Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Obama Doctrine

Nancy LeTourneau was the first to frame what the President said in this big policy speech last Wednesday in Brussels, Belgium as an Obama Doctrine. I believe this framing is very appropriate. Nancy identifies three central elements of this emergent Doctrine:
  • establishing and defending international norms - In the current case of Crimea and the Ukraine, the norms are self-determination, the integrity of national borders, and the prohibition against a stronger country changing a weaker country's borders by force.
  • operating through partnership, not power, to discipline norm-breakers - Here, with Russia's annexation of the Crimea, there is no military response to Russia's actions. Rather a partnership of concerned nations will work together to fashion a series of non-military responses: diplomatic isolation; expulsion from the G8;  economic sanctions (as much as possible, directed against the ruling oligarchs, not the Russian people); facing the Russian Security Council veto, secure an overwhelming condemnation of the Crimean referendum in a General Assembly vote (100 voted to condemn, where Bush got only 14 in the 2008 Russian incursion into Georgia); invite and support a rapid (90 day) review, country by country, of alternatives to Gazprom/Russian gas; provide very substantial, multilateral economic support to the Ukraine; work to split Russia from its traditional ally (China) with some success already (China abstained and did not vote with Russia in the Security Council).
  • when conflicts arise, keep a clear diplomatic off-ramp open - With every pronouncement, the President has been clear that this problem can only be solved diplomatically, that we are not trying to put Russia down - rather we are trying to support and enforce international norms which have benefitted all of us. Friday, Putin called the President. Today Kerry and Lavrov are meeting in Paris. It's quite likely this will not prove the end of this crisis; but it does clearly establish the process that needs to be followed when resolution does occur.
Will this work? Ian Bremmer, in his New York Times oped, thinks not. In fact he is certain any attempt at sanctions will fail. He (along with many other very smart analysts) thinks we need to more fully understand the Russian perspective - that the Crimea belonged to them, and that the West has been relentlessly trying to encircle them since the Fall of the Wall, and that as our understanding deepens, we will lighten up on the critique. Roger Cohen, in his Thursday New York Times oped, having listened to Obama's Brussels' speech, seems to metaphorically throw in the towel, saying how can the US or Europe engage in elevated appeals to principle, when our own houses are so out of order.

Ambassador Michael McFaul (until mid-February, our Ambassador to Russia) and Fareed Zakaria have completely different takes. One of my favorite analysts, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, penned his op-ed in Britain's The Telegraph on Wednesday - "Putin's Russia Caught in US and Chinese Double-Pincer". From my perspective, the smart money is on Obama.

The stakes are high here. Can we have a world where the leading powers follow an agreed set of rules - rules which can guarantee that smaller nations don't have to always look over their shoulder to see which great power might gobble them up. Will the rules of the jungle apply, where the mighty can feast on the midgets to their heart's delight; or can we, as an international community, agree on a different set of rules, ones that protect both the meek and the mighty?

And how do you enforce these rules? In a nuclear age, military conflict between the great powers is unthinkable. So what happens when a great power wants to eat up its neighbor? Are we pretty much helpless? Until now, the answer was pretty much - Yes. Nobody could stop us from invading Iraq, and nobody did. Nobody could stop NATO from bombing Kosovo, and nobody did. So Putin says to himself, "Since the US won't use military force, no one can stop us from invading the Crimea, and probably the Ukraine, and nobody will." Until Obama did.

Will it stick? I think so, over time. Mostly because I think Obama looks at this episode of unacceptable Russian norm-breaking, as very similar to what the GOP tried to do with the Government shutdown, and their requirement that Obama negotiate over the national debt. Obama said no to the GOP and meant it. Everybody knew he would cave. He didn't. The stakes were too high. And that's right where I think we are today - the stakes are too high to just back off and give the Crimea to Russia. Bad precedent. Big countries must follow the rules, just like the small ones. If they don't, chaos follows.

But being determined might not be enough if our President did not know how to genuinely ask others to help. It's hard for us to understand what a big deal this is: Obama is telling everyone that he cannot do this alone, that he needs help from every country that recognizes the value of defending international norms - whether that help comes in the form of a UN General Assembly vote, or hard-nosed economic sanctions. US Presidents never ask for help, at least not publicly. And that's precisely what Obama did in his Brussels speech. Simply extraordinary.

This may take a week, a month, a year, or more. But starting with Wednesday's speech (above), we are watching our President lead us, and whatever other countries will join to help, in a non-violent war against the old paradigm that says, "Might makes right." Or "He who has the gold, rules."

He is leading the world in establishing certain norms that say all of us have value; that we all deserve to be heard; and that the more powerful should not be allowed to run roughshod over us.

These are norms worth fighting for.


  1. the warmfuzzyhugs model presented here of Obama, like smartypants', has no room for certain realities: bin laden, libyan tanker SEALS op, somali pirates sniper op, and so on. that's why both you and smartypants simply ignore these realities - they don't fit the desired model.

    but since those ARE realities, this means the model presented is inadequate. partly true, but doesn't cover certain very important aspects of Obama's behavior.

    my guess is that you two WANT the nothingbuthugs model so badly (i mean who doesn't like hugs, right?), you'll shoehorn it onto Obama. and contrary behaviors simply get ignored.

    while the hello kitty model is a pleasing model, if the goal is to fully understand ACTUAL Obama, more is needed.

    1. Following international law does not, in my opinion, rule out a Special Ops effort to find and kill Bin Laden, or Obama giving the order to shoot the Somali pirates. Fair-minded people will disagree about much of this - drone killings of terrorists, NSA surveillance, etc. For me, these programs need to be grounded in law, supervised and audited; but they form an essential part of a nation's national security program. What Obama is endeavoring to stop - and what I am applauding - are random national programs, not grounded in international law, for one nation to work its will on another. In any case, neither Nancy nor I is a model builder, trying to impose our vision on reality; we are watchers of the world, trying to notice patterns emerging, and speaking them aloud when we think mew see them. The real question is: is what we are calling the Obama Doctrine a fair representation of what is happening, and is this a pattern we are likely to see again?

  2. Excellent commentary...and we can not stand up to Russia or any nation as long as we ourselves are in a cultural war that designates a president as illegitimate, without full backing of our Congress. Simply put, a house divided against itself can not stand, and we see this playing out here.

  3. Thanks Jim, I adore your writing and analysis and SP too. I think you are right and I think I can see clearly the thesis you are offering. There can be no doubt the PBO is working his brilliance and, for me, his patience. Rachel Maddow made a profound observation the other night about how PBO was psyching Puting out by belittling him and combining it with economic screws. I REALLY liked that possibility. What I know is Putin is no match for PBO and would make a big mistake treating him like Bush!

  4. HI Jim; really enjoyed the Blog on The Obama Doctrine. I agree with his stance regarding Crimea with Russia although, he really did not have many other options. Sometimes I wonder whether your President's approach is more tactical than strategic ( in other words, is it really a doctrine) but whatever it is, it seems to be working. A view from Canada. David.