The Lowy Interpreter

By Tom Switzer

Barack Obama has declared a new foreign policy doctrine: the limits of American power. The US, he argues, 'must always lead on the world stage,' but 'US military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance.'  

Addressing future US Army officers yesterday, the President declared: 'Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.' 

The speech will attract media attention for the administration's new US$5 billion 'Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund,' which will help train nations in Africa and the Middle East to fight terrorists.   

But the message is more significant because it presents the broadest definition to date of the way Obama sees America's new role in the world in the post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan era. It declared a balance between withdrawal and overreach, between isolationists and interventionists. 

'I believe neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment. It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option...But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.'

Obama's new description of his foreign policy, sketched during the graduation address he gave at the United States Military Academy, sharply revised the positions his predecessor took at the same venue 12 years ago. 

Addressing West Point on 1 June 2002, President George W Bush declared that the Cold War doctrines of containment and deterrence were irrelevant in the post-9/11 era. The only strategy for defeating the enemy of Islamist terrorists and tyrants was to strike them pre-emptively. 

That was a different era. 

Bloodied by quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, crippled by a US$16 trillion debt and sluggish growth, mired in a crisis of confidence, the US is struggling to impose its will, leadership and influence across the globe. 

Meanwhile, the rise of China, the intransigence of Russia and the failure of the 'Arab Spring' to live up to liberal expectations indicate that power is becoming more diffuse and that the post-Communist world remains a messy place that won't conform to American expectations.  

Obama's framework places his foreign policy in a far different position than did his predecessor. But it's too bad the president failed to use the opportunity to set out his more realist world view and in the process confront his critics more assertively.

After all, public opinion supports his instinctive realism. Americans are tired of the world and are suffering from foreign policy fatigue. There is an overwhelming feeling that it's high time for the US to concentrate on its own neglected internal problems. 

According to a Pew Research Center poll late last year, 52% of Americans think the US should 'mind its own business' overseas, the highest percentage to endorse that proposition since the question was raised 50 years ago. Meanwhile, an NBC-WSJ poll last month found that only 38% approved of Obama's handling of foreign policy. 

Several commentators — most notably Robert Kagan, who's written a widely read article in the New Republic this week — point to a paradox: that Americans want a time out from the world even as they lambaste the President for his disinterested world view. 

But the problem with Obama's foreign policy is not that he has failed to intervene militarily in hot spots such as Syria nor that he has not asserted US power and influence in places like Ukraine. It's that he has made so many prestige committing moves that his failure to follow through on his threats and commitments (red lines!) diminishes American prestige and credibility. 

The American people aren't hankering for indiscriminate global intervention; they support a more assertive US presence when it serves what is clearly defined as a national interest. 

In this environment, the President could have used the occasion to explain more comprehensively not just his wise refrain that there is not an American solution to every problem in the world. 

He could have, for instance, repudiated the Bush doctrine of pre-emption. Terrorists can't be contained, because they can run and hide. Rogue states, on the other hand, can be deterred because they have a mailing address. 

Or he could have spelt out the Walter Lippmann rule: that he who wills the ends must also will the means, that aspirations should match resources and that commitments and power should be brought into balance. It is a truth of which Americans (more apt to focus on ends than means when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world) need reminding. 

Such a strategy does not mean a return to 1930s-style 'isolationism'. Nor does it amount to 'withdrawalism,' as Kagan and Leon Wieseltier crudely put it. It is about picking and choosing where America throws its weight. It's about selectivity, discrimination and prudence in foreign policy deliberations where the key word is not 'and' but 'or' and the key question is not 'how' but 'why'. 

The President's speechwriters should go back to the drawing board.

This article originally appeared in The Lowy Interpreter