Clive Crook pokes fun of President Obama for being perhaps a wee bit overly ambitious on both domestic and foreign affairs but admires his enthusiasm. He wonders, however, whether the various efforts to reset America’s relations with the world constitute an “Obama Doctrine.”
If style and temperament can constitute a doctrine, the answer is yes. The intellectual traits that Mr Obama says he most prizes in himself and those around him are pragmatism and perseverance. Many would say that Mr Bush also had perseverance, carried to the point of dull-witted obstinacy, but nobody ever accused him of pragmatism. Mr Obama’s willingness to start anew, ask what works, offer respect to governments that crave it (even if they may not deserve it) and patiently seek progress where he may is refreshing.
One aspect of this pragmatism is the president’s desire to build alliances and cool old enmities, and work towards US aims through co-operation rather than confrontation. The trouble is, most US presidents – including Mr Obama’s predecessor – felt the same way until the world beat it out of them. Foreign policy doctrine is put to the test only when co-operation in pursuit of mutual interests fails to achieve results, and the hard choices that Mr Obama insists he is willing to make actually present themselves.
Though it is much too soon to write off Mr Obama’s friendly overtures, you could hardly describe them so far as a notable success.
He goes on the chide Obama for failures vis-a-vis Europe, North Korea, Russia, and Iran.
Obama was asked Sunday to define the “Obama Doctrine” for himself and, not surprisingly, obliged.
[T]here are a couple of principles that I’ve tried to apply across the board: Number one, that the United States remains the most powerful, wealthiest nation on Earth, but we’re only one nation, and that the problems that we confront, whether it’s drug cartels, climate change, terrorism, you name it, can’t be solved just by one country. And I think if you start with that approach, then you are inclined to listen and not just talk.
And so in all these meetings what I’ve said is, we have some very clear ideas in terms of where the international community should be moving; we have some very specific national interests, starting with safety and security that we have to attend to; but we recognize that other countries have good ideas, too, and we want to hear them. And the fact that a good idea comes from a small country like a Costa Rica should not somehow diminish the fact that it’s a good idea. I think people appreciate that. So that’s number one.
Number two, I think that — I feel very strongly that when we are at our best, the United States represents a set of universal values and ideals — the idea of democratic practices, the idea of freedom of speech and religion, the idea of a civil society where people are free to pursue their dreams and not be imposed upon constantly by their government. So we’ve got a set of ideas that I think have broad applicability. But what I also believe is that other countries have different cultures, different perspectives, and are coming out of different histories, and that we do our best to promote our ideals and our values by our example.
There’s more at the link, but that’s the gist of it. Thomas Barnett pronounces it “a great summary of how Obama has changed the tone and execution of U.S. foreign policy” but adds “I don’t think it comes anywhere close to resembling a doctrine. The unwinding of the financial crisis may yet produce one. Our renewed effort in AFPAK may produce one. But for now, what we have is a change in tactics but not strategy–and that’s enough to be grateful for, especially when you contrast it to Bush-Cheney or what McCain was likely to do.”
Dan Drezner reminds us that “Foreign policy doctrines often emerge after the fact — i.e., someone looks at foreign policy decisions/actions and suggests a pattern or philosophy that tie everything together in one neat cognitive package.” His own reading of Obama’s thrust thus far is that it comes down to “useless conflicts weaken necessary conflicts” and that the president is signaling which issues will be — and, importantly, which won’t — be priorities for his administration.
There’s good reason to be skeptical of the degree to which Obama’s foreign policy is actually new, much less a doctrine. Barnett and Drezner rightly note that changes in both tactics and optics are welcome given the point of departure. At some point, however, the time for apologies and mea culpas and pushing reset buttons must come to an end and actual leadership must begin. Given the magnitude of the challenges on the docket, it can’t come soon enough.
Obama has been in office only three months, so demanding a fully formed Doctrine worthy of the history books at this stage is asking too much. But it’s reasonable to expect substance at this point.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.