US foreign policy: what will come after the Obama Doctrine?


As the presidential race of 2016 heats up, there is ample room for debate about the foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama, given that political commentators are still hanging it in the balance.

Obama’s presidency will not go down as a hugely positive watershed period in American foreign policy.

President Barack Obama made major strides over the past year on the four planks of his second-term foreign-policy agenda: a nuclear deal with Iran, restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba, a global climate-change agreement and a new trade pact with Asia. But each of those remains fragile, while his failures seem to be tangible and threatening.

Since he took his role, Obama has been plagued by the increasingly difficult decision of defining America’s role in an apolar world while managing the political and economic legacy of the Bush administration. Obama has relied on a policy of delegation; he neither refrained from military options nor showed any willingness to commit American ground troops to strategically and operationally complex environments of the world, such as Middle East. The non-intervention in Syria, his premature departure from Iraq, his plans to pull entirely out of Afghanistan, and his failure to help piece Libya back together after the 2011 NATO-catalyzed conflict that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi are results of this strategy.

From this perspective, the debate on the US foreign policy strategy and its instruments of power and influence has become particularly relevant. The Obama doctrine is seen as a new foreign policy strategy, different from the one practiced by Bush, mostly in regard with the instruments of power used and more precisely the return of soft power, but whose implications are equally important.

As we said before, the effects of Obama’s policy rationale of ‘leading from behind’ have been particularly visible in the Middle East, where the upheavals of the Arab Spring have further destabilized an already conflict-ridden region, like Lybia, Syria or Yemen.

Geostrategically, the United States found itself at the crossroads in its transition from a bipolar to a seemingly apolar world, in which military intervention might have to come preventively, for an indefinite period of time anywhere in the world in defence of peripheral security interests—and in a complex operational environment where the lines between state and non-state actors are indefinite. Domestically, the Obama administration’s Middle East policy was haunted by the legacy of the Bush era: public war fatigue, austerity measures and military downsizing after long and costly military engagements in the region.

Thus, in the aftermath of lengthy and costly operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East has not been one of disengagement, but one of shifting engagement. Externalizing the strategic and operational burden of war to human and technological surrogates has developed into America’s preferred way of war under the Obama administration. From this perspective, surrogate warfare offers an alternative means of maintaining US influence in the region, in order to remain the most powerful player, economically, politically and militarily.

But how the next President could reverse the alleged failure of the Obama doctrine? Which trendlines in the presidential election point to a likely shift in US foreign policy after the November 2016 election?

Largely, the candidates believe that Obama has weakened America’s global strength by running down military capability and eroding the credibility of US deterrence.The candidates broadly advocate doing more to address the problems posed by ISIS and Syria: intensifying engagement with allies and partners in the Middle East, particularly Israel; taking a firm line with Russia and the Bashar al-Assad regime; arming moderate Syrian opposition; and ending the deal on nuclear weapons with Iran.

Said that, much of the White House’s effort in 2016 should be focused on safeguarding the achieved results and pushing them so far along by 2017 in order to avoid their erosion under successor in the White House or counterparts abroad.

Related Articles

Back to Top