Obama’s vacuum doctrine

September 25, 2013

In President Barack Obama’s speech at the United Nations on Tuesday, he made the case for sustained American engagement in the Middle East:

“The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, and aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim World, may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill. I believe that would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. I believe the world is better for it.”

When we look at Obama’s speech, the two biggest trends in American foreign policy are conspicuous by their absence. First, while Obama describes the need for sustained American engagement in the Middle East, the opposite is already on full display today — and Obama has contributed to this disengagement at almost every turn. In the 2012 election, only 5 percent of voters dubbed foreign policy as their priority. You needn’t look further than Obama’s decision to punt on Syria strikes in the face of withering domestic support. The failed G20 summit in St. Petersburg made it painfully clear that “a vacuum of leadership” is already the reality in our G-Zero world. The United States’ ability and leverage to drive outcomes in the Middle East is increasingly limited.

Second, the United States’ interest in redirecting that leverage from the Middle East towards Asia was nowhere to be found in the speech. Obama’s address was completely at odds with broader U.S. foreign policy as outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Obama’s first term. The Hillary Doctrine involved a pivot to Asia, with an emphasis on engagement with China and its neighbors, as well as a push for economic statecraft: the utilization of economic policy to drive political outcomes. At the U.N., all of this was swept under the rug. Obama issued a clarion call for the global community to engage on the deepest Middle East security issues, discussing Iran at length (25 mentions), as well as Syria and its civil war (20) and the conflict between Israel and Palestine (15 and 11, respectively). Meanwhile, China was only mentioned once — and that was with regard to Iran — and no other East Asian nation was mentioned at all.

For as long as Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State, her Asia-oriented doctrine filled the vacuum of Obama’s foreign policy. Obama adopting her doctrine was the closest he has yet come to establishing one of his own.

The pivot to Asia was Clinton’s cunning way around the longstanding notion that a new Secretary of State has to cut her teeth in the Middle East. But with the accelerated economies in Asia driving a huge share of global growth, the State Department realized success could be defined by how well it could capitalize on — and hedge against — China’s rise. With China as the second-largest economy in the world — and on track to become number one — and the principal national security threat of the U.S. and its allies, it was clear that Asia was the true structural priority of the future. Clinton refocused the U.S.’s policies accordingly.

The second tenet of the Hillary Doctrine was built in relation to the first. With China’s new economic might and a leaderless global community, economic statecraft was a logical approach to diplomacy. It was a recognition that, increasingly, the global order is set not by the strength of militaries, but by the strength of economies. In a world where China’s state capitalist model is a mainstay of geoeconomics, America realized it had to insure a positive economic environment for its companies abroad, or else risk a weakened economy at home.

So what’s happened to these policies since Clinton left the State Department? They certainly have not gone away — the logic behind them is as airtight as ever — but you’d never guess it based on the recent focus of the Obama administration. The Hillary Doctrine has been buried by one distraction after another, whether Egypt, Syria, or Iran. It’s telling that John Kerry’s attempt to make a mark of his own came not in Asia, but in Israel, where the path towards peace is well-worn, and always leads to the same dead end.

The only high-profile overture toward Asia in Obama’s second term was his meeting with Xi Jinping in June. But that summit was stymied by the revelations (that came out the day before the two leaders met) that the NSA had been collecting data around the world, undercutting the administration’s efforts to push for China to curb its cyberattacks. Those revelations, in turn, have been a major headwind for economic statecraft, harming American diplomatic outreach and making some American corporations appear acquiescent in the data gathering. 

But it’s not just the onslaught of distracting global events or a new foreign policy team with Middle East expertise that has muffled Obama’s focus on Asia. It stems from the fact that it is now all too clear that Obama has no doctrine of his own, instead preferring to respond to the most pressing events in the most limited fashion possible. The only state dinner that Obama has scheduled all year, with Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, was canceled by the Brazilians last week after revelations that the NSA had been accessing Rousseff’s personal email. Obama’s inclination is clearly to be risk-averse first, to take all measures possible to limit U.S. involvement, for fear of becoming attached to policies that fail or problems that grow. There’s a willingness to engage in diplomacy, but not in strategy, and the American public echoes this preference for domestic focus over international engagement.

So what does it all mean? That “vacuum of leadership that no other nation is willing to fill” is not a grim prospect of the future. It’s already a reality. Regardless of his rhetoric at the U.N., Obama’s vacuum doctrine is fully in keeping with a downsized American role abroad.

This column is based on a transcribed phone interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: United States President Barack Obama addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 24, 2013.   REUTERS/Andrew Burton/Pool


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Economic Statecraft indeed, of the darkest kind. Enslavement of all mankind. Make everybody the same little machine and harvest their work product. Seriously, the lessons of The Matrix apply here.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

The so called Hillary Doctrine accomplished absolutely nothing. The world is in chaos in every corner while Hillary hid and Obama fiddled.

Posted by TMCG | Report as abusive

More frequently of late, when I read political commentary, I wonder what the maximum age of non-prior service enlistment is. A quick search indicates that it depends on the service, with no service having a maximum age of less than 42 for enlistment in the case of no prior service.

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive


No service has a maximum age of GREATER than 42 for enlistment in the case of no prior service.

Not that the 43 & up crowd would have been lining up.

Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

“You needn’t look further than Obama’s decision to punt on Syria strikes in the face of withering domestic support.”

What I find funny (and disturbing at the same time) is that the world hails “Putin initiative” on Syria and forgets that this initiative actually happened only after Obama sent our warships to Mediterranean and Kerry gave Putin a hint.
Speaking of “Obama’s vacuum doctrine… in keeping with a downsized American role abroad”, it’s worth to remember that while there is a lot of diplomacy going on right now around Syria, the US naval armada is still situated in Mediterranean sea.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

I was under impression that only secretary of state does foreign visits and all, maybe because its cheaper and safer for secretary to travel? Isn’t it always the case?

I also had idea that maybe west perception of middle east is so different from Russian because on the west we get a lot of data from refugees and un doctors, and I think they bound to exaggerate, i’m not arguing that their conditions are awful by any standard, but still

Posted by barenski | Report as abusive

I am lost. Ian Bremmer created Wall Street’s first global political risk index. He is supposed to be a person who knows the difference between Wider Middle East’s risk – and the Asian risks.
President Obama was talking about what might affect everyone in the whole world.
Of course, he could talk about tense relations between Thailand and Cambodia. Or about China.
However, the Bremmer’s barometer of political risk – if correctly tuned – should have told the author where the critical risks lie.
I am wondering. What key points would be picked by Mr. Bremmer for U.N. speech?
Otherwise, his comment is nothing more than neocon/REP-tioloid’s politicking, with the use of a new flashy phrase “no core foreign policy.”

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

Why Mr.Bremmer you write such a propaganda whan in fact you must know everything is coherent in Obama’s speech ?
US Grand Strategy is: “Never allow any country to rival United States economic, political and military hegemony”.
Only one candidate since 1995: China.
So China need to be contained by every possible way: military, economic and political.
Preventive war with China over “Taiwan strait incident” is now off the table due to: Chinese missile development, current political climate in Taiwan (Kuomitang party President) and de facto China-Russia military alliance.
So economic and political containment are left.
The best way to contain Chinese economic development is through: 1. resource shocks (crude oil and natural gas shocks) 2. prevent access to US and allies markets for Chinese products, 3. currency shock.
Lets analyze economic containment:
3. very difficult due to vast Chinese currency reserves and closed capital account.
2. utilized currently, but of limited long-term effect due to: potential of Chinese internal market and developing countries markets (plus some allies prefer to make money with China).
1. is left: resource shocks. And Obama administration is concentrating on this way of China containment.
China is most vulnerable to oil shocks and to some extent natural gas shocks.
To cause oil shock you need to control exporting country and/or prevent free flow of oil to China.
Closing of Indonesian straits to China is possible, but Japan and South Korea imports are too vulnerable as well.
So control over exporting countries.
Where are oil deposits ?:
Venezuela (economic war with Venezuela over Chinese and Russian engagement is underway),
Canada (allowed only to export oil to US by NAFTA treaty),
Central Asia (US is engaged in Afghanistan and actively tries to influence post-Soviet countries).
Nigeria – oil is controlled by US companies, islamist attacks also help,
Sudan – already partitioned,
Other African countries: economic/military influence tactics with some successes,
Libya – controlled since 2011 war,
Middle East: every country bar Iran, Iraq (partly) and Syria are controlled by US.

So Obama as a good US politician only tries to pursuit US Grand Strategy: the goal for next 10 years is China containment.
The best option left is through control over crude oil, mainly Middle Eastern oil to cause oil shock in China.

I have not written about them but political measures of containment are also in full swing: Trans Pacific Partnership (without China and agenda of this initiative is top secret) and Trade Treaty with UE. Political is limited due to economic ties of nearly every country in the world with China and/or Russia.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

If the bulk of the middle east has a long standing violent ideology and at anti-West one at that. Getting involved only means putting in power someone who wants to kill you.

So our involvement should be only to bankrupting and killing those bad guys in the Middle East who reach outside that area for example the the Iranian clergy which support terror all over and wants atomic bombs. But that does not mean staying in the area to get killed. Which hopefully will teach stay local to them.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Good, clarifying analysis Ian. Although Obama’s actions suggest he likely does have a fairly strong yet unstated, private (known only to himself??) foreign policy vision if not a formal, well-advised doctrine with associated strategies, objectives and goals. I’d love to see you put that brilliant mind to work by taking an unbiased stab at determining the foundation (perhaps hidden?) principles guiding the man Obama, and where he would like to take the US and the world if given unlimited Carte Blance. I think that might be a helpful Rosetta Stone for understanding his moves and the perplexing, jagged path we’re on.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

Obama is right in not letting too many details out. For who knows, if that snowden thing happened before bin laden was put to rest, the latter could still be alive and well.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive