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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
See also Barry Posen and Andrew Ross, ‘Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy,’ International Security 21, no. 3 (1996/1997), pp. 5–53.
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).
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
Art, Robert. 2003. A Grand Strategy for America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Ashfrod, Emma and Thrall, Trevor. 2018. The Battle Inside the Political Parties for the Future of U.S. Foreign Policy. Cato, December 12. https://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/battle-inside-political-parties-future-us-foreign-policy. Accessed 20 January 2018.
Bacevich, Andrew. 2010. Washington Rules. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Bacevich, Andrew. 2014. We’re Just Not That Special. Politico, March 5. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/03/american-exceptionalism-russia-ukraine-104318.html#.U43LExZJpOd.
Balz, Dan, and Peyton M. Craighill. 2013. Poll: Americans strongly back diplomatic solution on Syria but give Obama low marks. Washington Post, September 17. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/poll-americans-strongly-back-diplomatic-solution-on-syria-but-give-obama-low-marks/2013/09/16/b40d68e-1efb-11e3-94a2-6c66b668ea55_story.html?utm_term=.53067d01b03b.
Beinart, Peter. 2018. America Needs an Entirely New Foreign Policy for the Trump Age. Atlantic, September 16. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/09/shield-of-the-republic-a-democratic-foreign-policy-for-the-trump-age/570010/.
Brands, Hal. 2014. What Good is Grand Strategy: Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Brands, Hal, and Peter Feaver. 2016. Stress-Testing American Grand Strategy. Survival 58(6): 93–120.
Brimley, Shawn and Michèle Flournoy (eds.). 2008. Finding Our Way: Debating American Grand Strategy. Washington DC: CNAS.
Brimley, Shawn, Michèle Flournoy, and Vikram J. Singh. 2008. Making America Grand Again: Toward a New Grand Strategy. Washington DC: CNAS.
Brooks, Stephen G. 2013. American Exceptionalism in the Age of Obama. New York: Routledge.
Byman, Daniel L. 2017. Seven Trump Foreign Policy Assumptions. Brookings, January 23. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/01/23/seven-trump-foreign-policy-assumptions/.
Campbell, David. 1992. Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Ceaser, James. 2012. The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism. American Political Thought 1(1): 1–25.
Chollet, Derek. 2016. The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World. New York: Public Affairs.
Cohen, Roger. 2015. Obama’s Doctrine of Restraint. New York Times, October 12. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/13/opinion/obamas-doctrine-of-restraint.html.
Cohen, Roger. 2016. Obama’s Flawed Realism. New York Times, March 18. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/19/opinion/obamas-flawed-realism.html.
Cohen, Roger. 2017. ‘America First’ Has Not Upended the World. Except It Has. New York Times, May 2. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/02/opinion/trumps-valueless-foreign-policy.html?_r=1.
Croft, Stuart. 2006. Culture. Crisis and America’s War on Terror: Cambridge University Press.
Dueck, Colin. 2015. The Obama Doctrine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ferguson, Niall. 2015. The Real Obama Doctrine. Wall Street Journal, October 9. http://www.wsj.com/article_email/the-real-obama-doctrine-1444429036-lMyQjAxMTI1MjEwMDgxMTA1Wj.
Fisher, Max. 2013. American isolationism just hit a 50-year high. Why that matters. Washington Post, December 4. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/12/04/american-isolationism-just-hit-a-50-year-high-why-that-matters/?utm_term=.c234df2b29d0.
Fontaine, Richard and Kristin M. Lord (eds.). 2012. America’s Path: Grand Strategy for the Next Administration. Washington DC: CNAS.
Foucault, Michel. 1991. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin.
Frum, David. 2017. The Death Knell for America’s Global Leadership. Atlantic, May 31. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/05/mcmaster-cohn-trump/528609/.
Gerson, Michael. 2014. Obama’s Foreign Policy and the Risks of Retreat. Washington Post, March 19. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/michael-gerson-obamas-foreign-policy-and-the-risks-of-retreat/2013/03/18/526e9ad6-8ffa-11e2-bdea-e32ad90da239_story.html.
Gilmore, Jason. 2014. Translating American Exceptionalism: Comparing presidential Discourse About the United States at Home and Abroad. International Journal of Communication 8: 2416–2437.
Gilmore, Jason, Penelope Sheets, and Charles Rowling. 2016. Make no exception, save one: American exceptionalism, the American presidency, and the age of Obama. Communication Monographs 83(4): 505–520.
Glasser, Susan B. 2018. Under Trump, “America First” Really Is Turning Out to Be America Alone. Atlantic, June 8. https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-trumps-washington/under-trump-america-first-really-is-turning-out-to-be-america-alone.
Goddard, Stacie E., and Ronald Krebs. 2015. Rhetoric, Legitimation and Grand Strategy. Security Studies 24(1): 5–36.
Goldberg, Jeffrey. 2016. The Obama Doctrine. Atlantic, April: 70–90.
Green, Miachel J. 2012. Rethinking U.S. Military Presence in Asia and the Pacific. Washington DC: CSIS.
Haass, Richard. 2017. A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of World Order. New York: Penguin Press.
Hansen, Lene. 2006. Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War. New York: Routledge.
Ignatius, David. 2016. Obama’s destabilizing candor on the Middle East. Washington Post, March 15. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2016/03/15/obamas-destabilizing-candor-on-the-middle-east/.
Inboden, Will. 2014. When Asian Leaders See Obama, They See Syria and Ukraine, Foreign Policy, April 23. http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/04/23/obama_should_be_thinking_about_kennan_this_week.
Jackson, Vicki C. 2006. Constitutions as “Living Trees”? Comparative Constitutional Law and Interpretive Metaphors. Fordham Law Review 75(2): 921–960.
Judis, John B. 2014. Speak Loudly and Carry a Small Stick. New Republic, March 12. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116988/barack-obama-foreign-policy-speak-loudly-and-carry-small-stick.
Kennedy, Paul (ed.). 1991. Grand Strategies in War and Peace. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Kagan, Robert. 2012. The World America Made. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Kagan, Robert. 2014. Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire. New Republic, May 26. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117859/allure-normalcy-what-america-still-owes-world.
Kagan, Robert. 2018. ‘America First’ Has Won. New York Times, September 23. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/23/opinion/trump-foreign-policy-america-first.html.
Keller, Bill. 2013. Our new isolationism. New York Times, September 8. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/09/opinion/keller-our-new-isolationism.html.
Krauthammer, Charles. 2014. Krauthammer: Obama Doctrine Forged in Retreat. Boston Herald, June 1. http://bostonherald.com/news_opinion/opinion/op_ed/2014/05/krauthammer_obama_doctrine_forged_in_retreat.
Landler, Mark. 2014. Ending Asia Trip, Obama Defends His Foreign Policy. New York Times, 28 April. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/29/world/obama-defends-foreign-policy-against-critics.html.
Layne, Christopher. 2012. The (Almost) Triumph of Offshore Balancing. National Interest, January 27. http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/almost-triumph-offshore-balancing-6405.
Layne, Christopher. 2017. The US foreign policy establishment and grand strategy: how American elites obstruct strategic adjustment. International Politics 54(3): 260–275.
Lee, Matthew. 2018. AP Analysis: Other nations adjust to ‘America first’ policy. Associated Press, September 21. Available at: https://www.denverpost.com/2018/09/21/donald-trump-america-first-policy/.
Lieber, Robert J. 2016. Retreat and its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lieberman, Joe and Jon Kyl. 2013. The Danger of Repeating the Cycle of American Isolationism. Washington Post, April 26. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-danger-of-repeating-the-cycle-of-american-isolationism/2013/04/25/16da45f8-a90c-11e2-a8e2-5b98cb59187f_story.html.
Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1996. American Exceptionalism. New York: W.W. Norton.
Martel, William C. 2015. Grand Strategy in Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McCrisken, Trevor. 2003. American Exceptionalism and the Legacy of Vietnam. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mead, Walter Russell. 2002. Special providence: American foreign policy and how it changed the world. New York: Routledge.
Mearsheimer, John. 2010. Imperial by Design. National Interest, December 16. http://nationalinterest.org/print/article/imperial-by-design-4576?page=1.
NBC. 1998. Transcript: Albright Interview on NBC-TV. February 19. http://www.fas.org/news/iraq/1998/02/19/98021907_tpo.html. Accessed 23 June 2017.
Neumann, Rico, and Kevin Coe. 2012. The rhetoric in the modern presidency: A quantitative assessment. In The rhetoric of American exceptionalism: Critical essays, ed. Jason A. Edwards and David Weiss, 11–30. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.
Nexon, Daniel. 2018. Toward a Neo-Progressive Foreign Policy. Foreign Affairs, September 4. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2018-09-04/toward-neo-progressive-foreign-policy.
Obama, Barack. 2009. The President’s News Conference in Strasbourg. April 4. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=85959. Accessed 23 June 2017.
Obama, Barack. 2013. Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Syria. September 10. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/09/10/remarks-president-address-nation-syria. Accessed 23 June 2017.
Obama, Barack. 2014. Remarks by the President at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony. May 28. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/05/28/remarks-president-united-states-military-academy-commencement-ceremony. Accessed 22 June 2017).
O’Hanlon, Michael. 2013. A Moderate Plan for Additional Defense Cuts. Washington DC: Brookings.
Ó Tuathail, Gearóid, and Simon Dalby. 1998. Introduction: Rethinking Geopolitics: Towards a Critical Geopolitics. In Rethinking Geopolitics, edited by Gearóid Ó Tuathail and Simon Dalby, 1-15. New York: Routledge.
Patrick, Stewart M. 2018. America First Policies Leave America Alone and Disadvantaged. Council on Foreign Relations, June 18. https://www.cfr.org/blog/america-first-policies-leave-america-alone-and-disadvantaged. Accessed 20 January 2018.
Parmar, Inderjeet. 2009. Foreign Policy Fusion: Liberal Interventionists, conservative nationalists and neoconservatives—the new alliance dominating the US foreign policy establishment. International Politics 46(2/3): 177–209.
Posen, Barry R. 2014. Restraint. A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Preble, Christopher A. 2009. The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous And Less Free (Cornell University).
Preble, Christopher A. 2015. U.S. National Security Strategy after Primacy: Resilience, Self-Reliance, and Restraint. Senate Armed Services Committee, 29 October. https://www.cato.org/publications/testimony/us-national-security-strategy-after-primacy-resilience-self-reliance. Accessed 20 January 2018.
Reich, Simon, and Richard Ned Lebow. 2014. Good-bye hegemony!: power and influence in the global system. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Romney, Mitt. 2010. No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Rudolf, Peter. 2016. Liberal Hegemony and US Foreign Policy under Barack Obama. SWP Comments 40: 1–8.
Samuels, David. 2016. The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru: How Ben Rhodes rewrote the rules of diplomacy for the digital age. New Yorker, 5 May, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/the-aspiring-novelist-who-became-obamas-foreign-policy-guru.html?smid=tw-share&referer=.
Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 2013. Does Obama Have a Grand Strategy for His Second Term? If Not, He Could Try One of These. Washington Post, January 18. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/does-obama-have-a-grand-strategy-for-his-second-term-if-not-he-could-try-one-of-these/2013/01/18/ec78cede-5f27-11e2-a389-ee565c81c565_story.html.
Stoddart, Mark C.J. 2007. Ideology, hegemony, discourse: A critical review of theories of knowledge and power. Social Thought & Research 28: 191–225.
Teage Beckwith, Ryan. 2016. Hillary Clinton Turns Old Attack on president Obama Against Donald Trump. Time, August 31. http://time.com/4474714/hillary-clinton-exceptionalism/.
Trump, Donald J. 2016a. Donald J. Trump Foreign Policy Speech. April 27. https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/Donald-j.-trump-foreign-policy-speech. Accessed 23 June 2017.
Trump, Donald. 2016b. Transcript: Donald Trump on NATO, Turkey’s Coup Attempt and the World. New York Times, July 21. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/22/us/politics/donald-trump-foreign-policy-interview.html?_r=0.
United States Department of Defense. 2010. Quadrennial Defense Review Report. Washington DC.
United States Department of Defense. 2012. Defense Strategic Guidance. Washington DC.
United States Department of Defense. 2014. Quadrennial Defense Review Report. Washington DC.
van Apeldoorn, Bastiaan, and Naná de Graaf. 2015. Corporate elite networks and US post-Cold War grand strategy from Clinton to Obama. European Journal of International Relations 20(1): 29–55.
vanden Heuvel, Katrina. 2018. Sanders and Warren are challenging the post-Cold War foreign policy establishment. Washington Post, December 11. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/sanders-and-warren-are-challenging-the-post-cold-war-foreign-policy-establishment/2018/12/11/f730a33c-fcbb-11e8-83c0-b06139e540e5_story.html?utm_term=.91079375d51a.
Walt, Stephen M. 2011a. The Myth of American Exceptionalism. Foreign Policy, October 11. http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/10/11/the-myth-of-american-exceptionalism/.
Walt, Stephen M. 2011b. A bandwagon for offshore balancing? Foreign Policy, December 1, http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/12/01/a-bandwagon-for-offshore-balancing/.
Walt, Stephen M. 2017. In Praise of a Transatlantic Divorce. Foreign Policy, May 30. http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/30/in-praise-of-a-transatlantic-divorce-trump-merkel-europe-nato/.
White House. 2002. National Security Strategy of the United States. Washington DC.
White House. 2015. National Security Strategy of the United States. Washington DC.
White House. 2017. America First Foreign Policy. https://www.whitehouse.gov/america-first-foreign-policy. Accessed 20 June 2017.
Wolf, Martin. 2017. Donald Trump and the surrendering of US leadership. Financial Times, May 30. https://www.ft.com/content/f0b9fba6-4241-11e7-9d56-25f963e998b2?mhq5j=e2.
Wood, Dakota L. (ed.). 2016. 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength. Washington DC: Heritage.
Zenko, Michael. 2014. The Myth of the Indispensable Nation. Foreign Policy, November 6. http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/11/06/the-myth-of-the-indispensable-nation/.
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.
Conflict of interest
I state that there is no conflict of interest.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Löfflmann, G. From the Obama Doctrine to America First: the erosion of the Washington consensus on grand strategy. Int Polit 57, 588–605 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41311-019-00172-0
- Grand strategy
- US foreign policy
- American exceptionalism
- Barack Obama
- Donald Trump