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The Republican foreign policy vacuum

The Republican foreign policy vacuum
Published 12 May 2016   Follow @heatherwilly

Titles can be deceiving. The Obama Doctrine by Colin Dueck, for example, is not actually about Obama's foreign policy legacy or grand strategy. Rather, it is a Republican foreign policy manifesto. For readers wanting a more straight-forward analysis, Jeffrey Goldberg's 'The Obama Doctrine' engagingly and objectively discusses turning points in the President's foreign policy and attempts to capture his vision; or we can wait in anticipation for another installment of David Remnick's experiences with the President.

But Dueck's The Obama Doctrine is actually two books in one: a cursory analysis of Obama's foreign policy; and a more detailed discussion of a potential Republican foreign policy, what Dueck calls 'conservative American realism.'

Despite its mislabelling, and conservative slant, its suggestion for renewed discussion of American national interest, its values, and how these can be pursued in foreign policy is timely and noticeably lacking in the presidential debates.

Nearly all American presidents are associated with their own grand-strategic vision. In the opening pages, Dueck defines Obama's grand strategy as 'overarching American retrenchment and accommodation internationally, in large part to allow the president to focus on securing liberal policy legacies at home.' Obama is a domestic president, not an international one, according to Dueck.

Dueck's summary of Obama's legacy suffers at least three major flaws, all of which can be demonstrated in his handling of the President' nuclear weapons policy. First, it does not differentiate between his first and second terms. One can't help but wonder if the President came to regret some of the 'international gestures of good will' in his first term, such as the 2009 Prague speech calling for the 'peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.' This speech may have contributed to his winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but it set impossible expectations for an otherwise pragmatic leader and caused anxiety among key US allies. Arguably his second term has demonstrated far more tempered language — for example, compare the 2013 Berlin speech with the Prague speech.

Second, Dueck repeatedly flips between representing Obama as an idealist or pragmatist. For example, he describes the President's non-proliferation policy as assuming that if the US leads in making reductions, others will follow. This is evident in neither policy nor action. In the Berlin speech the President suggested a one-third reduction in the US nuclear arsenal, but only in parallel with Russia. No unilateral reductions have taken place. Such a representation suggests Obama is an idealist, but elsewhere Dueck decidedly sees him as a pragmatist in balancing foreign and domestic policies. Of course Obama, like all Presidents, is a bit of both.

Lastly, Dueck manifests a common misunderstanding of bargaining in the international system. [fold]

In describing the New START Treaty, The Obama Doctrine suggests the President gave Russia 'most of what they want' and accuses Russia of 'offering strictly limited cooperation in ways that suit its own interests.' To the latter point, of course Russia pursues cooperation and other policies to suit its own interests, as do most states. But to the former, there were plenty of items Russia would have liked to include in New START, namely limits on advanced conventional weapons and legally-binding limits of US missile defences. Similarly, Russia would likely accuse the US of getting 'most of what they want' and pursuing cooperation 'in ways that suit its own interests.' But Dueck's discussion of national interest is a useful one; more on that later.

Turning to the second book within The Obama Doctrine, Dueck provides an overview of Republican foreign policies before exploring various alternatives for the next Republican president. Dueck ultimately concludes that the best way forward is 'conservative American realism', defined as 'supporting American allies and resisting American adversaries internationally. It would emphasize strategic planning, bolstered deterrence, and presidential leadership on behalf of a genuinely prudent US forward presence.' Targets would include 'great power competitors, rogue state adversaries, and jihadist terrorists.'

These are useful suggestions for a party experiencing a vacuum in foreign policy leadership. But one glaring omission from the book is consideration of the now all-but-guaranteed GOP candidate. Whereas Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are given detailed attention, Donald Trump's name does not once appear in The Obama Doctrine. And perhaps that is the greatest challenge for conservative American realism: who will lead it? There is no Senator Richard Lugar or obvious heir to implement such a vision. Republicans, like Obama (at least according to Dueck) are stuck on domestic politics.

The Obama Doctrine is not without some strengths. Its first chapter is a concise overview of grand strategy formation and tools. Additionally, its suggestions for various Republican grand strategies are much needed. Similarly, it provides a useful summary of decision-making in the Obama Administration, which was concentrated in the White House. The President drew on a wide spectrum of views but he ultimately kept his own counsel.

Perhaps Dueck's greatest contribution is in indirectly highlighting two debates: what is the US national interest? And how can grand strategy (ends, ways, and means) pursue those interests? Dueck argues that in terms of foreign policy Obama repeatedly acted in opposition to American national interest, whereas, according to Dueck, 'Americans have a vital interest in the preservation of what can only be called US primacy.' One can imagine members of the Obama Administration arguing this was indeed a national interest they pursued while in office.

This deeper, values-based discussion has been largely missing from foreign policy discourse. The legacy of the George W Bush Administration's 'global war on terror' and the failure to spread democracy and stability have perhaps left many Americans reluctant to again engage in the discussion of values, national interests, and American primacy. But that debate is long overdue. In particular, allies are clamouring for US leadership and credibility, and whoever next resides in the White House can pursue a narrative to reassure them and provide the country with a clearer foreign policy and vision for global order and the role of the US in that order.

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