We Don't Need an "Obama Doctrine"

There has been a lot of fuss in the past several weeks about the lack of a coherent "Obama doctrine" in foreign policy. Critics and commentators have been dissecting his past speeches and pronouncements, searching for a coherent "doctrine" to support his foreign policy approach to events in Libya and elsewhere. Conservatives and liberals alike have been criticizing Obama for moving too slowly or too fast, for failing to act unilaterally, or for too embracing the military option too quickly.

Why, they ask, is the United States intervening in support of the Libyan rebellion, yet failing to assert its influence when protesters are being shot in Bahrain or in Syria? What is the explanation for humanitarian intervention in some cases and not others? Why do we continue to support some repressive regimes and actively oppose others? Have we abandoned our leadership role in the world? Or, as others say, have we not learned the lessons of other failed military interventions?

What both sides of this argument are looking for is a steadfast statement of principles that can be applied to American foreign policy. They want an "Obama doctrine" that sends a clear message to the world about America's approach to international relations, a blanket declaration of "we shall" or "we shall not." However, the simple truth is that we don't need an "Obama doctrine." Perhaps we needed a "Nixon doctrine" or even a "Bush doctrine," but the last thing we need in these uncertain times is a doctrinaire approach to the world.

The criticism of leaders, especially American leaders, who take a pragmatic, case-by-case view of foreign policy is that they are pursuing a strategy of "realpolitik," the phrase coined by German writer Ludwig Von Roschau to describe the nineteenth-century machinations of Otto von Bismark in unifying Prussia and Count Metternich in carving up Europe at the Congress of Vienna. More recently, Henry Kissinger was accused of practicing "realpolitik" in the diplomatic overtures to China and in the handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Much of the negative connotations of "realpolitik" come from traditional American suspicion of the Machiavellian character of European politics and the horrific conflicts that were in part the result of flawed statesmanship. However, "realpolitik" is really nothing more than a practical view of the relations between nations. The United States, like every other country, must take into account several factors in dealing with the rest of the world and with conflicts that inevitably arise. First, what is our national interest and how is it impacted? Secondly, what are the principles that are important to us as a nation and how are they being threatened? Finally, what role can we play in each particular case?

There is little question that, throughout history, American leadership has generally weighed the first two factors in our foreign policy. From the Monroe doctrine to the Bush doctrine, there has always been considerable weight given to America's national interest and our guiding principles. The real question today is a more pragmatic one -- what role can we play in each specific case?

For much of the post-World War Two era, the answer to that question was fairly simple. Up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, our role was to be a counterbalance to the nuclear-armed and often aggressive Soviet empire. But after the end of the Cold War, America was thrust into the unprecedented position of being the indisputable world leader in terms of military, political and economic power. When a political or humanitarian crisis sprung up anywhere in the world, the United States was the first on call and also the last resort.

After 9/11, the rise of China's economic power and the advent of a global marketplace, America was no longer in the same position. While we still have by far the greatest military might, our economic and political clout has been diminished. We were no longer in a position to dictate an American "doctrine" to the rest of the world, as George Bush discovered when he enunciated the "Bush doctrine," which was viewed almost universally as a case of American overreaching.

If the Obama presidency stands for anything, it is that an ideological or doctrinaire approach to difficult problems, whether internationally or domestically, will not work. This is not a matter of Barack Obama's temperament, or the politics of the country, but rather because of America's changed position in the world. We must take a "realpolitik" approach to foreign policy because we have no other choice. There is no "Obama doctrine" that we can apply as a general principle when there is so much uncertainty in the world.

It would be foolish to promote a doctrine that encouraged either intervention or isolation as a general rule. There are no easy answers to challenges that we face in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East, not to mention the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or our relationship with China. To push for an overriding, simplistic doctrine would be foolhardy, and flies in the face of the current reality of our world and America's role in it.