In a recent interview on the television show 60 Minutes, US President Barack Obama was questioned about the challenge that Russia’s move into Syria represented to his leadership. Obama brushed off the question, saying Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin was acting out of weakness and that the need to prop up President Assad was a sign that the Syrian dictator was losing his grip. More strikingly, the president added: ‘if you think that running your economy into the ground [referring to the Russian economy] and having to send troops in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership. My definition of leadership would be leading on climate change, an international accord that potentially we’ll get in Paris’ (60 Minutes 2015). This sense of priority might have surprised the audience, especially given the context of the ongoing Syrian tragedy.

More than six years into office, observers are still at pains to define Obama’s foreign policy vision, the philosophy guiding his actions on the international stage. Is the president mostly motivated by domestic aims? To what extent can his foreign policy be defined by a doctrine, and how does it fit into American traditions? Despite the hope created by Obama’s election in 2008, European policymakers have often found the US president disengaged, even aloof. Early decisions such as the ‘reset’ with Russia, the decision to scrap the missile defence sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, or the long and largely unilateral Afghanistan review have fuelled this narrative. Understanding the president’s vision thus matters greatly to Europeans and transatlantic relations, not only as a way to engage Washington in Obama’s last year in office, but to gauge the potential for change and continuity after the end of his second term.

Henry Kissinger, in Diplomacy, describes US foreign policy as oscillating between the traditions of its first two internationalist presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, between a belief in the need to defend US national interests and balance power politics, and an almost messianic self-proclaimed mission to promote liberal democracy (Kissinger 1994). Where does Obama fit into this? He has alternately been called an ‘idealist’ (French 2014) and a ‘realist’ (Kaplan 2014). Some claim that he himself does not know and that it is more than time to choose (Drezner 2013).

The concentrated and opaque nature of decision-making at the White House makes it difficult to deduce the foreign policy vision of a president from the views of his main cabinet members. While the G.W. Bush administration (especially in the first term) was famous for its turf battles between strong personalities such as Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell (Mann 2004), Obama seems firmly in charge of foreign policy, relying on a close-knit group of advisers. In the case of the conflict in Ukraine, for example, while Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry both signalled their support for the delivery of weaponry to Kyiv to sustain the Russian invasion, the president decided against this course of action, firmly set against any risk of escalation with Moscow. As a recent Politico article noted: ‘Obama’s West Wing inner circle serves as a brick wall against dissenting views. The president’s most senior advisers—including National Security Adviser Susan Rice and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough—reflect the president’s wariness of escalated U.S. action related to Syria or Russia and, officials fear, fail to push Obama to question his own deeply rooted assumptions’ (Crowley 2015). While Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, is known for her work on the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities (encapsulated in her book A Problem from Hell), it is unlikely she has much say over decision-making today.

Between Nixon and Fukuyama

It would be a mistake to paint the president as a naïve or indecisive academic or to infer that his policies are simply motivated by a willingness to differentiate himself from his predecessor. Obama was certainly elected with a clear mandate to end an unpopular war in Iraq and in the midst of an international financial crisis. But his actions and, to a lesser extent, his rhetoric, reflect a particular vision of the US’s role in the world and the threats it is facing. More importantly, they inform us of the direction US foreign policy will be likely to continue to take in the last year of Obama’s administration.

In fact, since his election, Obama has sustained a clear foreign policy based on restraint, if not retreat, and deep scepticism over not only the use of force, but even what US power can accomplish in the world. This should not be confused with the ‘isolationism’ that has characterised the US’s reluctant engagement with the world ever since George Washington’s farewell address: ‘The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible’ (Whitney 2003, 24).

The concept of ‘isolationism’ does not seem to describe Obama’s policy. With the largest diplomatic network in the world, about 156,000 active-duty military personnel serving abroad, and the highest volume of imports worldwide, the US is hardly in a position to isolate itself. But this view does encapsulate the ‘light footprint’ approach favoured by the administration when dealing with security issues: drone strikes and special force operations are used, rather than heavy involvement (Sanger 2013). The administration took a cautious back seat during the Arab revolutions. While it supported sanctions against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine (with little cost, contrary to the effects on the European countries that are more dependent on trade with Russia) and Franco-German efforts to negotiate the Minsk II agreements, the White House resisted growing calls from defence experts (Pifer et al. 2015) and administration officials to support Ukraine with weapons delivery. In Syria, while the administration’s official policy has been to call for the ouster of President Assad, it has consistently failed, or refused, to supply the means to achieve this stated objective. This was demonstrated most spectacularly in the about-face that followed the violation of the ‘red line’ on the use of chemical weapons against civilians, set by Obama himself, after the Ghouta massacre in August 2013.

In this respect, the president seems to resemble an old-fashioned realist, in the mould of Nixon or George H. W. Bush, advocating against the use of force when it is not strictly in US national interests, and conducting foreign policy as a ‘normal nation’ would. This is reminiscent of the ‘Powell doctrine’, the rules set by the former Republican Secretary of State (who supported Obama in both elections) for the use of American force: a clear national interest, attainable objectives, public support, overwhelming force and an exit strategy. A deep-rooted scepticism of the transformative abilities of US power can be added to this. As his close adviser Ben Rhodes recently told a reporter, in criticism of the Republicans: ‘there’s such an extreme vanity that everything happening in the world is an extension of our agency. There are just forces happening’ (Draper 2015).

However, surprisingly, the administration mixes this prudent attempt at realpolitik with optimism about long-term trends that favour the expansion of liberal norms and, more generally, US power, a world-view that does not fit with the traditional realist mould of the balance of power politics and tragic history. In almost Hegelian ‘sense of history’ terms, the administration is fond of saying its opponents’ tactics do not fit in our times. After the beheading of journalist James Foley in August 2014, Obama claimed that Islamic State ‘has no place in the twenty-first century’ (Margolin 2014). This echoes similar rhetoric concerning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. John Kerry, for example, said: ‘You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text’ (Epstein 2014). Obviously, it is clear that Putin’s Russia and Islamic State’s threats belong, de facto, to the twenty-first century, and cannot be passively relegated to the dustbins of history. In the same spirit, when Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in 2012, claimed that Russia was ‘America’s number one geopolitical foe’ (Willis 2012) (a statement that has gained great relevancy over the last year), he was ridiculed by Obama who responded by saying ‘the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back’ (YouTube 2012). He added in an interview: ‘I don’t need a Kennan right now’ (Costigliola 2014), a reference to the famous diplomat who formulated the US ‘containment’ strategy during the Cold War.

Is idealist rhetoric being used as a veneer to justify passivity and a focus on domestic politics? Not quite. In this vision, the main threat to US foreign policy would come from overreacting to adversaries that are mostly acting out of weakness and desperation. According to the White House’s view, while Washington pundits are hysterical about the US’s loss of prestige and influence, the president is playing the long game. As National Security Adviser Susan Rice put it when addressing the Brookings Institution recently to present the National Security Strategy:

  • [T]oo often, what’s missing here in Washington is a sense of perspective. Yes, there’s a lot going on. Still, while the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or the Cold War. We can’t afford to be buffeted by alarmism and an instantaneous news cycle. (Brookings Institution 2015)

If more traditional, zero-sum, great power rivalries do not constitute the main threat to the US, then what does? The National Security Strategy published by the White House in 2015 lists a series of threats, clearly distinguished by their transnational and ‘new’ nature:

  • [C]atastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland or critical infrastructure; threats or attacks against U.S. citizens abroad and our allies; global economic crisis or widespread economic slowdown; proliferation and/or use of weapons of mass destruction; severe global infectious disease outbreaks; climate change; major energy market disruptions; and significant security consequences associated with weak or failing states (including mass atrocities, regional spillover, and transnational organized crime). (The White House 2015, 2)

On the other hand, the US’s projection of power is secured by its ‘growing economic strength’ as well as a ‘young and growing workforce, and a resilient and diversified economy’ (The White House 2015). In a way, Obama’s world-view is a left-leaning, progressive version of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ argument, which postulated that the end of the Cold War marked the end of the confrontation of political models and the triumph of liberal democracy and free markets as the ultimate path for mankind.

An analysis of a few of the catchphrases or slogans that have variously been used by members of the administration to describe US foreign policy during the last few years is, in this respect, quite illuminating.

Catchphrase one: ‘nation-building at home’

President Barack Obama, announcing a reduction of 33,000 troops in Afghanistan by September 2012, said it was ‘time to focus on nation-building at home’ and offered a ‘centered course’ for U.S. military engagement that he said would be rooted in pragmatism.

(The White House 2011)

Obama was elected in the midst of the greatest financial crisis since 1929 and, understandably, his first efforts focused on navigating the ‘Great Recession’ with the passage of an $831 million stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009). But beyond an urgent reaction to the crisis, the administration has focused most of its political capital on domestic initiatives, including notably the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) and the use of executive authority on issues such as immigration.

Interestingly, this approach is also favoured by foreign policy analysts such as Fareed Zakaria and Richard Haass. In his book Foreign Policy Begins At Home, Haass, the President of the Council for Foreign Relations argues that the US’s power projection is weakened by its shortcomings at home: ‘Many of the foundations of this country’s power are eroding; the effect, however, is not limited to a deteriorating transportation system or jobs that go unfilled or overseas owing to a lack of qualified American workers’ (Haass 2014, 3).

Catchphrase two: ‘don’t do stupid sh*t’

The West Wing has a preferred, authorized distillation of the president’s foreign-policy doctrine: ‘Don’t do stupid shi*t.’ The phrase has appeared in The New York Times three times in the past four days. So, if the White House’s aim was to get the phrase in circulation, mission accomplished!

(Allen 2014)

In 2014, journalists started reporting that administration officials were using this phrase to describe Obama’s prudent approach to foreign interventions. In this respect, not getting dragged into complicated and distant conflicts (such as the war in Syria) becomes a more important objective than anything that could be accomplished on the ground. Despite paying lip service to the Syrian transition, the administration has thus consistently resisted any policy move that would entail greater engagement.

Catchphrase three: ‘leading from behind’

Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind’.

(Lizza 2011)

If not the US, then who? Others. The phrase ‘leading from behind’ was used to describe the administration’s support for the NATO-led military operation in Libya that led to the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. While the US provided diplomatic and military support, the operation was led politically by the UK and France, with the backing of UN Resolution 1973. It is not clear whether the administration intended the phrase to go public the way it did. However, it does correspond with the view that the US must rely on and even outsource to its partners the resolution of issues that are more directly connected to their interests. Some analysts have called this a ‘responsibility doctrine’ (Hachigian and Shorr 2013).

Catchphrase four: ‘strategic patience’

Rice urged a policy of ‘strategic patience’ that allows America to prove its power when it must, but as often resists reflexive responses that could ensnare the U.S. in long-term conflicts.

(Ratnam 2015)

The logical consequence of this restrained position, the term ‘strategic patience’ was the centrepiece of the 2015 National Security Strategy. It implies that the challenges confronting US power need to be addressed, not by responding to alarmist calls with military intervention, but through long-term and multifaceted investment.

The revisionist challenge to US power

At the heart of these debates, then, lie three questions, each of which presents two alternatives. To each of these questions, this administration has responded by selecting the second option.

  1. 1.

    Does the US have a special responsibility on the international stage, or should it act as a ‘normal’ nation?

  2. 2.

    Can US power decisively affect the course of events on the international stage, or is it preferable to let other countries take the lead, especially when US interests do not seem to be directly affected?

  3. 3.

    Is there a growing challenge to US power and the liberal international order, or are long-term trends favouring the US?

The corollary of this approach is the optimism it provides when it comes to assessing the dangers facing the US and the scope of the threat represented by powers such as Russia or Iran. Obama favours cooperation with adversaries of the US, as he announced he would during his first presidential campaign, as evidenced by the—failed—reset with Russia and the nuclear deal reached with Iran. While the administration claims today (to convince sceptics) that the Iran deal should only be analysed through the lens of its nuclear dimension, there has been consistent hope among administration supporters that this could lead to increased cooperation, or even convergence, between Washington and Tehran on other Middle East issues (such as Syria or Iraq). Moreover, according to some of its supporters, by ending Iran’s international isolation, the deal should lead to the eventual moderation of Iran’s regional stances.

The president himself has brought credit to this vision. In an interview with The New Yorker in January 2014, Obama shared his intention to favour a balance of power between Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East:

  • If we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare. (Renmick 2014)

But this gamble has largely failed so far and may have encouraged further instability by creating a vacuum that rival powers have been quick to fill. Russia’s intervention in Syria to bolster President Assad, China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, and the continuing tension between Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East all testify to this. In a brilliant essay in Foreign Affairs, Walter Russell Mead argues that the post–Cold War world is being challenged by a return to geopolitics:

  • President Barack Obama built his foreign policy on the conviction that the ‘war on terror’ was overblown, that history really was over, and that, as in the Clinton years, the United States’ most important priorities involved promoting the liberal world order, not playing classical geopolitics. All these happy convictions are about to be tested. . . . In very different ways, with very different objectives, China, Iran, and Russia are all pushing back against the political settlement of the Cold War. What binds these powers together, however, is their agreement that the status quo must be revised. (Russell Mead 2014)

And after Obama?

Can we expect comparable behaviour from the next administration? There is reason to doubt it. First, leading candidates on both sides of the political aisle (putting aside Donald Trump) promote a more engaged and interventionist foreign policy. Hillary Clinton has openly criticised the administration for its soft response on Syria, advocating no-fly zones and support for rebels, and has historically encouraged a more robust international stance (Crowley 2007). On the Republican side, candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have also pushed for tougher positions and retain among their advisers many influential figures from the interventionist schools of thought in American foreign policy, such as the neoconservatives. Besides, beyond the personalities and persuasions of the candidates, pressing international challenges make the need for a less restrained foreign policy more urgent by the day. The American public also increasingly disapproves of the president’s current foreign policy, in larger numbers than on other issues such as the economy (Real Clear Politics 2015).

The prospect of a more engaged US should not, however, provide respite for Europeans. As tempting as it would be to wait a US president out and hope that the next one will prove more attuned to European concerns over instability in the Middle East or Russian revanchism, such a position is not tenable in the long term. Other US presidents will be likely to consider that the long-term interests of the US lie in places other than Europe or the Middle East: notably in the Pacific where the rivalry with an emerging China will determine most of the twenty-first century’s geopolitics. Obama may have differed from his predecessors in advocating a much more restrained view of American power, but this should not lead us to take for granted a return to a more ambitious leadership position after his second term. European countries’ difficulties in coping with the instability on their periphery, both southern and eastern, provide ample and urgent reason to invest in defence and foreign policy, regardless of who is occupying the Oval Office.