also good for them. This approach also means that one of the most important things the U.S. can do is to get its own house in order. The U.S. must be strong at home, with both physical resources and moral strength, before it can claim to lead others. This belief animated Obama’s first National Security Strategy. It is sometimes mistaken for a desire to disengage, but that is a misreading of his intentions.

Plainly, Obama believes in multilateralism. In an age of transnational threats and dwindling national resources, each country must do more with less. But, and this is critical, all nations must contribute. Obama’s disdain for “free riders” is clear, and no nation — no matter how “special” a relationship with the U.S. — gets a pass. Apparently, there is considerable heartburn in London over some of Obama’s comments about British Prime Minister David Cameron and his government’s readiness to spend on defense. At the same time, however, the U.S. retains a central role by mobilizing nations and ensuring that they act to address international concerns. Obama also values multilateralism for the brake it imposes on U.S. unilateralism. It is “a way to check America’s more unruly impulses.”

That last acknowledgement is part of the larger idea that “For all of our warts, the United States has clearly been a force for good in the world.” That qualifier has infuriated hawks and conservatives, but for many others that humility is refreshing. Obama’s readiness to see through the idealized notion of U.S. “greatness” is a corrective to the confidence, certainty and periodic hubris that has often dominated U.S. foreign policy.

Central to the Obama doctrine is the reorientation of U.S. foreign policy. Obama has tired of the Middle East, believing, consistent with his “realist” orientation, that the U.S’ ability to shape outcomes there is limited. Absent a desire among that region’s inhabitants to make peace, the U.S. cannot impose one. With U.S. reliance on the region’s energy resources being reduced, the hold that traditional allies have had on U.S. foreign policy is reduced as well. Obama sees other governments attempting — and succeeding — in getting the U.S. to advance their interests, often at the expense of the U.S. national interest; Saudi Arabia comes in for particular criticism here. Israel, on the other hand, remains a privileged partner and the U.S. commitment to that democracy remains strong.

The Middle East’s loss is Asia’s gain. Obama understands that the center of global dynamism, wealth and power is shifting to Asia. He seeks to tap that new energy for his country and to help channel it toward resolution of global problems. Asia is also a powerful test case for his model of leadership: U.S. military strength is important, but the region seeks engagement on different terms, primarily economic. The rebalance to Asia, Obama’s signature initiative, operationalizes that approach with the priority it gives to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

One of the most important components of the Obama doctrine is his rejection of the “Washington playbook” on foreign policy. He is ready to challenge fundamental assumptions about U.S. foreign policy — who its best partners are, how to use U.S. strength — to play the “long game” to protect U.S. interests. He is ready to make deals with Cuba and Iran, two governments long assumed hostile to U.S. interests and thus beyond the pale for diplomatic engagement. He is less concerned with abstract notions of credibility and more with the concrete results of policy decisions. He is not prepared to join the chorus hyping threats because they dominate headlines.

The president looks long and hard at the world around him and tries to maximize U.S. influence with a minimum of resources. That makes him a real realist, one who believes in the economy of power. It is a break from the recent practice of American presidents, although the U.S. presidential debates suggest this cool thoughtful analysis may only prove to be a temporary respite.