How Obama's Foreign Policy 'Long Game' Works

President Barack Obama in the Situation Room of the White House. Flickr/White House

It's a framework or checklist, not a doctrine.

This week, a central theme of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia has been that the United States is stronger at home and better positioned in the world than it was eight years ago—and that President Barack Obama has helped defined a new approach to the use of American power, one that Hillary Clinton will continue.

So it is worth taking a step back to ask: Is there an Obama Doctrine?

Almost all Presidents resist the doctrinal strait-jacket, and Obama rejects the idea that, in his words, there can be a “cookie-cutter approach” to global challenges. Yet he does have a coherent set of ideas about what he wants the United States to accomplish in the world, and how it should go about doing so. This is what academics describe as a “grand strategy,” and what I think of as Obama’s “Long Game” foreign policy.

The core elements of Obama’s Long Game are not the doctrine pundits clamor for, but they do comprise a kind of checklist, a practical framework to managing American power and making strategic choices, ensuring the United States remains in the best possible position to solve problems and pursue its interests. When thinking about Obama’s legacy and the lessons for his successors, the Long Game checklist is a good place to start.

Balance. This has defined Obama’s foreign policy approach in multiple ways: balance between America’s interests and values; balance between priorities at home and abroad; balance between goals in different regions; balance between priorities when seeking a certain outcome; balance between the responsibility the United States would assume and that it expected of others; balance among the tools of defense, diplomacy, and development used to solve problems.

Recall the situation Obama inherited: a foreign policy that was severely imbalanced, both in terms of the regional challenges (Middle East versus the Asia-Pacific) and the tools it used (military force versus diplomacy and development). More broadly, Obama found a situation whereby almost every measure of national policy—at home and abroad—America was declining.

Inherent to the idea of balance is to accept that, as powerful as the United States is, its resources are finite. This is self-evident, but strangely remains impolite to acknowledge. The essence of a successful grand strategy is prioritizing goals, making choices, allocating resources, and managing trade-offs. By definition, strategic balance is redistributive; if you want to more of one thing, it usually means you have to do less of something else. Yet many of Obama’s critics treat it as an additive undertaking, whereby the United States can simply pile more on its plate, devoting greater time, resources, and attention whenever a new crisis emerges. They enthusiastically advise what the United States should do more of, but fall silent on when it comes to what it should do less.

The necessity of balance can also be looked at another way—and as a reason to inspire confidence. It is a manifestation of America’s special role. Obama has observed that he has never attended an international meeting where the United States was not looked upon to drive the discussion. Therefore balance is required because the United States must grapple with more demands, diverse goals and interests than any other global player. Despite all the talk of America’s decline, no other country is as desirable or enjoys such expectations from so many corners of the world.

Sustainability. Obama wants to know that a policy will be sustainable beyond his time in office. He compares himself to a being a relay swimmer; while it was his time in the race he wanted to make as much progress as he could, and then be in a position to hand things off in the best possible way.

The emphasis on sustainability stemmed in large part from what Obama inherited when he entered the White House. He was handed a situation at home and abroad that was fundamentally untenable. Without a dramatic course correction, America would slide further into decline. He often stated his determination not to leave the same kind of mess to his successor.

However, sustainability is about more than not wanting to pass the buck to whomever comes next. Most foreign policy achievements are made when policies are sustained over time—think of how containment defeated the Soviet Union, or how the decades of support the United States has provided allies in Asia and Europe has enabled them to thrive.

On almost every issue, Obama established policies that were more sustainable than as he found them.

The American military is no longer overstretched. The economy is off the precipice, with unemployment the lowest it has been in nearly two decades. The United States is closer to energy independence (oil imports are down 60 percent from 2008 levels). It remains the underwriter of the global order, and has stronger partnerships and alliances abroad, with improved relations in Asia, Latin America, and Europe. Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions are in check. There is greater transparency in the ways the U.S. government uses some of its more controversial national security tools, from surveillance to the use of drones, which Obama believes is essential to sustaining support for their future use.

Restraint. Strategy is as much about what one decides not to do than what one does. On many questions the Administration faced—especially when it involved military force—the issue was not whether the United States was capable of doing something, but whether it should.

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