Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, January 19, 2013

American Grand Strategy in the Obama Era

The topic of American grand strategy has been a major focus of analysts and scholars writing on the Obama administration. During Barack Obama's first term, there was widespread concern that his foreign policy lacked a grand strategy. If you recall, critics claimed that Obama's foreign policies were aimless and incoherent, that they lacked a unifying or overarching theme that threaded together how he sees the world and where he sought to take America. Citing Team Obama's position on the Arab Spring, among other cases, the critics argued that Obama foreign policy was largely post-hoc crisis management.

Of course, Obama supporters disagreed with these criticisms. They pointed to parts of his speeches (e.g. BO's 2009 Cairo speech) and policies (drone strikes, the push to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan) as evidence of larger foreign policy themes. Some Obamaites viewed his foreign policies as quasi-conservative, an effort to reduce blood and treasure on overseas adventures; others saw them rooted in a Clintonian world of international engagement; still others looked at Obama's foreign policies as part of a deliberate move that aimed to shift effort and resources toward nation building at home.

In the end, liberals were unable to come to a consensus on what Obama's foreign policies were all about. And in the eyes of Obama critics, this failure only reinforced their concerns that Obama foreign policy was adrift.

Now, as we turn to Obama's second term, grand strategy is once again all the rage in foreign policy circles. This time, there's fear and concern--yes, among the American right in general and the neocons in particular, but also among those on the left who subscribe to what I'd call muscular liberalism--that Obama embraces what is called "retrenchment." Put simply, retrenchment refers to a set of policies that pull America away from the rest of the world, sending it in to hiding, so to speak, and off the world's stage. To their horror and dismay, these critics aver that retrenchment will cause the U.S. to abandon its overseas commitments, leave its friends and allies in the lurch, forsake its traditional values and interests, and cede the mantle of international leadership to other countries.

As evidence, they point to America's impending hasty, perhaps reckless, exit out of Afghanistan, Obama's inability to negotiate a new SOFA with Iraq, his "leading from behind" on Syria and Libya, and BO's reluctance to stand up to other great powers, like Russia and China.

But let's look at the big picture. Is Obama pulling the U.S. away from the world? In short, no, that's not the case. The problem is that critics view U.S. foreign policy solely through the use of force, that deploying military power and fighting wars are the main signposts of America's leadership and footprint in the world. But that's nonsense. Countries, including the U.S., do more than fight conflicts and wars, and there are other ways to engage with the international community.

For instance, during America's age of hegemony, among other things, the U.S. has consistently engaged in diplomacy, trade, humanitarian and peacekeeper missions; protected its allies; patrolled the seas to ensure trade is conducted safely and that oil gets to consumers; defended its values; taken the lead in creating international institutions and multilateral pacts; and served as the primary power broker and the most influential state in the world

How does this different from present-day American policy? To me, the verdict is clear: the U.S. today still does all of these things. And in some ways, Obama has expanded, not limited, America's reach around the world. Consider this: Obama has scored diplomatic victories in Myanmar and India, and now makes military moves in Pakistan with little regard for the government in Islamabad or the Pakistani army.
But even if the critics are right, that the use of force is the main gauge of American grand strategy, there's scant evidence that the U.S. is now significantly less inclined to flexing its military muscles. Under Obama, yes, there's an emphasis on "burden sharing" and collaboration in international endeavors, which sounds a bit soft, yet militarism still dominates thinking in Washington. Keep in mind the U.S. played a decisive role in the Libyan civil war. It lobs drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia on an almost daily basis. It has significantly upped its security and military presence in Asia. It's also apparent that Obama will keep troops, in some undetermined number, in Afghanistan after the so-called 2014 deadline.

At bottom, my take is that Obama's foreign policies has much more in common with "selective engagement" than retrenchment. For Obama, "select" issues and areas of the world are more important than others. Specifically, it is the great powers and emerging great powers that are the primary movers and shakers in the world. These actors have the kind of military power, economic heft, political influence, and soft power to be both major problem solvers and catastrophic forces of destruction and violence in the world. Relations with these great powers must be carefully managed.

As part of this thinking, he has reoriented American foreign policy with his so-called Pivot, which prioritizes security relations and political stability in Asia. Ostensibly, Team Obama believe that the 21st century carries the prospect that money and power and influence are headed East, particularly to China. To cope with a rising China, Obama has strengthened relationships with American allies in Asia (Japan, South Korea, Philippines), attempted to cultivate new regional partners (Myanmar, India), devoted more material resources to Asia, and spent a considerable amount of time and effort on bilateral and multilateral regional diplomacy (especially via Asean and its ancillary bodies and summits), and has been pro-active in Asian economic affairs, finalizing trade deals with South Korea and helping to create the Trans Pacific Partnership.  
There are also things that Obama is unlikely to undertake. He likely will not attempt to force American values and interests on foreign countries through the barrel of a gun. And we likely won't see the U.S. embarking on nation building abroad. In these two respects, Team Obama has scaled back America's military and political goals from the George W. Bush era.
Obama's grand strategy, at this point, is somewhat similar to the grand strategy supported by George H. W. Bush, who focused almost exclusively on inter-state relations, especially great power relations. That said, it remains to be seen if Obama is anywhere close as successful as Bush was during his tenure in office. After all, Bush managed to successfully reassure a defeated and broken Russia, played a role in the remarkably smooth unification of Germany, and waged a relatively-low cost war to boot Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Yes, Obama does have the killing of bin Laden as a feather in his cap; that's his one big success. But many issues and many areas of the world can still go wrong for him.  
The larger issue is whether selective engagement is the right course for the U.S. It's up for debate, and it's a valuable debate to have, for lots of reasons. Yet, to have this debate, it's essential we get right the substance of the foreign policies that Obama is pursuing. America is not withdrawing from the international community; to the contrary, it is just as engaged, active, and assertive as ever. It is my hope this post will help to begin the process of resetting the terms of the debate, one that eschews partisan polemics and attacks and is grounded in reality. 

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