Getting US foreign policy just right
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Getting US foreign policy just right

Getting US foreign policy just right

Dr Michael Fullilove

Australian Financial Review

12 November 2014

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Executive Summary

“Great nations need organising principles,” said Hillary Clinton recently. “ ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organising principle.”

In devising a new organising principle, Americans should look to the story of Goldilocks.

As everyone knows, Goldilocks went for a walk in the forest and came to the home of the three bears.

She found three bowls of porridge on the kitchen table.

Goldilocks tasted the first bowl of porridge and it was too hot. She tasted the second bowl of porridge and it was too cold. Finally, she tasted the third bowl of porridge. It was just right.

Like Goldilocks, the world found president George W. Bush too hot – too impulsive, too unilateral, too promiscuous in his use of force. On the other hand, the world has found President Barack Obama too cold – too calculating, too reserved, too cautious in throwing around his weight.


A period of retrenchment was inevitable after the Bush era. The muscular grand strategy of Bush’s first term was a failure. In particular, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was an historic mistake. Rather than bolstering Washington’s intimidatory powers, it undermined them.

Obama would not have been elected president but for the fact that he opposed the Iraq war while his rival Hillary Clinton supported it.

During his 2008 campaign, he signalled that the centre of gravity of America’s international policies needed to shift away from a reliance on force. He mused to one journalist: “For most of our history our crises have come from using force when we shouldn’t, not by failing to use force.”

Obama did not just learn the lessons from the Bush presidency: he over-learned them. He has done most things in foreign policy right, and he has certainly done better than his predecessor.

But his reluctance to act decisively and forcefully on several occasions has weakened the deterrent effect of US power.

Nothing has undercut Obama’s standing more than his policies on Syria – his refusal to arm Syrian moderates and his August 2013 decision not to proceed with the air strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime that his administration had repeatedly foreshadowed.


In recent months, Obama has toughened his stance. He has done well to assemble a coalition of Arab and international allies to take the fight up to Islamic State.

The next president must maintain this new centrist position that sits between the extremes of the early Bush presidency and the early Obama presidency.

After all, without American leadership, none of the great challenges facing humanity will be solved.

Obama hoped that if America did less, her allies would do more. In fact, when America does less, her allies also do less.

The United States certainly has the capability to do more. The country retains exceptional strengths. Many say that America is weak. But Vladimir Putin would love it if Russia was as weak as America. Xi Jinping would love it if China was as weak as America.

The US remains the only nation capable of running a global foreign policy and projecting military power anywhere on earth. Furthermore, the idea of America – a superpower that is open, democratic, meritocratic and optimistic – remains attractive to the world. When we consider the frailties of its rivals – Russian demographics, for example, or Chinese corruption – American resilience is more notable than American decline.


Americans also seem to be interested again in leaning forward. It is clear that their confidence has dropped in recent years. But it is striking how much resistance Obama encountered when he hinted that America may not be “exceptional”. There is strong public support for his decision to strike Islamic State.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears is just a fairy tale. And unlike porridge, there is no such thing as a foreign policy that is just right.

But now that the world has observed the consequences when US foreign policy is either too hot or too cold, the next president should maintain Obama’s course correction to the middle, and adopt a policy that is prudent and realistic but also steely. It’s time for the Goldilocks doctrine.

Michael Fullilove is the executive director of the Lowy Institute. His book Rendezvous with Destiny is a finalist in the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions