Obama Foreign Policy: Can We Finally Point to An Obama Doctrine?


Many have touted President Obama’s May 23 counterterrorism speech as his most significant foreign policy address to date. Speaking to an audience at the National Defense University, the president concentrated on the detention of terror suspects, targeted drone strikes, the prosecution of officials involved in information leaks, and taking America off a perpetual wartime footing.

Most importantly, the president made clear what the Obama Doctrine looks like.

Almost every U.S. president dating back to Monroe has had a doctrine with his name on it. The doctrine is a formal list of stances, key foreign policy goals, and ways to merge the two.

An Obama Doctrine has been hard to pin down. He has engaged the Taliban and Al-Qaeda with a high-tech, light-footprint approach, often omitting sensitive information from the media. This leaves little evidence and deprives the public of the transparency inherent in a conventional war.

Obama has also both enhanced some of his predecessor’s policies, and vetoed the parts he did not agree with. For example, Obama ramped up the drone program that developed in the early 2000s, while snubbing interventionism and regime change as a means to shape democratic outcomes.

Here are the three major tenets of the Obama Doctrine, as distinctly outlined in his speech:

1. Light Footprint: Combat an increasingly transnational Al-Qaeda with drones and special operations forces, while relying on intelligence and advanced technology.

Obama inherited two wars that each required thousands of conventional troops occupying large swaths of land while the U.S. bolstered fledgling governments.

The president’s push for limited military action is out of both tactical and operational necessity. The U.S. cannot invade every country or piece of territory that Al-Qaeda and affiliates have evolved to operate in today, but it must continue to deny them safe haven.

This more efficient approach protects Americans from attacks, reassures allies that the U.S. won’t neglect security engagements, and allows for a potential rapid increase in U.S. military operations anywhere in the world. It also diminishes America’s image as an occupying conqueror — a positive externality for all.

2. Multilateralism Based On Law: Working with allies and through the UN to promote democracy and human empowerment.

Following 9/11, the Bush administration preferred unilateralism. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and other top aides only worked with the UN when necessary, giving both allies and enemies the ultimatum of, “You’re either with us or against us.” They didn’t constrain counter-terror policies by international rules of war. Laws were broken, civil liberties stepped on, and enemies were freely killed, captured, or tortured. The Obama approach has been instead to use the self-defense argument to expand the law, protecting the actions of the Pentagon and Langley.

Thus far, the majority of Obama’s actions overseas have built upon relationships with allies, been rooted in strategic partnerships, and have waited for UN authorization. The Libya intervention, Iran sanctions, and hesitance to get involved in Syria are a few of many examples. This multilateral approach to global security and diplomacy is a considerable break from that of Obama’s predecessor. As always, there are exceptions to the rule. The change is nonetheless significant.

3. Energetic Diplomacy: Soft power, foreign aid, and an active State Department.

Obama has had to end two major wars, establish drone operating norms, deal with accumulating information leaks, confront America’s embarrassing use of torture, and attempt to find a political solution to closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Other challenges, namely denying Iran nuclear weapons capability, resetting relations with a stonewalling Russia, solving the Syria crisis, and dealing with increased Chinese and North Korean belligerency, have been problematic.

When practical, Obama has abstained from using the military, choosing instead to engage countries in energetic diplomacy to solve challenges and engage populaces around the globe. In his address the president pressed the argument for foreign assistance, citing his belief that it is “fundamental to our national security” and to “any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism.”

While President Obama receives ample criticism for his use of drones to thin the ranks of Al-Qaeda, of equal importance is his administration’s emphasis on enabling allies to defeat the domestic social and economic factors that lead to extremism. The U.S. has done this through foreign aid, business partnerships, and diplomacy.


The Obama Doctrine is a substantial transformation from the foreign policies of previous post-Cold War administrations. He has divorced U.S. foreign policy from the disjointed interventionist and peacekeeping operations under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and regime change championed by George W. Bush. This revamping of American diplomacy has been the key to renewed U.S. global leadership.

President Obama’s vision laid out on May 23 faces tremendous obstacles. The remainder of his tenure in office will be filled with neutralizing terrorist threats, avoiding a war with Iran, stabilizing the Middle East, and continuing the U.S. pivot to Asia. Only time will tell if the Obama foreign policy is best for America and the world.