The pivot to America

The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today, by Colin Dueck, OUP USA, $24.95, 336 pages, Published in the UK in July

Superpower: Three Choices for America's Role in the World, by Ian Bremmer, Portfolio Penguin, £14.99 / $27.95, 240 pages

US presidents cannot aspire to greatness unless they have a doctrine named after them. The three most cited are those of Truman, Nixon and Reagan. At the outset of the cold war, Harry Truman proclaimed America's readiness to defend freedom anywhere in the world. Richard Nixon played a clever - and more realistic - game of poker with the Soviets, chiefly by coaxing China into the US camp. Ronald Reagan moved to a more aggressive stance of rolling back Soviet power. Since the end of the cold war, however, only George W Bush has staked claim to foreign policy coherence. But his doctrine of pre-emptive war failed so disastrously no sane person would now defend it.

Will future generations talk about an Obama doctrine? The probable answer is no. Lacking one is by no means a disgrace. Few people refer to an Eisenhower doctrine - or a George HW Bush one either. Yet they were two of the most adept presidents of the modern era. Nor did anyone try to coin a Clinton doctrine. Yet people look back on Bill Clinton's presidency as a period of relative calm and prosperity. Obama is unlikely to have such good fortune. He came to office in 2009 at a time of global turmoil and he is likely to leave it in 2017 in much the same shape.

Along the way, he announced a "reset" of relations with Russia, only to see it trashed last year in Crimea. He tried to broker yet another doomed settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He has embarked on a modest "pivot to Asia" - time will tell whether it will nudge China in a more co-operative direction. He has also broken the taboo on talking to America's enemies, notably Iran and Cuba. Meanwhile, Obama has expanded the radius of drone attacks and promised to defeat al-Qaeda's successor in the Middle East. He also continues to push America's partners to set limits on global warming and the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Obama record is a potpourri of pragmatism and idealism. Some of it has worked (killing Osama bin Laden). Some of it has backfired (withdrawing from Iraq in 2011). Some of it deserves to succeed (limiting global carbon emissions). Some of it merits scepticism (treating speeches as a substitute for diplomacy). But is there a doctrine in there somewhere?

Two new books shed light on that question. The first, The Obama Doctrine by Colin Dueck, an associate professor at George Mason University in Virginia, offers a definition: "US retrenchment and international accommodation in order to focus on progressive policy legacies at home". Call it the pivot to America. Obama's real priority has been his domestic agenda. At best, foreign policy has been a distraction, in Dueck's view. At worst, Obama's record has been a tale of drift, ambivalence and well-intentioned naivete. It has also been marred by inexperience. "[Obama's] speeches often sound as if they were made by a thoughtful outside critic, rather than by the existing chief executive," Dueck writes. "However thoughtful, speeches are not self-executing."

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There is a lot to support Dueck's take. Obama's big promise was to transform the tone of US politics. Beneath that there was healthcare, Wall Street reform and clean energy. Foreign policy only featured in his 2008 campaign as an expensive distraction from the task of rebuilding America. Withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan was his promise and he stuck to it to a fault. But as the political analyst Ian Bremmer points out in his book, Superpower, stating what you are not going to do should not be confused with a doctrine. Obama, he writes, "has defined his foreign policy goals in negative terms - we won't put troops on the ground, we won't stay past December, we won't commit resources beyond our means, we won't move forward without partners . . . "

To the extent that Obama has engaged in foreign policy, "retrenchment" is a recurring theme. Defence spending has fallen sharply as a share of US output. In 2010 it was almost 5 per cent of gross domestic product. Unless the US Congress comes up with a new budget deal, it will fall to 3.1 per cent by 2017. Moreover, Obama's Asia pivot is more apparent than real. Central to the shift was deploying 60 per cent of the Pentagon's resources in the Pacific against 50 per cent before. But this has been achieved by cutting US hardware in the Middle East and Europe rather than upping resources in Asia. "To think that the Chinese have not noticed this distinction would be absurd," says Dueck. Under Obama's defence review, the US has abandoned the pretence that it can fight two major wars simultaneously. Pentagon chiefs now mutter ominously that it would have trouble fighting even one. The generals may be overstating things. But there is little doubt that America's potential adversaries, notably Russia and China, detect a growing military vacuum.

Obama has also modified America's nuclear weapons posture - notably by pledging not to increase its arsenal. He has also repeatedly disavowed the use of conventional force. While the latter strikes a welcome contrast to the Bush doctrine, it makes little sense to go round telling everyone, argues Dueck. Finally, he has invested great store in global co-operation. That, too, has foundered in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere. Too much, argues Dueck, rides on Obama's own brand, rather than the hard reckoning of realist diplomacy. What may work in Ohio cuts no ice overseas. "Obama is for many Americans a kind of inspirational personal bridge between races, as well as a bridge between his own country's past, present and future," says Dueck. "[But] he is not and cannot be a bridge between nations."

The best indicator of whether Obama merits his own doctrine is whether successors endorse his record. To judge by the cacophony in the 2016 field, that is a tough one to forecast. Republicans are evenly poised between anti-interventionists, led by Rand Paul, internationalists, led by Jeb Bush, and national security hawks - take your pick of candidates. Hillary Clinton is somewhere to Obama's right and Jeb Bush's left. Bremmer argues that 2016 will be a crossroads for US foreign policy. Unlike Dueck, he believes Obama has no recognisable doctrine. Obama's tenure has been characterised by a "refusal to choose", says Bremmer. But he argues America's strategic confusion goes back to the end of the cold war. Clinton and Bush Jr are also culpable. "Whoever is at fault, it is clear that America's next president will inherit a foreign policy without a strategy," says Bremmer.

<>His book offers three thumb-nailed choices, each of which - "Independent America", "Moneyball America" and "Indispensable America" - he presents as robustly as he can. Much as I hate to spoil the ending, Bremmer comes down in favour of the first. This is something of a surprise. As president of the Eurasia Group, a New York-based global risk consultancy, Bremmer is steeped in world affairs, and intimately familiar with US global interconnectedness. Yet his book is a clarion call to something bordering on a new isolationism.

By Bremmer's measure, Obama is not retrenching nearly enough. Bremmer urges the US to pull back from its military bases in Europe and Japan, wash its hands of the Middle East, and focus on a more perfect union at home. The US must stop trying to export its values and focus instead on showcasing its constitutional exceptionalism. The greatest threat to US security, he argues, is from the government's appetite to snoop on its own citizens (here Obama is as much a culprit as any). "It is time for a new declaration of independence - a proclamation of emancipation from the responsibility to solve everyone else's problems," Bremmer declares.

As a menu of 2016 options, Superpower does an efficient job. But Bremmer is better at pointing out the flaws in America's bouts of "messianic" zeal than he is at making the case for a shy, retiring version. For all Obama's shortcomings, America's 44th president is neither zealous nor retiring. Nor is he as faltering after six years as Dueck claims him to be. Besides, doctrines are starting to feel a bit outdated nowadays - the world is getting too complicated. Obama seems to acknowledge that. It is surely better to have no doctrine at all than to be emboldened by false certainty.

Edward Luce is the FT's chief US commentator

Photograph: Getty

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