The Obama Doctrine

Talking Points

  • President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine is one of “leading frombehind.”
  • The Obama Doctrine emphasizes giving international organizations a greater role and negotiating with our enemies while reducing the capabilities of the U.S. armed forces.
  • This approach denies American exceptionalism and leads to the instability, vulnerability, and economic stagnation that naturally follow from a weaker America. It rejects Ronald Reagan’s belief that peace comes through strength and the bipartisan belief since 1945 that U.S. leadership is a force for freedom in the world.
  • The U.S. must be a friend to its allies and not fall into the trap of believing that it can ignore their interests for the sake of cutting deals with dictatorships.
  • The U.S. should not negotiate or sign treaties that undercut its sovereignty or do not verifiably advance its interests. It should promote prosperity at home and abroad by promoting economicfreedom.

The Issue

American foreign policy is in crisis brought about by the Obama doctrine for dealing with the world. In Libya, after an ill-considered U.S. intervention, an American ambassador was murdered in an assault by Islamist terrorists that was denied and covered up by the Obama Administration. In Syria, Islamist-dominated rebels battle the anti-American regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the Obama Administration has done little but kick the can down the road. Round after round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program have produced nothing except concern from America’s best allies in the region. In the Pacific, Japan and South Korea wonder what the U.S. retreat in the Middle East means for them as they face a rising China. And in Britain, our closest ally, there is deep anger at the U.S. as the Obama Administration discourages British self-government by demanding that they remain in the undemocratic European Union. These are the fruits of the Obama Doctrine.

American Presidents have become known for “signature” statements and responses to foreign policy and national security challenges. Ronald Reagan is known for his efforts to defeat Communism and advance “peace through strength.” Bill Clinton is remembered for his argument that military operations, such as his humanitarian intervention in the former Yugoslavia, are justified “where our values and our interests are at stake and where we can make a difference.” These presidential statements or responses are commonly called doctrines.

President Barack Obama had hoped to improve America’s standing in the world by crafting a foreign policy vastly different from his predecessor’s. He said, for example, that America would reach out to other countries as “an equal partner” rather than as the “exceptional” nation, rejecting a concept that had been held by many previous Presidents going back to the Founding Fathers; that “any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail”; and that “[o]ur problems must be dealt with through partnership” and “progress must be shared.”

Throughout his tenure, Obama has laid out in public statements the tenets of a doctrine that portrays America simply as one nation among many, with no singular claim either to responsibility or exceptionalism. These tenets specify that (1) America will ratify more treaties and turn to international organizations more often to deal with global crises and security concerns, often before turning to our traditional friends and allies; (2) America will emphasize diplomacy and “soft power” instruments such as summits and foreign aid to promote its aims and downplay military might; (3) America will adopt a more modest attitude in state-to-state relations; and (4) America will play a more restrained role on the international stage. These tenets, however, have made America and the world far more insecure.

The Obama Doctrine has failed because it has led to instability, vulnerability, and economic stagnation that naturally follow from a weaker America. America has seen dangerous times before—during the Revolution, the Civil War, and two world wars. Each time, America emerged stronger because most Americans decided they did not want to be defeated. What Ronald Reagan believed remains true: America must secure the peace through strength: strength of character; strength of will; strength of leadership; moral strength from our values, virtues, and aspirations; economic strength born of opportunity; and military strength hewn from the ingenuity and ideals of a free people. America’s decline is not inevitable. It is a choice.

The tenets of the Obama Doctrine have had both intended and unintended consequences: They seek to make America less exceptional, they put us on the road to decline, and they have made us less secure as other countries feel emboldened to threaten us and hold our policies hostage. The alternative is not to become the world’s bully, but rather to reassert strong and focused leadership in defense of U.S. vital national interests and liberty around the world.


Recommendations

  1. Recommit to strong and focused leadership in the Middle East and around the world. The President has adopted a policy that his staff has described as “leading from behind.” This is a perfect summary of the Obama Doctrine because it is based on the belief that the U.S. is the problem and that things will go easier for us if we are less visible. In reality, without U.S. leadership, most problems fester and get worse until we are forced to respond to them at a time that is not of our choosing. The 2013 Syrian crisis is a recent example: The Administration first declared Assad to be a reformer, then said he had to go, then laid down a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, then denied the red line was theirs, and finally made a deal with Russia that will reinforce Assad’s legitimacy and hold on power. The result has been to embolden Russia, alarm our allies across the Middle East, and discredit American diplomacy and leadership. Leading from behind is not leadership: It is being a follower.
  2. Strengthen our security alliances and establish new coalitions and entities based on shared values. President Obama has talked about the significance of international partnerships, but partnerships will fall short of our expectations if the countries with which we align, or the international organizations in which we participate, share neither our values nor our goals. The U.N. is a prime example. The U.S., as only one of 193 member states, frequently finds its efforts there sidelined or voted down. For many states, the U.N. is their only claim to relevance in the global arena and their only chance at influencing or restraining the actions of the United States. Many of the institutions created in the aftermath of World War II, like the U.N., are outdated, unable to respond to today’s challenges. The U.S. is not required to run all of its initiatives to spur peace, security, and development through the U.N. or these other bodies. Instead, to spur economic development, respect for human rights, and security, the U.S. should take the lead in creating new and more effective institutions and arrangements that will enhance strong bilateral cooperation among like-minded nations. Examples could include a Global Economic Freedom Forum that focuses on expanding free markets, a Liberty Forum for Human Rights that promotes individual freedoms and human rights, or a Global Freedom Coalition to promote security. When we do decide to work through the U.N. or similar organizations, we should make sure that we do so in ways that advance our interest, respect our values, and promote the reform of these institutions where that is possible.
  3. Invest in peace through strength. Our ability to defend our nation and our allies and to advance our interests depends on our ability to maintain the strength, flexibility, mobility, and quality of our forces. A strong military deters would-be aggressors and is the foundation of American leadership in the world. The military’s main purposes are to enhance diplomatic efforts and act as an insurance policy, or “Plan B,” when diplomacy fails. America’s Founders believed that peace through strength is preferable—militarily, financially, and morally—to allowing war to come through weakness. Today, declining defense investments take us to the margins of military superiority as countries like China and Russia invest heavily to modernize and expand their forces. In addition, both Iran and North Korea have active nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Threats to the U.S. are increasing. A robust U.S. military is both the surest way to deter aggression and the backbone of effective diplomacy. Despite this, the Obama Administration has already imposed $500 billion in defense cuts on the United States military through the cancellation or delay of over 50 major weapons programs. Ten years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and new conflicts arising from the “Arab Spring” revolutions have taken a toll on people and equipment, and sequestration will further “hollow out” the military. We should always seek to plan our defense efficiently, and funds saved should be used to recapitalize our force.
  4. Finish the job in Afghanistan. The United States will sacrifice its credibility, undermine the confidence of the NATO alliance, and place vital U.S. national interests at risk if it prematurely withdraws completely from Afghanistan. The U.S. needs to retain sufficient residual forces in Afghanistan to assist in training and counterterrorism operations. The world will become a much more dangerous place if, because of a U.S. failure to resource this residual force adequately, al-Qaeda is able to establish a sanctuary again. On the other hand, securing Afghanistan will guard against the possibility of another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the U.S. and create the necessary pressure on nuclear-armed Pakistan to deal with organized terrorist groups within its borders, partner to demobilize the Taliban, and recognize the importance of normalizing relations with India.
  5. Adopt an agenda to bring freedom to Iran. The U.S. has wasted much time and effort trying to engage the Tehran regime on nuclear issues and conduct secret talks to broker a regional solution in Afghanistan. Iran has played rope-a-dope with Washington, using engagement to buy time to advance its own agenda in the region and weaken the implementation of sanctions. The Iranian regime is dangerous when left unchecked. Pushing back is the only way to counter Tehran’s quest for regional dominance and weaken the regime’s hold on its people. The Administration should press for aggressive implementation of existing sanctions, fight for more comprehensive sanctions, and rally international condemnation of Iran’s human rights abuses.
  6. Undertake responsible arms control with a strategy to “protect and defend” the nation. Such a strategy would allow the U.S. and Russia to reduce their operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads below the levels in the Moscow Treaty without constraining missile defenses. It would move the U.S. and Russia away from the retaliation-based strategic posture of the Cold War toward a more defensive posture that is adapted to changes in the international structure. It would seek mutual cooperation from Moscow in fielding effective missile defenses against strategic attacks while pursuing the construction of such defenses for the U.S. and its allies regardless of any Russian reaction. It would seek, as an offshoot of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, to negotiate bilateral treaties with Russia and others to counter nuclear-armed terrorism. Finally, it would seek to invite other countries to join the U.S. and Russia in a global stability treaty that emphasizes strategic defenses, not offensive nuclear arms.
  7. Reset the Administration’s “reset” policy toward Russia. The Obama Administration and Congress need to reassess the “reset” with Russia, which requires huge payoffs for small results. To uphold the “reset,” the Administration has agreed to significant cuts in U.S. strategic nuclear forces under New START, abandoned missile defense deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, pursued a policy of geopolitical neglect in the former Soviet Union, and downplayed violations of political freedom in Russia. The U.S. and Russia have mutual interests in opposing Islamist radicalism and terrorism; countering proliferation; boosting trade and investment; and expanding tourism, business, and exchanges. However, Congress and the Administration should not tolerate Russian mischief, either domestic or geopolitical. The U.S. should not shy away from articulating its priorities and values to Russia—and should play hardball when necessary.
  8. Avoid joining treaties and international conventions that do not serve U.S. national interests. The Obama Administration’s approach to international treaties such as the New START arms control treaty with Russia puts the United States on a path that could undermine U.S. sovereignty and strategic superiority. Other international treaties and conventions such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS or Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST)), the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), or the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that the Administration favors also would undermine U.S. sovereignty and interests. UNCLOS establishes unaccountable institutions and puts U.S. economic interests at risk. While the United States has much to lose, it has little to gain. The CTBT ignores that states have different national interests and that there is a new highly proliferated security environment. It also assumes that the United States will never need to modernize its nuclear weapons, assign them new missions, or develop new capabilities. The ATT is based on undefined standards that will slowly constrain the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and limit our ability to support friends and allies around the world.
  9. Make the promotion of economic freedom central to U.S. policy. Promoting economic freedom at home and abroad is essential to revitalizing the U.S. economy. The United States fell from the ranks of the economically free countries in the Index of Economic Freedom in 2010 and in the years since then has continued a steady decline. The warnings in the 2014 edition of the Index are too stark to ignore. Only by pressing for more freedom everywhere can the U.S. hope to avoid further decline and create the national resources that we need to conduct an effective foreign policy. As part of a practical and effective global strategy, U.S. leadership can be decisive in promoting property rights and anti-corruption measures in other countries. In addition, the U.S. should pursue more trade agreements around the world and stress the importance to all governments (including the U.S.) of identifying and reducing support for state-owned enterprises that are breeding grounds for cronyism. This global agenda can and should be implemented—starting today.

Facts & Figures

  • President Obama’s refusal to back America’s allies, desire to cut deals with America’s enemies, and inability to assess and advance U.S. interests have created a crisis of American influence in the world.
  • The U.S. military is on an almost inevitable path toward a 21st-century form of “hollowness” that will leave it less prepared for unforeseen crises and contingencies.
  • Whether considered as a percentage of our economy or of the federal budget, the share that is spent on national security is declining. The three largest entitlements—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—eclipsed defense spending in 1976 and have been growing rapidly ever since. The defense budget is poised to drop to 3 percent or lower under sequestration on President Obama’s watch.
  • The average age of major U.S. military platforms is 25 years or more. Many of their parts have become or are becoming obsolete and can be reproduced only at substantial cost.

Selected Additional Resources

Heritage Experts on The Obama Doctrine


  • Theodore Bromund

    Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations


  • James Jay Carafano, PhD

    Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies


  • Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.

    Distinguished Fellow

To talk to one of our experts, please contact us by phone at 202-608-1515 or by email.