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.