Daniel W. Drezner

Explaining the Obama doctrine

Clive Crook wants to know what the Obama Doctrine will be in foreign policy:  In domestic policy, an organising principle directs the innovation. Mr Obama wants to shove the US in the direction of a more social democratic – Americans say “progressive” – social contract, with universal healthcare and a tax and benefits system much ...

Clive Crook wants to know what the Obama Doctrine will be in foreign policy: 

In domestic policy, an organising principle directs the innovation. Mr Obama wants to shove the US in the direction of a more social democratic – Americans say “progressive” – social contract, with universal healthcare and a tax and benefits system much more attuned to reducing inequality. Whether this is wise, feasible or what the country even wants is questionable, but the connecting theme is clear.

Is any such theme emerging in foreign policy? Can one begin to talk of an “Obama doctrine”?

Clive Crook wants to know what the Obama Doctrine will be in foreign policy: 

In domestic policy, an organising principle directs the innovation. Mr Obama wants to shove the US in the direction of a more social democratic – Americans say “progressive” – social contract, with universal healthcare and a tax and benefits system much more attuned to reducing inequality. Whether this is wise, feasible or what the country even wants is questionable, but the connecting theme is clear.

Is any such theme emerging in foreign policy? Can one begin to talk of an “Obama doctrine”?

(Let’s skip the question of whether Crook’s answer on the domestic front is correct {click here for an interesting take on that question}). 

Foreign policy doctrines often emerge after the fact — i.e., someone looks at foreign policy decisions/actions and suggess a pattern or philosophy that tie everything together in one neat cognitive package. 

Looking at what Obama has done to date, I’d suggest that his foreign policy doctrine comes by way of Montesquieu — crudely put, useless conflicts weaken necessary conflicts. 

To elaborate:  the United States suffers from an overextension of its foreign policy obligations.  With a weakened economy and a drop in U.S. standing, it is both costly and fruitless for the administration to continue policy conflicts that yield little beyond pleasing those invested in the policy status quo.

It looks like Obama and his foreign policy team have prioritized what issues they think are important — righting the global economic ship, China, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, nuclear nonproliferation come to mind.  Those are the issues where the United States will stick to its preferred policy positions and be willing to accept no deal rather than a bad deal. 

One other issues — Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, trade policy, human rights, democratization, missile defense — Obama’s team sees little to be gained from continuing past policies that have borne little fruit.  Furthermore, by adjusting U.S. policy on these issues, the administration conserves resources, goodwill and focus for the first list of issues. 

Question to readers:  does this seem like an appropriate description?  If it is, do you agree with it?  Or is it just too soon to tell? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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