Does Obama Really Play the Foreign-Policy Long Game?

Image: President Barack Obama listens during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 6, 2010.​ Flickr/The White House

Derek Chollet reflects on the last eight years.

It is unfortunate for Derek Chollet that the infamous David Samuels interview with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes has rapidly emerged as the definitive summary of the foreign-policy approach of the Obama administration, with, as Peter Apps of Reuters noted, its focus on the insularity and inexperience of the president’s inner circle, as well as its supposed reliance on spin substituting for policy achievement. It is to be hoped that with the release of his magisterial recapitulation of Barack Obama’s approach to U.S. national security and America’s place in the global order—The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World—Chollet, who helped to formulate and execute the foreign-affairs policies of the United States, will be able to shift the conversation back towards the actual record of events.

As outside observers of the administration’s efforts from our perch in the National Security Affairs department of the Naval War College, we note that Nikolas Gvosdev’s assessment of the Obama approach as one of “strategic patience” is confirmed by an insider—one who served as principal deputy director of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department, as the senior director on the National Security Council for strategic planning, and as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Chollet terms the Obama approach as the “long game”—an effort to renew and sustain American power in the world for the foreseeable future, rather than have it be frittered away chasing ephemeral and, in many cases, unrealizable short-term objectives.

The “long game” is based on eight pillars: balance (not overprioritizing any one region or any one instrument of national power); precision; sustainability; restraint; patience (all four of which emphasize achieving acceptable, discrete outcomes rather than holding out for maximalist objectives); fallibility (understanding that the United States is neither omniscient nor omnipotent); skepticism (a willingness not to be tied to old orthodoxies); and exceptionalism—that the United States, alone among the great powers, has the will, capability and vision to support a global order that enhances the security, freedom and prosperity not only of Americans but of the entire world. It is based on an assessment that the United States is more likely to make progress via incremental change—and that some problems cannot be solved, only contained and mitigated. In addition, the “long game” is characterized by a focus on end states, not on the day-to-day vicissitudes of the twenty-four-hour media cycle, and by a flexibility to try different approaches and even to take gambles in an effort to reach these desired outcomes.

Peggy Noonan once famously remarked that books by Washington insiders are either intended to validate the author’s place and position in the annals of the administration or to cast blame for mistakes on others. Chollet’s book breaks with that standard. There is a willingness to acknowledge the missteps and setbacks of the administration—that there could be a gap between speeches and actual policy outcomes, that a cautious long-game approach might miss opportunities, that the national security process did not seem to work as well as it was intended. There is a frank discussion of the events surrounding the “red line” over Syria and the decision to ultimately eschew force in favor of a Russian-brokered diplomatic solution to the question of the regime’s chemical weapons. Moreover, Chollet inserts a first-person perspective only when it strengthens the overall narrative of events. Ultimately, this is not a personal memoir of what Derek Chollet did during the Obama administration, or an effort to litigate his role in it, but rather to establish, define and defend the overall foreign policy legacy of the Obama administration.

Chollet realizes that he must do this amidst a U.S. foreign policy community that, for the most part, whether Republican or Democrat, does not want to really admit that the unipolar moment of the post–Cold War era is over, and that has also been skeptical of Obama's stewardship of national security affairs. The United States has less ability to compel others to accept its bidding, because other powers have risen or resurged, and because the United States has less to spend. Direct confrontation and an unwillingness to compromise may sound like projecting strength, but are less effective in actually achieving beneficial results. In contrast, a U.S. response that focuses on holding the line—whether in terms of Ukraine, the South China Sea or Iranian nuclear capabilities— rather than on forcing an immediate reversal creates conditions where negative short-term outcomes can be mitigated and the United States can wait to let the long-term unfavorable prospects of the Iranian theocracy, the Vladimir Putin regime or the Chinese Communist oligarchy play themselves out, without having to drain American power to artificially accelerate the process (or even risk inadvertently reversing it). This puts the administration at odds with much of the foreign-policy community, which identifies resolve and resoluteness with immediate action, usually with a strong military component, and sees strategic patience as a sign of weakness and indecision.