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The most important line in Obama's new National Security Strategy

This man is named Barack Obama.
This man is named Barack Obama.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Friday, the White House released its 2015 National Security Strategy, an official document defining the administration's approach to international politics. A lot of the document is pretty uninformative; the ratio of substance to platitudes ("our economy is the largest, most open, and most innovative in the world") is low. But this sentence, pretty early on in the report, is actually a pithy but insightful encapsulation of President Barack Obama's core approach to foreign policy:

In an interconnected world, there are no global problems that can be solved without the United States, and few that can be solved by the United States alone.

This cuts to the core of what can often confuse people about Obama's approach to the world. Though he's constantly intervening in foreign crises — toppling Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, bombing al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and so on — he's also deeply invested in reducing America's involvement in major wars like Iraq and Afghanistan.

To understand this approach, you have to look at each half of the above sentence in turn. Each reflects a core tenet of the way the Obama administration approaches the world.

Obama and the bipartisan consensus on American power


President Barack Obama travels to Connecticut. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images News)

Let's focus on the first half of the sentence: "there are no global problems that can be solved without the United States." That's meant pretty literally. On basically every major world crisis — containing the fallout from the global financial crisis, rolling back climate change, combating ISIS, punishing Russian expansionism, or curing Ebola — the United States has played a major role in organizing the international response.

That's because Obama, like basically every president since the Cold War began, has bought into what's now called the "bipartisan consensus" on foreign policy. To most people, the consensus is basically invisible. That's because almost no one on either side of the aisle bothers to debate its basic premises. But nonetheless, it's defined American foreign policy for decades. It rests on basically three ideas:

  1. The United States should be the world's most powerful nation.
  2. The United States should use its overwhelming military, economic, and political might to attempt to maintain global stability and prosperity.
  3. The United States should maintain a series of alliances and partnerships designed to enhance its global influence and assist its efforts to preserve the current geopolitical order.

If these statements sound banal, it's because, for the most part, they are. Foreign policy intellectuals on both the left and the right regularly criticize these ideas, but no one with serious power in the US government does (at least in public).

You see this pretty clearly in Obama's actions. Bombing ISIS, organizing a coalition to end Libya's civil war, and sending US troops to West Africa to help stop the spread Ebola are all premised on the assumption that the world's problems are also America's.

Obama and the specter of George W. Bush

mission accomplished aircraft carrier Steven Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images

Mission accomplished. (Steven Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images)

The general consensus on principles obviously doesn't translate into bipartisan agreements on specific policy issues. That's where the second part of the sentence comes in: there are "few [global problems] that can be solved by the United States alone."

This is a pretty unmistakable reference to the Bush administration. Obama rode to power as a critic of the Iraq war; a core part of his administration's strategic doctrine is to avoid Bush's aggressive, unilateral uses of American power. If Bush pushed the hawkish bounds of the bipartisan consensus, Obama is at times — though not always — somewhere on the dovish end.

In some cases, that means avoiding military action and trusting in multilateral diplomacy and deterrence to resolve conflicts (Iran, East Asia). In others, it means relying on non-military means of punishing bad actors (Iran again, Russia). In others still, it means marshaling global coalitions, but limiting America's up-front military role as much as possible and consistent with the mission's objectives (Libya, ISIS).

Obama's approach to each of these global crises is shaped by a keen desire to avoid Bush-style protracted wars. Even in cases where Obama really does act unilaterally, such as with targeted killings or the Afghanistan surge, he tries to put limits on those actions to keep them from escalating beyond control.

You might think this approach is too cautious — or, for many critics of the consensus, too aggressive still. But one thing it's not is "withdrawing from the world" or "abandoning America's allies," as some critics have alleged.

By virtually every statistical measure imaginable, the United States is the world's leading power, and deeply entangled in political conflicts around the world. Obama has done nothing to change that. His approach may or may not be to your liking on specific issues but, as the NSS reinforces, the broad strokes of his approach are pretty consistent with what America has been doing in the world for decades.

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