Obama’s responsibility doctrine

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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Barak Obama

White House, especially with U.S. foreign policy, extremely cautious

The other week, U.S. President Barack Obama told the assembled White House press gallery that America was no longer in a position to call all the shots on the global stage. Shocking news to some, I’m sure.

In the illuminating words of the President: “Apparently, people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on Earth, still does not control everything around the world. And so our diplomatic efforts often take time. They often will see progress and then a step backwards … But the point is … that if you look at the 20th century and the early part of this century, there are a lot of conflicts that America doesn’t resolve.”

There is no disputing that the Obama White House, especially when it comes to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, has been extremely cautious and sometimes even reluctant to engage internationally. But after two disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who could blame him for being timid.

He also believes firmly that not every international problem requires a military solution. And in the foul-mouthed language of President Obama, one of the hallmarks of his foreign policy is the following: “Don’t do stupid shit.”

We’ve seen evidence of this in the ongoing Syrian crisis, the Arab “awakening,” and China’s recent aggressive antics in the South China Sea. Others have suggested that this preference for caution has manifested itself in dealings with a nuclear North Korea, a nuclear-determined Iran and in the continuing crisis in eastern Ukraine.   

Critics, including many Republicans in Congress, have been quick to lambaste the President for undermining America’s preeminence in the world. Some talking heads have referred derisively to Obama’s international approach as little more than “leading from behind.”

Not surprisingly, President Obama sees things differently in a globalized or highly inter-connected world. He firmly believes that many of the planet’s most pressing issues — from climate change to conflict resolution — will require collective as opposed to unilateral action. Clearly, the Obama administration is trying to distance itself from the failed unilateralist impulses of the previous Bush White House.

Put another way, Obama is saying that the U.S., if it is to be a successful global actor and leader, must have other players (emerging and middle powers) join it on the international field. Responsibility for resolving the world’s problems, then, must be shared among a group of leading countries — and not simply left in the hands of official Washington.

In part, this qualified retrenchment by Obama can be explained by the lingering scars and political fatigue of costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The enormous financial drain of fighting extended wars abroad, the untold cost in terms of blood and psychological damage, corresponding cuts to defence spending, and a deep fear of being bogged down in another debilitating quagmire are all shaping U.S. foreign policy today.

We’re seeing the application of this responsibility doctrine presently in the increasingly explosive situation in Iraq. Caution seems to be the operative guiding strategy — with the occasional U.S. air strike thrown in for symbolic purposes.

But President Obama has made it very clear that there will be no U.S. combat troops sent to Iraq. Indeed, he is hoping that other countries (like Saudi Arabia, Britain and other European nations) will contribute to resolving this mess. And it’s worth noting that middling power Canada has now acceded to Obama’s request to assist in the humanitarian aid effort.

White House officials will no doubt point to their responsibility doctrine as saving the global economy from financial collapse in 2008-2009, for successfully removing Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi from power in 2011, for bolstering efforts to secure nuclear material from around the world, and for negotiating a new START arms reduction treaty with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. But a host of other international crises and hotspots have gone unresolved and continue to burn (Syria being just one example).

Claiming that the U.S. can’t do it alone and that it needs help from others is not going to fix these problems if those same countries are not willing to contribute anything. And if the U.S. is unable to cajole, induce or coerce other countries to join the international fray, does that mean that Washington should just sit it out? Whether President Obama realizes it or not, the U.S. can’t simply take a vacation or opt out of its own international responsibilities whenever it pleases.

Intuitively, Obama’s embrace of his responsibility doctrine makes sense in the context of recent U.S. foreign policy (mis)adventures. But the fact remains that there will be times when the U.S. will have to take responsibility for getting things done in the world. It is not always possible, given the high stakes involved, to wait around until other countries decide to join the effort.

So perhaps it is more appropriate for Obama to speak in terms of the responsibility doctrine if possible, but not necessarily the responsibility doctrine.

By Peter McKenna (guest opinion)

Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island

Organizations: Obama White House, Republicans, University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: U.S., Iraq, Afghanistan China South China Sea North Korea Iran Eastern Ukraine Saudi Arabia Britain Canada Russia Syria Washington

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