The Accommodator: Obama's Foreign Policy

By Dueck, Colin | Policy Review, October-November 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Accommodator: Obama's Foreign Policy


Dueck, Colin, Policy Review


Almost three years into his administration, observers continue to debate the nature of President Obama's overall foreign policy approach. What is the "Obama doctrine"? Some say it is a policy of international engagement. Some point to Libya, and suggest that the Obama doctrine is one of humanitarian intervention multilaterally and at minimal cost. Some look to today's fiscal constraints and say that it is all about insolvency. Some describe the Obama doctrine as a version of traditional great power realism, coming after the crusading idealism of the Bush years. Others respond that Obama has no foreign policy strategy at all--that he is simply making it up as he goes along.

Each interpretation has a certain kernel of truth, but each is also seriously flawed and incomplete. Barack Obama does in fact have an overarching foreign policy strategy, going back several years in spite of recent upheavals, but its basic organizing principle is neither engagement, nor intervention, nor insolvency, nor realism per se. The centerpiece of Obama's overall for eign policy strategy is the concept of accommodation. Specifically, the president believes that international rivalries can be accommodated by American example and by his own integrative personal leadership. The problem is not that Obama has no grand strategy. The problem is that it is not working.

Obama's grand strategy

Any grand strategy or overall foreign policy strategy does several things. First, it specifies certain national goals or ends. Second, it identifies the policy instruments or means by which national goals will be pursued. These instruments might include, for example, diplomatic commitments, military intervention, foreign aid, and/or economic sanctions. Any viable strategy must ensure that means and ends are well matched. Commitments must not exceed capabilities. Yet strategy--unlike say, sculpture--also recognizes that our targets are animate objects, with the ability to respond, make choices, and fight back. Consequently, effective foreign policy strategists must and do strike a fine balance. On the one hand, they need to know what they want. On the other, they must be flexible as to how exactly they pursue it, given the inevitable surprises resulting from pushback by other actors within the international system.

The primary ends and means of Obama's foreign policy strategy can be inferred from both his actions and his words, which have been broadly consistent since his election to the White House. To begin, his chief policy interest is not in the international realm at all, but in the domestic. Obama's leading motivation for becoming president, as he himself has said, was not simply to get elected, much less to focus on foreign affairs, but to "remake America." He aims at and has already achieved dramatic liberal or progressive reforms in numerous domestic policy areas such as health care and financial regulation.

This focus on liberal domestic reform has several implications for American grand strategy, as Obama well knows. First, it means that resources must be shifted in relative terms from national security spending to domestic social and economic spending--a shift clearly visible in recent federal budgets. Second, it means steering clear of partisan political fights over national security that might detract from Obama's overall political capital. Third, it means that potentially costly new international entanglements must for the most part be avoided. Sometimes these three imperatives are in tension with one another. For example, in the autumn of 2009, Obama was tempted to begin winding down America's military engagement in Afghanistan, yet at the same time wanted to avoid appearing weak on terrorism. So he settled on an approach that called for temporary U.S. escalation in Afghanistan, resolved by subsequent disengagement beginning in July 2011. That approach was hardly optimal militarily, but it was the least bad policy for Obama in domestic political terms given his overarching priori ties.

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