Revisiting the Obama Doctrine

One of the first books to muse on Obama’s foreign policy was James Mann’s The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power. Briefly, Mann argued that Obama’s approach to international affairs and his view of the world was starkly different than that of his predecessor. Obama understood that American primacy was on the wane; Washington could not unilaterally dictate outcomes across the international landscape to its favour. Power was more diffuse and decentered. Multiple poles were flexing their muscles, having emerged. And the United States had to alter its core outlook and approach – It had to build coalitions with these emerging poles, cobble together frameworks that will include and integrate these nations by providing them greater voice within the international order and make them equal stakeholders. Doing so would, in Washington’s hopes, elicit their participation and leadership in contributing to the provision of global public goods. Years later, this approach appears to be in tatters. Regional powers have risen further. China’s ascent has roiled American efforts in integration. Russia under Putin has proven to be America’s chief irritant on the international stage. India has obstinately refused to be seen as an American partner and instead chosen to mark its distance. Other countries like Brazil and Turkey have intermittently squabbled with Washington, perceptively straining their bilateral relationships. These countries have banded together to cooperate within other institutional mechanisms like BRICS, IBSA, etc, that appear to be maturing after years of discord. Obama’s vision, though reflective of extant power realities, has not proven to be much of a guide insofar as official policymaking is concerned; the President’s grand strategy has effectively floundered. 

But has Obama’s view shifted despite his inability to execute his vision and strategy? His recent interview with The Economist allow us to make a judgment on that. Here’s the excerpt from the interview: 

The Economist: Can I push you a bit on that—using Africa as an example for a thing about general foreign policy? You worked really hard on this idea of getting responsible powers to work together. And I suppose as you look back, you might say the two problems you’ve had are, first, dealing with people who aren’t rational or are extremely difficult to deal with—like Mr Putin—or secondly, the problem is allies who aren’t prepared to put stuff in. And South Africa would seem to be emblematic of other new emerging powers. You’ve got South Africa, you’ve got Indonesia, you’ve got India. A lot of things you’ve tried to get them to back, they haven’t. And why do you think that is? Is that a phase they’re going through? What’s changing?

Mr Obama: Well, look, there’s no doubt that a robust, interventionist foreign policy on behalf of certain principles, ideals or international rules is not a tradition that most countries embrace. And in the 20th century and in the early stages of the 21st century, the United States continues to be the one indispensable power that is willing to spend blood and treasure on that. And part of my job has been to try to persuade countries that the United States will always shoulder a greater burden than others, but we still cannot do it alone given the complexity and interconnectedness of today’s world.

So when it comes to South Africa, we recognise a suspicion they may have about meddling too much in the affairs of Zimbabwe, for example. But my argument to them would be, ultimately, as a key regional power, if they fail to invest in the kind of international order or regional order that helps ordinary Zimbabweans thrive, then they’re going to have an immigration problem—which they already do. That, in turn, is going to put more pressure on them and their economies. And ultimately, those chickens will come home to roost.

I think there’s a recognition that that may be the case, but I think there’s still a worry on the part of many regional powers that if they are too meddlesome then they’re also exposing themselves to criticism from the outside. And so there’s a little bit of a north-south, traditional, non-aligned culture that dates back 20, 30 years that may take some time and may require a new generation of leadership to discard so that they can move forward in a more effective way.

Obama clearly sounds chastened. Although he hasn’t given up (complete) hope that these powers will and can play a role in sustaining the liberal international order that the United States establish and continues to run, one can clearly discern the naiveté of his earlier approach. Urging emerging powers to place international rules and norms above their interests even though, at times, their interests could be strengthened by those rules proved to be an unsound strategy. But his idealistic side does not lose hope that these countries will one day come to realise that the choice between nationalism and internationalism is a false one. However, countries like India, Indonesia and South Africa, leaving China and Russia aside, are countries focused on bolstering and fortifying their domestic economic trajectories for the foreseeable future and are unlikely to sign on to or subscribe to international norms or rules that are contrary to their interest. Domestic economic compulsions will drive their particular grand strategies and this will inevitably clash with the demands of emboldening and protecting the integrity of international rules. American grand strategy must operate from this particular assumption and work to see where domestic and international compulsions of these emerging powers align and forge an approach appropriate to that conjuncture. But this approach will result in a rather fluid and anarchic international order that is managed by stitching together political coalitions between countries as per the issue and not one that is governed by a series of institutions and rules aiming to regularise the conduct of managing global problems. And this is something that will require pragmatic and prudent leadership from the United States, capable on seeing problems independent, not interdependent, of each other. 

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