Atlantic Council
June 04, 2014
Does Barack Obama's speech last week to the graduating class of West Point outlining his philosophy on the United States role in the world represent a new "Obama Doctrine" or is it actually more in line with traditional US foreign policy since the Second World War ?

The answer to this question is : Yes. Yes to both. Obama outlined a foreign policy philosophy relying much more on multilateralism and soft power and that represents a departure from the post-9/11 attitude that "America is under attack," or could soon be again, and that the appropriate response is to use force to counter-attack, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, Obama took care to place his remarks very much in the tradition of the foreign policy continuum since the Second World War, citing Eisenhower and Kennedy and the US role in building multilateral institutions.

Obama's critics have said that his speech, and his doctrine, amount to a vacuous de-militarization of US foreign policy. Is that the case ?

Clearly not, but there is a rebalancing. In his speech, Obama said, "The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it : when our people are threatened ; when our livelihoods are at stake ; when the security of our allies is in danger." But he also said that "to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action. ... Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail." Obama emphasized, in the near-sacred surroundings of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the value of the military but balanced the use of the military with other means in international relations : "The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of [US] leadership. But US military action cannot be the only, or even primary, component of our leadership in every instance."

Do Obama's speech and the doctrine outlined in it constitute just another expression of American exceptionalism ?

This is where the speech and the doctrine become significantly more subtle — and more interesting to interpret. Obama said, as if repeating a required refrain : "I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being." He then added : "But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law ; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions." In this passage, he is re-defining American exceptionalism away from its traditional "shining city on a hill" to being exemplary, in other words to behaving like any other highly civilized country. He had to be careful on this point of exceptionalism because many Americans, especially in government, especially in the military and especially in Congress, believe in the "America First" quasi-religious version of American exceptionalism, "my country right or wrong." Obama clearly does not believe in that kind of exceptionalism and indeed he outlined a philosophy in which that kind of American exceptionalism would be subject to the containment — the word is not too strong — of allies and friends : "We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes." The Obama re-definition of American exceptionalism is exemplarity — "American influence is always stronger when we lead by example. We cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else" — in other words, being a country admirable for its virtues not just its power. And he specifically cited development and climate change as international issues, clearly ones without a martial solution, as challenges where America should seek to be exemplary by working with others.

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