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From the Obama Doctrine to America First: the erosion of the Washington consensus on grand strategy


This article explores the social construction of American grand strategy as nexus of identity and national security. The article first highlights how the identity construct of American exceptionalism has underwritten a grand strategy of global leadership and military interventionism since the end of the Cold War, constituting liberal hegemony as dominant position within the bipartisan US foreign policy establishment. The article then explores the political impact of counter-hegemonic discourses of restraint and offshore balancing under the Obama presidency. It argues that in ‘leading from behind’ the Obama Doctrine represented a moderate intra-elite challenge to the status quo. Obama’s use of exceptionalist rhetoric to legitimate restraint simultaneously exposed the political limits of this strategic paradigm shift, which oscillated between continuity and change. Finally, the article examines Trump’s ‘America First’ stance, concluding that its combination of nationalism, nativism, and protectionism has resulted in the erosion of the Washington consensus on liberal hegemony.

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  1. 1.

    See also Barry Posen and Andrew Ross, ‘Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy,’ International Security 21, no. 3 (1996/1997), pp. 5–53.

  2. 2.

    American exceptionalism not only establishes the USA as geographically separate, constitutionally unique (Jackson 2006) and politically, culturally, and socioeconomically different from other countries (Lipset 1996), but as uniquely powerful entity and ‘chosen nation’ with a special role to play in world history to guarantee the success of freedom and democracy (McCrisken 2003).

  3. 3.

    Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush translated this amalgam of exceptionalist self-perception and the material preponderance of US power into a strategic vision of unilateral primacy and pre-emptive warfare, with the 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) declaring: “The United States must defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere” (White House 2002, 1). President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeline Albright famously expressed the moral conviction in the singular virtue of American exceptionalism in 1998, when she made the case for US air strikes against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation” (NBC 1998).

  4. 4.

    Michèle Flournoy, co-founder of CNAS served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and was centrally involved in the formulation of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. CNAS co-founder Kurt Campbell served in Hillary Clinton’s State Department as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and was one the leading architects behind Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy.

  5. 5.

    This establishment stance was similarly on display when in October 2015, the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Heritage, CNAS, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), and the Cato Institute were invited to testify before the US Senate Armed Services Committee on the topic of ‘Alternative Approaches to Defense Strategy and Force Structure’. Of the invited leading representatives of Washington’s strategic community only Cato endorsed restraint and argued that ‘a grand strategy, built around a greater skepticism toward military intervention, leads logically toward a new profile of power’ (Preble 2015).

  6. 6.

    Although representing opposing sides of the ideological spectrum, both progressives and libertarians favored a more wholesale strategic course correction towards global restraint including substantial cuts to the defense budget. For libertarians, fiscal prudence and a reduction of the ballooning federal debt were the main impetus behind an endorsement of strategic restraint (Preble 2009), while progressives sought to prioritize domestic issues such as healthcare, education and public infrastructure over any hegemonic geopolitical aspirations of the USA abroad (Nexon 2018). Both camps also saw reducing the political clout of the military–industrial and intelligence complexes as beneficial for reorienting American government from a quasi-imperial stance towards the republican civic ideal that predated the rise of the country to superpower status in World War II (Bacevich 2010).

  7. 7.

    For a critical assessment of liberal hegemony from a realist perspective see also John Mearsheimer (2018) The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. Yale University Press, and Stephen Walt (2018) The Hell of Good Intentions: America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

  8. 8.

    A leading proponent of a grand strategy of offshore balancing, the realist IR scholar Stephen Walt openly lamented the lack of realist foreign policy expertise and voices of restraint in such elite media outlets as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post (Walt, 2011b), which predominantly supported the hegemonic consensus.

  9. 9.

    As identified by Walter Russell Mead: a Hamiltonian emphasis on international commerce and free trade, a Jeffersonian focus on perfecting American democracy at home, Jacksonian unilateral nationalism, and the transformative impetus of Wilsonian liberal idealism (Mead 2002).

  10. 10.

    Despite being accused of retrenchment, Obama, for example, oversaw NATO enlargement by two Eastern European member states; supported the pro-Western government in Ukraine; increased the military presence of the USA in the Asia–Pacific, and significantly expanded US military operations in Africa.


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I would like to thank Alexandra Homolar and Nick Vaughan-Williams for their valuable insights and feedback when discussing the ideas developed in this manuscript, and the editors and anonymous reviewers of International Politics for significantly improving and refining my argument.

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Correspondence to Georg Löfflmann.

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Löfflmann, G. From the Obama Doctrine to America First: the erosion of the Washington consensus on grand strategy. Int Polit 57, 588–605 (2020).

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  • Grand strategy
  • US foreign policy
  • Discourse
  • American exceptionalism
  • Barack Obama
  • Donald Trump