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Searching for the Elusive Obama Doctrine

Most American presidencies come to be associated with specific foreign policy approaches (the word “doctrine” might sometimes imply too much systematic thinking on the part of people involved). For FDR it was internationalism by stealth followed by open anti-fascism; for Truman, it was containment. Ronald Reagan wanted to actively confront, bankrupt, and roll back communism; Bill Clinton lunged into full-throttled multilateralism; George W. Bush got associated with neo-conservatism and its agenda of confronting terror head-on, preemption, and exporting democracy (it’s debatable, though irrelevant here, to what extent W.’s presidency reflected and implemented such doctrines — much less, how successfully).

So what is Obama’s foreign policy doctrine? What is he actually doing overseas? What is he trying to achieve and how is he going about it? When pondering these questions, it struck me that Obama is doing abroad what many presidents, though not Obama himself, tend to do at home. Let me explain.

It’s a well-known piece of political wisdom that candidates in presidential primaries tend to run to the right for the Republicans and to the left for the Democrats in order to capture the support of the respective party bases which select them. Then, during the campaign proper, the endorsed candidates are supposed to shift to the center, because “that’s where the votes are” and “the middle wins the elections” — although, to be more precise, it’s not the middle per se, but the combination of the base and the middle that a successful candidate needs in order to build the winning majority. The move to the center is justified on the pragmatic grounds that the majority of the base will stay with you anyway, while at the same time you will attract more independent supporters than will peel off your base. As with the campaign, for many so with the presidency. In recent times, Bill Clinton governed — or at least the common political wisdom says he governed — from the center even if his appeal to the base and the independents never actually translated into an absolute electoral majority.

Obama has never followed this path, at least not so far. In the primaries he had run broadly on the left, though the “hope and change” was such an ideologically nebulous set of concepts and images that it could — and did — mean anything to anyone. In power, however, Obama clearly did not move to the center. The result is that opinion polls now show him hemorrhaging the independent support. He is increasingly not seen as the post-partisan, transformational, healing presence in the White House he originally marketed himself as.

But what of the world beyond America’s borders?

Think of America’s allies (Great Britain, Australia, Israel, Poland, Colombia, and others) as the party of America’s base. Think of countries like Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba and a few others as the other party — the party of anti-America, the party of evil, or whatever you want to call them. Think of the rest of the international community — ranging from the vaguely friendly (Western Europe) to cautiously competitive (Russia, China) — as the center.

Obama is a multilateralist, which in this scheme of things means he wants to govern from the center. For Obama, that’s where the “votes” are — in the great middle that comprises the majority of states and the majority of the world’s population. In order to appeal to the middle — Russia, China, the European Union, the Organization of American States, the United Nations — Obama is willing to slap down, snub, or sideline the allies, the traditional party of America. He might justify it under the rationale that the allies can take it. After all, and just as with the voters of a domestic base, where else can they go? And even if some of them do peel off and “stay at home on the election day,” it’s still worth it because the new-found respect, friendship, and cooperation from the center will compensate for any loss from the base.

The unspoken assumption is that with the base and the center behind him, Obama will have built the winning international majority with sufficient moral gravity to deal with the party of anti-America. And by deal, I do not mean act in terms of “crude” power and force, but multilaterally — to use the united international sentiment to persuade the party of evil of the incorrectness of their ways.

That’s why sacrifices have to be made. Hence the snubbing of Honduras and Colombia for the sake of the rest of the Americas, Poland and the Czech Republic for Russia, Israel for the amorphous “Middle East,” and Iraq for the sake of an even more amorphous “international community.” Having thus appeased the long-standing wishes and desires of the international center, Obama is now expecting a pay-off. As he told the United Nations: “We have sought, in word and deed, a new era of engagement with the world. Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.”

That’s the theory, at least. But the problem for Obama is that what might work for some presidents at home might not, indeed probably will not, work in practice abroad. There are several reasons for that, most basically because domestic politics is not like international politics and states are not like voters. But beyond the obvious, Obama is working under three dangerous assumptions about how other states and transnational organizations behave:

1. The American concessions will create a feeling of good will — as opposed to a perception of weakness or lack of direction — and will lead to reciprocal actions from others. In reality, the others arguably feel that the United States “owes” them the concessions in question and therefore feel that no thanks, much less any significant changes in policy, are required.

2. The rest of the world shares America’s assessment of dangers and challenges — for example, that a nuclear Iran or an overly assertive Russia are a threat. Iran doesn’t think so and Russia doesn’t think so, either about themselves or about each other. Neither does China and many other states, who might believe instead that whatever keeps the United States off-balance and preoccupied is actually a good thing rather than a danger to international peace and stability. As Nile Gardiner commented in London’s Daily Telegraph the other day: “The UN loves Barack Obama because he is weak.”

3. Even if some countries agree with America as to the ideal state of international affairs, it is highly questionable whether such general agreement, relying on its own moral force and the power or suasion and diplomacy but not backed by the willingness to use force as the last resort, will actually convince the rouge and misbehaving states to desist and toe the respectable line.

History suggests that Obama will be disappointed in his quest to give America an international makeover as merely primus inter pares, the first among equals. If disappointment is the worst the rest of us feel by 2012, we shall consider ourselves very lucky indeed.