The Realist Prism: The Obama Doctrine 3.0

The Realist Prism: The Obama Doctrine 3.0

Are we seeing the opening of the third installment of President Barack Obama’s approach to national security?

The first iteration, beginning in January 2009, was the attempt to deliberately channel the moderate realism of the George H.W. Bush administration. Obama reached across the aisle to invite Bob Gates to remain as secretary of defense and to recruit Gen. Jim Jones as the national security adviser. The administration backed away from the interventionist tendencies of its predecessor, downplayed the importance of democracy promotion and, borrowing a page from the playbook of former Secretary of State Jim Baker, concentrated efforts on pragmatic deal-making with other key powers around the world. For instance, when protests broke out in Iran later that year, the Obama team stayed away from any action that might suggest regime change was in the cards, in order not to close the door on the possibility of reaching a comprehensive settlement with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program -- a stance that was criticized on both sides of the U.S. political spectrum.

Obama's initial approach did reap modest benefits, notably the "reset" with Russia leading to increased cooperation on Afghanistan and a new strategic arms control treaty. But it met with mixed results in other areas. The Iranians, for instance, proved to be uninterested in cutting any deals with Washington, while China, still intoxicated by the praise for how its system had weathered the 2008 global financial crisis, was not receptive to U.S. overtures that seemed to suggest that America needed Beijing to carry more of its burden for maintaining the international system.

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