Is the Obama Doctrine an Illusion?

Although the timing- and the substance- could not have been more different, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama choose West Point as the venue to present their eponymous doctrines. It seems no modern Presidency is complete without one. For many it is still unclear what, exactly, the Obama Doctrine is or if it ever existed in the first place. (James Goldgeier and Derek Chollet argue that articulating any doctrine is a waste of time; for others, having a doctrine named after you is to sit on a pedestal next to George Kennan.)   However, the West Point speech (along with other statements and behaviors over the past few years) indicates that the Obama Doctrine is really an updated version of the Nixon Doctrine for the unipolar era: both are strategies of retrenchment. Retrenchment has been defined as “…..decreasing the overall costs of foreign policy by redistributing resources away from peripheral commitments and toward core commitments.”

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images


The Nixon Doctrine was designed to bolster containment while allowing the U.S. to (ultimately) withdraw from losing wars in the periphery (such as Vietnam). This paved the way for the Twin Pillar Policy in the Middle East, Vietnamization in South Asia, and the opening of China. Obama’s Doctrine is similar to the Nixon Doctrine in that it seeks to adjust to adverse shifts in the global balance of power by (1) pulling out of losing wars in the periphery, (2) building a new Twin Pillar in the Middle East, and (3) compelling local powers to rely more on their own military forces.

The first part of the Obama Doctrine focuses on retrenchment from the periphery.  After having initially escalated in South Asia, Nixon inaugurated a policy of Vietnamization whereby the war would be turned over to the South Vietnamese. Obama has followed a similar path, first by withdrawing from Iraq, then by surging and subsequently setting a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The current White House has signaled that where America does not have a direct interest at stake, local forces will have to take the lead but the U.S. will provide support, as it did in Libya in 2011. The recent speech at West Point signaled that America was willing to provide anti-Assad rebels with support but was still wary of deeper involvement. The White House does not appear to be doing much to discourage Abe from taking steps to contribute to its defense burden, first by doing away with the postwar constitution’s restrictions on the use of force.

Another component of the Obama Doctrine involves bringing back the Twin Pillar policy. Under Nixon, Iran and Saudi Arabia became America’s policemen in the region, filling the power vacuum left the British and paved the way for an extravagant series of arms sales to the Gulf. A new “Twin Pillar” is far from a done deal. Disagreements between Riyadh and Tehran and friction between Washington and the Saudis could up-end any deal; furthermore, a new Twin Pillar hinges on a comprehensive nuclear deal between Iran and the West. However, if successful, a renewed relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran could reduce tensions in the Gulf and facilitate Washington’s pivot to Asia.

What will the Obama Doctrine Mean for the Future?

The Obama Doctrine could have at least two significant long-term implications for American foreign policy in the future. First, it could lead to a withdrawal from the Middle East. Second, it may amount to a fundamental reorientation in policy toward China.

Historians and political scientists have been quick to lump everything Nixon did under the rubric of his particular doctrine. However, the Nixon Doctrine was representative of Nixon and Kissinger’s hard-boiled realist approach to world politics. Nixon was in office for roughly the same amount of time Obama has been in office. In addition to escalating and then withdrawing from Vietnam, Nixon oversaw a period of détente with the Soviet Union (ushered in by the ABM Treaty and SALT), the opening of China, and exploiting tensions between Sadat and Moscow to bring Egypt closer to the U.S.

However, one of Nixon’s long-term legacies was deeper involvement in the Middle East. When Iran became engulfed in revolution in 1979, America was left scrambling looking for a replacement, compelling the Carter Administration to guarantee the security of Persian Gulf oil. While prediction is difficult for social scientists and government bureaucrats, if America continues on its path to energy-superpowerdom and manages to reduce tensions with Iran, the Obama Administration may be paving the way for a comprehensive American withdrawal from the Middle East.

The Obama Administration came into office talking about “rebalancing” or “pivoting” to Asia, which has been seen as code for containing China. While Nixon’s reopening of China was dramatic because the two sides had not spoken in nearly three decades (and because Nixon made his domestic reputation as a hardline anti-communist), it was necessary to tilt the balance of power in America’s favor. It is possible that a similar calculus motivated the “reset” with Russia: prevent Moscow from becoming too close to China. After their recent gas deal, it appears the “reset” has failed for now.

For years, America’s policy toward China combined engagement with containment. However, as China has taken an increasingly aggressive posture in territorial disputes with its neighbors, it seems that it is unlikely Beijing will be referred to as “responsible stakeholder” anytime soon, and the “pivot” will be replaced with another euphemism for balancing or containment.

The Obama Doctrine has not been presented in a simple, succinct manner. This makes it harder for pundits and the public to digest. Despite its lack of elegance, it is modeled on one of the most successful foreign policy doctrines in recent memory.

About the Author
Dr. Albert B. Wolf is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at ADA University in Baku, Azerbaijan. He has written extensively on international security and Middle East politics.
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