Shrinking the use of power: the ‘Obama Doctrine’

Obama’s end-of-term interview with the Atlantic points to a spent US with a domestic focus

“Don’t do stupid shit”, is the private credo of Barack Obama on foreign policy, according to the President’s interviewer in a recent piece for The Atlantic.

There is in the interview much that is revealing about what the Obama administration has been doing – or, more often than not, not doing – abroad. Some of it is simply nonsensical. The president who popularised the language of the “Arab spring” and equated its activists with the “patriots of Boston”, now calls Libya “a shit show” and finds a thousand and one reasons why the United States were right not to intervene in Syria. He hides behind the allies’ insufficiencies but solidly praises Angela Merkel, the most adamant opponent of intervention in the Middle East, while placing the French amongst the free riders, when they have supported – or indeed gone beyond – the US’ strategic agenda as never before.

On the way, he crafts a new non-intervention doctrine: that a major humanitarian crisis has to threaten the core interests of the United States to justify action. The proposition can also be read in the other direction: if a situation threatens the core interests of the United States, then it can intervene without a UN mandate. The hundreds of thousands of Syrian dead, and the millions more displaced, would be glad to know that the president has such a cleverly crafted doctrine.

Perhaps we can explain this lack of leadership by the fact that Obama has found more important and ‘truly’ urgent issues to grapple with. One is climate change. Another is the pivot to Asia – where the future of the world is.

But have either of these much vaunted goals moved ahead in the last seven years? Hardly.

On climate change, the key development between the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference and the 2015 Paris one is that all the mutually binding commitments were being dropped in favour of unilateral pledges with scant verification and no real assurance of delivery targets.

Obama manages to cite the pivot to Asia twice in his interview while denying any competition with China – in fact, he cites Chinese success as a condition for an improved world order. None of the sovereignty conflicts around China rate a mention. The Asian achievement he cites most keenly is moving the Vietnamese Communist Party to recognise labour rights (something that many doubt will happen at all). This is an achievement more likely to be cited by a litigation lawyer than a supposed world leader.

I am, by training, a China specialist. Suddenly, from the Chinese perspective, Barack Obama’s end-of-term ruminations sounds like something I have heard in these very different quarters. Has Obama converted to the Chinese way of seeing the world? Like Deng Xiaoping, he takes “the long view”. Like Hu Jintao, he wants to work from “core interests”. Non-intervention is the Chinese mantra. When deciding whether or not to intervene in Syria after the Assad regime killed 1,300 civilians in a chemical weapons attack, he is glad he thought of America’s interest “with respect to our democracy” aka placing domestic political considerations front and centre. It will please Chinese leaders to see confirmation Obama does not lead the world, he merely “sets the agenda” for world summits. If these summits had been noteworthy in their achievements this might be something to write home about. As they stand, it is not.

For Obama, power is best conserved, not used. “Real power,” he says in his interview “means you can get what you want without having to exert violence”. This is a textbook description of how China wants to work, with implied force but behind the scene. “The idea that talking tough or engaging in some military action (…) is going to influence the decision making of Russia or China is contrary to all the evidence” he asserts. Either of these statements could be endorsed by a Chinese leader.

China’s leaders will both congratulate themselves and worry about this interview. They will congratulate themselves, because Obama seems to have been won over to their rejection of humanitarian intervention. His ardour for the democratic potential of the Arab Spring has withered away, he now privately enthuses about “smart autocrats” taking over the Middle East. Far from plotting military interventions, his lack of mention of other conflicts implies that countries walking right up to the red line with the United States have no real cause for worry, that America is now a spent power with essentially a domestic agenda.

But they will worry too. If Obama has placed so much emphasis on conserving hard power rather than expanding it, they will ask themselves, this must be for a purpose? What else could this purpose be, if not the coming strategic competition with China, the one rising superpower that has not exhausted itself with interventions abroad?  

Their worries may be misplaced. Obama may not be a decisive leader, but he is adept at reading the political weather. What Obama thinks he has captured, against the opinion of the Washington power elite, is the growing apprehension of involvement abroad and the rise of isolationism in America. His argument is not a moral one – he has gone farther than anybody since the end of the Vietnam War in targeted assassinations – but the calculated result of a cost-benefit analysis of American public opinion.

As Obama whispers into the ears of the American people “I did not put you in harm’s way”,  Donald Trump hollers a triumphant isolationism. Both derive ultimately from a collective revulsion from the tragedies fuelled by a zero-power world. Unless Hillary Clinton, the last liberal internationalist left standing, takes over, we may be getting an order-less world instead of the borderless world we dreamed of after the Cold War ended.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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