Barack Obama’s foreign policy reflects a moral duality that has befuddled friends and enemies alike
Barack Obama’s foreign policy, like the main character in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, reflects a moral duality that has befuddled friends and enemies alike and will complicate the evolving world order.
As Dr Barack, deeply influenced by the 20th century Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, he envisioned a world without nuclear weapons; promised to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp; and opposed “dumb” intervention wars to overthrow dictators that lacked international support.
Yet as President Obama, he promoted a $1 trillion proposal—the costliest post-Cold War plan—to upgrade nuclear weapons capability over three decades; failed to shut down the morally reprehensible Cuban camp and authorized a 10-fold increase in drone strikes; and, on the advice of the “responsibility to protect” brigade in his cabinet, undertook the calamitous intervention in Libya to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, which (along with the earlier disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003) in turn led to the rise of the Islamic State (IS).
However, unlike the tragic protagonist in Stevenson’s book, Obama has justified and managed these contradictions, apart from Libya, which he admits was a “mistake” and is a “mess”. In fact, Libya, more than any other foreign policy entanglement, not only reinforced Obama’s original beliefs but is one he is now using to redefine the US foreign policy priorities. In a comprehensive article inThe Atlantic magazine by Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama outlined three principles of his doctrine.
First, the US should get involved abroad only when there is an existential threat to it. While scholars disagree on what might constitute an existential threat, Obama has set the bar differently: he considers climate change to be a “potential existential threat” rather than the IS or even the proxy wars in Syria. Similarly, the presence and use of chemical weapons in Syria and a nuclear-armed Iran also qualify as direct national security threats. In such instances, the US would be willing to act unilaterally.
Second, that the recourse to use of force in the first instance is not always the best way to address the threat. As Obama argued: “real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence” and “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you are willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force”. Indeed, two of Obama’s biggest foreign policy successes—the disarming of Syria’s chemical arsenal and the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear weapons potential—were achieved almost entirely through diplomacy and with international support.
Third, the US should accept that, despite its dominant position, it cannot “fix everything”, especially in areas and on issues that do not pose a direct threat. Instead, in the emerging multipolar world, the US should encourage multilateral solutions because “multilateralism regulates hubris”. In this context, Obama is as critical of “free rider” allies, including Britain, France, Arab states and, notably, Pakistan, as he is of adversaries for entrapping Washington into conflicts that are not in the US interest.
These principles notwithstanding Obama’s doctrine suffers from three shortcomings. First, it does not practically envision reforming global multilateral peace and security institutions, particularly the UN Security Council. Second, it does not have a grand plan to empower emerging stakeholders in global governance, particularly India, to take on greater responsibility in providing net security at the regional and global level. Instead, it raises concerns of a G-zero scenario, where no one takes responsibility. Finally, despite recognizing the import of non-military instruments in preventing and resolving conflict, investment in them has been wanting. For instance, as Brookings scholar Tamara Cofman Wittes notes, between May 2011 and September 2013, democratic reform in West Asia moved from a “top priority” to a bare footnote.
While the Obama doctrine might move closer to the principles of Dr Barack in the last months of his presidency, the prospects of its continuation under his successor remains uncertain.
This article first appeared in Mint on March 14, 2016. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.