America’s foreign policy Is there an Obama doctrine? Dec 17th 2009 |
WASHINGTON, DC From The Economist print edition
“Just war”, not just war. And affordable, please
Cicero didn’t get one of those BY HIS own admission, Barack Obama received his Nobel peace prize when his accomplishments were still “slight”. But he has big plans—including signing a new nuclear-arms reduction treaty with Russia and, eventually, ridding the world of atomic weapons altogether. When he collected his prize in Oslo on December 10th, he also gave a thought-provoking acceptance speech. To some it hit the rhetorical heights of Cicero (Simon Schama, a historian, in the Financial Times). For others (David Brooks, in the New York Times), there were echoes of Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian with a gloomy view of human nature. The question now obsessing America’s commentariat is whether this speech outlines an “Obama doctrine” in foreign policy. If so, what is it? Mr Obama has never claimed to be a pacifist. Yet his critics on the right seemed surprised, pleasantly, when he said in Oslo that “there will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” Bill Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard, praised his “hardheaded and pro-American tone”. Sarah Palin appeared to like his observation that “evil does exist in the world”. (She also reminded Americans that they could read her own musings on man’s fallen state in her new book.) John Bolton, on the other hand, remained in a grump. George Bush’s former ambassador to the United Nations took exception to Mr Obama’s acknowledgment that the world would “not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes”. End violence? Merely to entertain such a possibility, he huffed on television, “reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature”. A presidential “doctrine”, however, needs to say more than that America will sometimes have to fight, and sometimes alone. The question is: when? If Mr Bush had a doctrine it was his belief in pre-emptive war, enunciated in the National Security Strategy of 2002 and enacted in Iraq the next year. Does Mr Obama, who opposed that war, accept the idea of pre-emption in any circumstances? Here the Oslo speech was vague. He cited the concept of “just war” (war waged only as a last resort or in self-defence, with “proportional” force and sparing civilians where possible), but said that nuclear proliferation and failed states made it necessary to think about just war “in new ways”. These he did not specify. After referring to North Korea and Iran, he said only that “those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.” Sometimes Mr Obama is accused of soft-headed idealism (eg, for extending a tentative hand to Iran and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, to whom he passed a letter last week), and sometimes of a hard-hearted realism that pays too little heed to human rights. When Iran cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in June, he muted his criticism for fear of disrupting the nuclear talks. His administration has made less fuss than some about human rights in China. In Oslo he defended his decision to treat with repressive regimes by arguing that “sanctions without outreach” and “condemnation without discussion” could end in stalemate. On December 14th Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, took up the refrain. “Our principles are our north star,” she said, “but our tools and tactics must be flexible.” So is this a distinctive Obama doctrine? Mr Bush’s officials also talked to North Korea and Iran, and got along well enough with China and Russia. What makes Mr Obama most different so far, argues Peter Beinart of the New America Foundation, a think-tank, is his conviction that an economically stricken America needs to pare down its foreign commitments. When Mr Obama said at West Point at the beginning of December that he was sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, he also said that he refused to set goals “that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests”. By definition, a superpower has to sally forth into the world. Arguably, Mr Obama’s main new idea, much easier to say than to achieve, is that it should also live within its means.