12/20/2009 09:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Obama Doctrine: Pen, Sword and Soap Box

Until I was a junior in high school, I had never heard of the University of Chicago. This was despite the fact that the first human initiated nuclear detonation occurred there and that more Nobel Laureates were on faculty at the school than any other university in the world. It was only when I was accepted to the college that I came to understand that I was at the epicenter of the conservative, economic juggernaut -- the one represented by Milton Friedman and his disciples. If you're from the right wing, which I'm not, this is the University of Chicago that you know and love.

But as a former student of political science at Chicago, I can attest to the fact that there's another school of thought -- neo-realism -- that pervades the place. And while Obama taught at the Law School, he clearly seems to have absorbed the dominant political philosophy of the school at large. And neo-realism is about as left leaning in outlook as Goldman Sachs.

Like the Bush Doctrine, the neo-realist Obama Doctrine recognizes the right of America to protect its self-interest. Sometimes that means using force, and perhaps even pre-emption. (The latter was strongly implied in the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.)

What's different is how the Obama administration pursues national interest. It starts with recognition that however the Cold War was resolved, unquestioned American domination did not result. China, India, Brazil, Russia and a more united Europe (maybe) are competing political entities in our multi-polar world. None of these states can be expected to fall into lockstep with us unless it's in their best interest to do so. Recognizing that fact is a giant step back toward a realistic foreign policy.

Beyond this understanding, the neo-realist approach also embraces the idea that military force is just one source of power. Diplomacy and engagement are just as significant. We saw an example of this in Copenhagen when Obama confronted Hu Jintao of China and Lula da Silva of Brazil diplomatically, in person. That did not guarantee the full comprehensive global warming treaty that was sought, but progress was made. In addition, China was shown in a less flattering light by virtue of the American willingness to do the right thing.

In other words, we recaptured some of the moral high ground that Bush, Cheney, Wolfiwitz, Bolton and Rumseld sacrificed over eight years of 'go it alone.' The value of this influence -- powerful as it is -- is not immediately apparent, which means that Obama will receive little credit in the 24-hours news cycle. Nevertheless, we're going to need a compelling soapbox to provide a convincing counter-argument to the Chinese approach of marrying economic development and political repression. That belief, far more than terrorism, would seem to be the real threat to American security in the future.

For some people, the assent of the Obama Doctrine will be uncomfortable: it's designed for a world rendered in shades of gray, not the black and white of easy demagoguery. Nevertheless, subtle should not be confused with weak. The emergence of an Obama Doctrine should be welcomed by any who supports a secure and effective foreign policy.