In its first year, the Obama Administration has rushed to so many five-alarm fires around the world that it's sometimes difficult to discern the underlying strategy guiding all the frenetic activity. President Obama has embraced the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, assumed the mantle of peacemaker in the Middle East, offered the hand of engagement to the mullahs of Iran and the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea, and "surged" 30,000 U.S. troops to salvage a failing war in Afghanistan. He has "reset" the relationship with Russia, visited America's largest banker in Beijing, and tried to heal bruised feelings in Europe. He has offered the carrot of strategic partnership to Pakistan.
But what is the underlying vision that informs Obama's ambitious foreign policy goals, and what strategy is the administration developing to achieve them? No less a strategist than Zbigniew Brzezinski believes Obama deserves the Nobel Peace Prize precisely because his actions to date suggest a reliable strategic lodestar.
"Overall, Obama has demonstrated a genuine sense of strategic direction, a solid grasp of what today's world is all about, and an understanding of what the United States ought to be doing in it," Brzezinski writes in the current Foreign Affairs. "Whether these convictions are a byproduct of his personal history, his studies, or his intuitive sense of history, they represent a strategically and historically coherent worldview."
In his speech Thursday at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway, the president gave his most detailed explanation of the emerging "Obama doctrine" for coping with the world as he sees it. In defining the strategic landscape, Obama equated the myriad challenges the United States confronts today to the chaos and strife that confronted President Harry Truman and his team of advisers at the end of the Second World War.
After World War II, Obama noted, "America led the world in constructing an architecture to keep the peace: a Marshall Plan and a United Nations, mechanisms to govern the waging of war, treaties to protect human rights, prevent genocide, and restrict the most dangerous weapons."
While that architecture succeeded in deterring World War III and eventually advancing the tide of liberty, Obama said, "a decade into a new century, this old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats. The world may no longer shudder at the prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers, but proliferation may increase the risk of catastrophe. Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale. Moreover, wars between nations have increasingly given way to wars within nations. The resurgence of ethnic and sectarian conflicts; the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed states -- all these things have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos... Meeting those challenges will require the same vision, hard work and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago."
In stating his own vision and first principles, Obama surprised many by making the case in Norway for U.S. military superiority. "The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms," he said. "So yes, instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace."
Obama put his decisions to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and prohibit torture in the larger context of reclaiming the moral high-ground from which America can most successfully lead. "Even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength."
Rejecting American "exceptionalism" -- or the idea popular among a number of former Bush administration officials that the United States' superpower status and outsized responsibilities exempt it from rules and international norms that govern others -- Obama recommitted the United States to a rules-based international order. "America -- in fact, no nation -- can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves," he said.
In a nod to many human rights advocates, Obama included humanitarian interventions as a legitimate use of force in some circumstances, though he left unclear whether he would support it in Darfur. "I believe force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans," he said. "Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly interventions later. That's why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace."
Obama's much-noted multilateral instincts spring not from altruism, he implied, but rather from a belief that the world is too messy and complex in this era of globalization for any one nation to police. "America's commitment to global security will never waver, but in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone to secure the peace," he said.
Calling the effort to check the proliferation of nuclear weapons "a centerpiece of my foreign policy," Obama argued that the world must stand united against nations like Iran and North Korea that seek to game the nonproliferation regime. "In dealing with those nations that break the rules and laws, I believe we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behavior. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure -- and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one."
On the other hand, Obama defended diplomatic engagement even with adversaries such as North Korea and Iran that flaunt the international order. Such engagement bore fruit when Richard Nixon reached out to China despite the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, he noted, or when Ronald Reagan looked past the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union to find in Mikhail Gorbachev someone he could do business with. "I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation, but I also know that sanctions without outreach -- condemnation without discussion -- can carry forward only a crippling status quo," said Obama.
Of course, much like the work that won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Obama doctrine to date remains mostly aspirational. A rules-based global commons policed by strong militaries and collective action. Multilateral treaties and binding agreements among nations. Respect for human rights and a unified response to persistent evil. The president has described a view of the world, and drawn the outlines of a strategy for advancing U.S. interests that comports with that picture. Now it's the world's turn. The successes and failures of the months and years to come will determine whether the vision holds true, or proves an illusion.