President Obama made a commencement speech at West Point on Wednesday that the White House had aggressively billed as a grand articulation of Obama's foreign policy vision. This was not the first time he had attempted to lay out a foreign policy doctrine, and few expected much more than the usual vague policy mish-mash — when it's year six of your presidency and you still need to explain your doctrine, it's not a great sign that you really have one.
So it was a legitimate surprise when Obama articulated a unified, tightly focused vision of America's role in the world. And while it's not a vision that will thrill many foreign policy hands, including perhaps some of those in his administration, it is the clearest Obama foreign policy doctrine he's made in years: no war, no militarism, no adventurism. With the possible exception of Jimmy Carter's 1977 Notre Dame speech, it may well have been one of the most dovish foreign policy speeches by a sitting US president since Eisenhower.
Obama argued, directly and repeatedly, that the US would have to reduce its use of military force as a tool of foreign policy. Obama argued that the US could not and should not use military force, including even limited actions such as off-shore strikes, except when absolutely necessary to defend "core interests" or to "protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life."
That's a very high bar for the use of military force. Obama didn't just make the point abstractly, going through several major US foreign policy changes to explain why, in each, military force was not and should not be applied.
Obama's dove doctrine: get involved, but indirectly
Syria was his one big policy announcement: the US will dedicate more resources to "support Syria's neighbors" in hosting refugees and containing the extremist groups spilling out of the conflict. That's a pretty coldly self-interested calculation, exposing the US to minimum risk and doing the minimum to protect America against immediate terrorist threats. But it's squarely in line with his articulation of US foreign policy: no military involvement, deal with conflicts indirectly, focus on core American interests.
The case where Obama made his argument for dovishness most tellingly was, interestingly, on terrorism — the foreign policy issue where he has been consistently the most hawkish. No, Obama did not announce he was grounding the drones, but he made a telling case for continuing even this sole hawkish element of his foreign policy in a way that more aligned with dovish principles.
"The most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism," Obama said, citing this as a reason for the US's continued interest in Afghanistan and Syria, among other global hot spots. But he said the US should fight terrorism not with direct military action but indirectly. "I believe we must shift our counter-terrorism strategy - drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan - to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold," he said. "We need a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin, or stir up local resentments."
In other words, the US will continue its global fight against terrorism — the one bullets-and-bombs fight that Obama said necessitated American involvement — but will do it by shifting more to relying on regional governments that share America's concerns about terrorism. The upside is that this means a lower US military commitment, the downside is that it will continue America's long and ugly history of working with (and thus helping to prop up) despotic regimes.
Obama's pledge to cooperate with bad governments because they help us against terrorists may be the single largest point of disappointment for foreign policy liberals. (Although for many liberal interventionists, maybe including high-ranking administration officials such as Samantha Power, it will be trumped by Obama's crystal-clear rejection of any US unilateral humanitarian intervention.) Obama was surprisingly, even jarringly clear in making this point with regards to Egypt, which since its 2011 revolution has backslid into military authoritarianism. "In Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests," he said. "So we have not cut off cooperation with the new government."
Diplomacy and multilateralism would replace military power
Foreign policy conservatives, meanwhile, will be most disappointed by Obama's insistence that the US will address threats from Syria, Russia, and China by strengthening local allies and international institutions — rather than confronting those threats directly.
Obama touted Ukraine as a proof of concept that his indirect approach works, even in challenging a threat as big and immediate as Russian territorial aggression. "Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions," he said, touting the role of US-bolstered international institutions such as NATO and the European Union in isolating Moscow to such an extent that Russian President Vladimir ultimately had to back down.
He made a similar case that non-military US power — diplomacy, economic sanctions, working through big international coalitions — have pushed Iran to negotiate on its nuclear program. And there's something to these arguments; both of these are real successes. So, arguably, was the September 2013 deal to remove Syria's chemical weapons. But, as hawkish critics are already noting, this strategy puts us more at the mercy of allies and has been far less effective with problems such as Syria.
Obama's plan comes with a major trade-off
This doctrine means less of putting Americans into harms way, less of committing the United States to difficult and far-away conflicts, but it also means accepting some problems and risks as just a fact of life, beyond our ability to fix. As an example, he pointed to the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram as a problem the United States had to admit it couldn't solve. "Tragically, no American security operation can eradicate the threat posed by an extremist group like Boko Haram," he said, adding that "global leadership requires us to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty."
The Obama administration had previewed the speech as staking a middle ground between military adventurism and old-fashioned isolationism, and on the merits Obama did articulate such a foreign policy doctrine, one that replaces military-led foreign policy with multilateral diplomacy and alliance-building.
But, in execution, doing away with militarism and the use of force will be the much easier half of that. It's relatively easy to not order a cruise-missile strike or troop redeployment. Replacing that hard military power with soft power, and making it work, is a lot harder. Obama's got two years to prove to the world that he can do it. If he wants to see his superdove foreign policy doctrine survive beyond his time in office, he'll have to do a lot more with this doctrine than make speeches about it.