Recovering from the Obama Doctrine

Recovering from the Obama Doctrine

The U.S. will require the kind of foreign policy course correction that occurred after the Carter administration.

Mainly behind closed doors, but in some cases also out in public, periphery countries have begun to signal what they would be willing to do in order to entice the United States to meaningfully reengage with their respective regions. Vietnam has indicated that it would consider granting the U.S. Navy access to Cam Ranh Bay, a strategically located deep water bay that could host everything from aircraft carriers to submarines. The Philippines is already in discussions to provide the United States with access to several of its military bases. The Saudis and the Emiratis are willing to deepen cooperation with Israel, and the Saudis in particular would consider rolling back their support for Sunni extremist groups and spearheading much-needed domestic reforms. Countries throughout the Persian Gulf and Jordan would be willing to do more both financially and militarily to stabilize the situation in Iraq and Syria, and Iraq itself would welcome greater U.S. engagement. (Despite how things may seem at the moment, Iraq has no desire to become a puppet of Iran.) Sri Lanka and Georgia would also welcome closer defense cooperation with the United States, including in respect of critical infrastructure like deep-sea ports.

All of these things are possible—indeed, they are explicitly on the table.

But they will require a renewed sense within the periphery that the United States is ready to do a complete U-turn. Leaders have been through a traumatic set of years. It will take considerable effort to convince them that the United States is again serious about standing up to China and Russia, and that it will abide by its security commitments.

The Carter administration overreacted to the Vietnam War, concluding that the United States ought no longer try to shape events in far-flung parts of the globe. In Carter’s view, defeating the Soviet Union was neither a sensible nor an attainable goal. Better to understand the limits of U.S. power and influence, and, in the words of Jeane Kirkpatrick, “to align [itself] with history, hoping to contribute a bit of stability along the way.”

Obama’s foreign policy has been a similar overreaction, in his case to the Iraq War. Again, the conclusion had to do with the limits of U.S. power. Let us not forget the iconic image of President Obama on the campaign trail carrying a book titled “The Post-American World”, which argued that the rise of rival powers like China is inevitable and that the United States must scale back its foreign policy ambitions to accommodate that reality. Obama has conducted his foreign policy as though “The Post-American World” were not the title of a book but rather an accepted fact of life.

Carter was wrong, of course, and President Reagan was able to undertake a wholesale course correction returning the United States to a position of global leadership. Obama, too, is wrong. Nothing in this world is inevitable. Countries like China may succeed or they may stumble. Alliances may form that favor the United States, or that favor its adversaries. The United States has the power, perhaps not to determine, but certainly to shape and influence, all of these outcomes.

For the United States to get back on track under the leadership of a new president, it will need to work from multiple angles.

First, the United States must make clear that its commitments to these periphery regions—whether the Middle East, or Southeast Asia, or the Caucasus, or Eastern Europe—are real. Because the United States is not the only one engaged in aggressive messaging. Its adversaries are actively seeking to undermine America’s reputation, reinforcing the fears triggered during the Obama era by planting additional seeds of doubt. China, for example, has told several countries in Southeast Asia that a time will come when they will have to choose between the United States and China. And as that day approaches, China has told them, these countries should consider the fact that China takes a long-term view of the region whereas the United States is likely to lose interest at some point. All of this makes countries in the periphery very nervous. Nobody wants to back the wrong horse, especially small and vulnerable nations whose future depends on making the right choice. They will not stick their necks out unless the United States projects strength and staying power. But if the United States does this, then it can count on the support of many nations in the periphery.

To do this, the United States will need to directly address doubts about its ability to make enduring commitments to these regions. The United States must provide reassurance that the periphery is vital to its economic and strategic interests; that the United States has a cultural predisposition towards the independence of, and the friendship with, these smaller nations; and that (contrary to popular belief) the United States actually has a strong track-record of undertaking very long-term commitments when it desires to do so, such as in Korea, Europe, or Japan.

Second, it will need to change its rhetoric. Neither U.S. adversaries nor its friends in the periphery respond well to weak, equivocating language. Teddy Roosevelt’s adage to speak softly and carry a big stick has merit, but in certain parts of the world a bit of swagger and confidence goes a long way. It is time to revert back to the messaging of a Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) or a Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”) to make sure countries understand the United States means business.

Third, the United States will need to show greater willingness to transfer weapon systems to its friends. Such transfers, if handled judiciously, are in fact a cheap and easy way to provide periphery countries with a greater ability to achieve deterrence themselves, even in the absence of a concrete U.S. security umbrella. In addition, making U.S. defense platforms available also pulls these nations into the orbit of U.S. technology, thereby enhancing interoperability when joint action is required.

Fourth, it must work expeditiously to pass strategic free trade pacts like the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. These pacts help signal that the United States has a genuine commercial interest in these countries and also provides them tangible benefits, opening access to one of the world’s most attractive markets. It also forces them to raise certain standards beyond those available in China, making it easier for Western companies to move manufacturing to these countries. And more broadly it encourages the U.S. private sector to invest in these markets, creating an additional layer of interconnection that reinforces the strength and durability of their relationships with the United States.

Fundamentally, the key is simply, at a very basic level, to return to a foreign policy in which the United States stands up to its adversaries rather than handing them strategic victories on a silver platter. A policy mindful of the fact that weakness, not strength, is provocative. And a policy that acknowledges friends cannot be taken for granted and loyalty is not a one-way street. The United States must be there for its friends, particularly those in the periphery, if it expects those friends to be there for the United States.


The Post-Obama America

The United States is not in decline; far from it. Yet under President Obama, countries the world over could be forgiven for concluding that it is. The United States has the world’s most potent military, the world’s largest economy, the culture and values with the most universal appeal, and the world’s most dynamic private sector. In light of this, why would the United States act like a second-rate nation? It is high time that the United States get back to punching at its weight.

Doing so would not only be highly welcome globally among all of our friends in the periphery, but it would also restore order and stability by removing the vacuum that has tempted Russia and China to expand with such reckless abandon. And it would be good for the United States. Ultimately, the United States carries a heavy burden of leadership, but that burden also creates tremendous opportunities to forge valuable alliances, create business opportunities for U.S. companies, and establish a world order that favors U.S. interests and U.S. values.

Alexander Benard is a partner with a U.S. private equity firm that invests across various markets in Asia, Africa,and Eastern Europe. He has worked at the Department of Defense and the Hoover Institution.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army.