The Real Obama Doctrine Exposed

At the end of the day, Obama's highest priorities are domestic, and this has had a powerful impact on his foreign-policy choices.

"We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that's the thing people don't seem to understand."

- Barack Obama, April 5th, 2015


More than six years into his presidency, people continue to debate the core priorities of President Obama's foreign policy. What is the Obama doctrine? Some say it's soft power. Others say it's a directed economy of force. Still others say it's pragmatism—doing whatever works.

Obama himself answered this question a few weeks ago in a New York Times interview with Thomas Friedman, declaring: "We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities." As always, Obama seemed a little bored or even exasperated by the question of strategic and doctrinal priorities.

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Critics—and even some supporters—have replied by arguing that he really has no foreign policy doctrine or grand strategy at all. But this is to misread America's 44th president. Certainly if international strategy requires a rigorous matching of ends to means in a range of regional cases, then Obama imposes no such rigor. But if we define the term a little more loosely, then we see that he has in fact pursued a kind of implicit grand strategy quite consistently since entering the Oval Office, whatever the twists and turns.

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As I explain in my new book, The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today, that strategy has been to retrench America's military presence abroad and accommodate international rivalries, in large part to allow the president to focus on transformational domestic goals. In most discussions of the Obama doctrine, the domestic political component has been the missing piece of the puzzle.

Since first running for the White House, Obama has made it abundantly clear that he aims to secure a historic legacy as one of the country's great progressive presidents— “to transform this nation," as he once put it. His goal was never simply to win elections, but to safeguard and advance an ambitious domestic liberal policy agenda. Since his greatest aspirations have always been within the domestic policy arena, he is always very reluctant to risk them through international military entanglements that might shatter or threaten his center-left coalition.

The president therefore keeps the final foreign policy decisions in his own hands, in consultation with a tight inner circle of White House advisers. The resulting paradox is a highly centralized decision-making process in which clear, decisive foreign policy decisions are often delayed or avoided, precisely in order to minimize domestic political risk.

None of this is to say that the president's emphasis on international retrenchment and accommodation is insincere. On the contrary, there is every indication Obama honestly believes that an internationally less assertive and more accommodating America will result in a safer world for the United States. A strategy of retrenchment involves cutting and reducing a country's international military costs and commitments. A strategy of accommodation involves concessions toward a real or potential adversary overseas in the hope of altering their ambitions and intentions. Obama obviously believes in both retrenchment and accommodation for the United States abroad.

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Nor is he the first president to factor domestic politics into his international decisions—far from it. But at the end of the day, his highest priorities are domestic, and this has had a powerful impact on his foreign policy choices. The desired strategy has been to internationally retrench and accommodate, while focusing on a liberal domestic policy legacy, or as Obama calls it, "nation building right here at home."

So, is the Obama doctrine working as intended?

Insofar as one purpose of Obama's approach has been to retrench America's strategic presence overseas without undue risk to basic U.S. interests, and to encourage new patterns of international cooperation through diplomatic accommodations, then it must be said that on balance the Obama doctrine is not working. Many of the president's core assumptions regarding international relations are sincere and well-intentioned, but unrealistic. Wedded as he is to these assumptions, Obama has never fully appreciated the possible costs, risks, and downsides of American retrenchment and accommodation. What international successes he has had, have generally come from going against type. Moreover the practical implementation of his foreign policy strategy has often been weak.