All about the Obama Doctrine

While President Obama’s strategic rebalancing of U.S. interests through the ‘Pivot to Asia’ entails a stronger embrace of India as a counterweight to China, New Delhi must be careful not to conduct its foreign policy through the American prism

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:24 pm IST

Published - April 16, 2016 02:44 am IST

"Mr. Obama is hardly a “Beltway” politician. It was known even before he came to Washington that he held strong views on foreign policy issues." Picture shows Indian PM Narendra Modi with U.S.'s Barack Obama.

"Mr. Obama is hardly a “Beltway” politician. It was known even before he came to Washington that he held strong views on foreign policy issues." Picture shows Indian PM Narendra Modi with U.S.'s Barack Obama.

The first decade and a half of the 21st century has witnessed a fundamental change in >India-U.S. relations unparalleled in the history of the two democracies. President Bill Clinton demonstrated a tilt towards India during his second term, and subsequently the George Bush presidency brought about a transformational shift in the relationship. Relations have been on an upswing ever since, with the Obama presidency proceeding on the same course.

Discerning observers nevertheless see subtle differences in the approach of the Bush and Obama presidencies. Both Presidents have been warm towards India and appreciative of India’s democratic credentials. President Bush, early in his second term, dispelled any notions that the decision to reach out to India had a hidden subtext, viz . strengthening India to function as a counterweight to China. President Barack Obama has been more circumspect, as his world view includes a more accommodative attitude towards China.

The difference, according to strategic analysts, lies in their approach. Mr. Bush acted more on the basis of his instincts — an outstanding example being the manner in which he went out of his way to ensure the successful conclusion of the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Deal without seeking any quid pro quo. Analysts argue that Mr. Obama is more a practitioner of realpolitik and tends to see most issues through this prism.

Radical shift in priorities In the light of this, recent references to an >“Obama Doctrine” should be of vital interest to Indian policymakers. The so-called doctrine is embedded in a series of interviews that Mr. Obama gave to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine. Compiled into an essay, it takes on the character of a doctrine, though the President himself may be chary of acknowledging it as such.

Mr. Obama is hardly a “Beltway” politician. It was known even before he came to Washington that he held strong views on foreign policy issues. These differed from those of the foreign policy establishment in Washington — including of the powerful think tanks scattered across the city, and forming part of the “revolving door syndrome” familiar to Washington insiders.

That the President, while still being in office, should express his personal opinions in this manner in a series of interviews intended for publication is a surprise of sorts. One would have expected it to form part of his presidential memoirs, but clearly he intended his views to become known while still holding office. Hence, its value and the reference to an “Obama Doctrine”.

Mr. Obama withholds few punches in his interviews. He makes it amply clear that he has little regard for the Washington-based tribe of U.S. foreign policy experts (“The Washington playbook”), and even less for their enduring belief that military force is the answer to every problem. He evinces little interest in West Asian affairs and in the politics of oil unlike his predecessors. He is unduly harsh in his judgement of leaders of West Asian countries. On the other hand, he shows somewhat greater interest in the “Pivot to Asia” and the consequences of the rise of China and India in the region. All this signifies a radical shift in U.S. foreign policy priorities. It is uncertain whether policy circles in the U.S. have come to terms with the change.

Forsaking old friends

U.S. Presidents normally provide direction — or changes in direction — to U.S. foreign policy. The “black hole” and the Achilles heel of the pronouncements that coalesce into the Obama Doctrine is the near-total distrust or disdain that he displays for long-established relationships and allies. Added to this is a reluctance to accept his foreign policy mistakes, preferring to put the blame on allies and friends.

Some of the harshest criticism is reserved for the >leaders of Saudi Arabia with references to the West Asian sheikhdoms as “free-riders”. At the same time, he sees an emerging Iran as a bright patch as far as West Asia is concerned. Implicit in this is that the President is preparing to jettison Saudi Arabia — despite it having been the U.S.’s staunchest ally for the past half century — and readying to embrace Iran. Egypt, another long-term U.S. ally, is similarly seen as expendable.

Among other leaders Mr. Obama is contemptuous of is Russia’s Vladimir Putin — perhaps understandable because of events in Ukraine and the West’s debacle in Crimea. What is more surprising are his views on the leaders of France and the United Kingdom — especially the latter. This possibly stems from his experience of the Libyan imbroglio, for which he blames French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. His pungent criticism of Mr. Cameron as a mere tactician lacking in strategic vision does sound the death knell for the “Special Relationship” that has been part of U.K.-U.S. entente since the end of the Second World War — unless it is resurrected by another President.

Mr. Obama’s version of the >Syrian “chemical weapon crisis” is disarming to say the least. Most of the world saw the U.S. “retreat” after having drawn a redline against use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as exposing the weakness of the U.S. The Saudis equated the U.S. action to “drawing lines on the sand” as Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud observed. Yet, Mr. Obama projects it as a moment of victory, in having avoided the use of excessive force to check Syria.

The impression conveyed is of realpolitik carried to an extreme with the core logic of the Obama Doctrine being: that the U.S. no longer needed to engage in geopolitical competition with powers like Russia and China; the collapse of countries like Egypt was of little consequence to the U.S.; the primary concern was to avoid risking the lives of U.S. citizens unless the vital interests of the U.S. were directly involved; and to get others to do the hard work of fighting on issues relating to ensuring a rule-based international order and defeating terrorism.

Unlike the vast majority of the U.S. establishment, Mr. Obama does believe that the U.S. confronts a security deficit or that U.S. credibility will be undermined unless there is greater investment in military power. On the other hand, he seems to believe that “faced with infinite demands and finite resources” to fulfil its leadership role, it is preferable to take recourse to the “long game” instead of embarking upon peremptory action: “Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence”, “American strength abroad derives from its resilience at home.”

Lessons for India From India’s standpoint, there are several aspects of concern relating to the Obama Doctrine. India may need to “deep dive” into what exactly the doctrine signifies, at a time when the U.S. is anxious to firmly establish a strategic hand clasp, to “counter China’s assertiveness in the >South and East China Seas ”.

India has no conflict of interest as far as the South and East China Seas are concerned. It risks provoking China if it gets more deeply engaged on U.S. insistence. Under the Obama Doctrine, the U.S. cannot be expected to come to India’s aid in the event of an India-China conflict along the disputed land border or anywhere else.

We can already discern how the doctrine is being played out to India’s north-west. The U.S. has been willing to sell F-16 fighters and attack helicopters to Pakistan, so that Pakistan can fight its battles in Afghanistan and the region — despite India’s concerns about this move. The U.S. has also been willing to placate Pakistan on the nuclear issue, even implying that Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons programme was possibly a response to India’s Cold Start doctrine.

>U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter , during his recent visit, spoke of the strategic confluence between India and the U.S. as one of the defining moments of the 21st century. He also referred to the new Framework for the India-U.S. Defence Relationship (signed in June 2015) as intended to increase strategic cooperation to help safeguard security and stability across the region and around the world.

In the light of the Obama Doctrine, it might, hence, be worthwhile to take a closer look at such entanglement with the U.S. India must be careful that its approach to China is not conducted through the prism of U.S. strategic interests. We need an independent policy in keeping with our national interests in the region and beyond.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal

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