Is America retreating from its global duties? That’s what a number of critics of the Obama administration would have us believe. In the wake of Washington’s alleged failure to respond to Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, critics charge that the United States is in “retreat” and getting “left behind.” John McCain accused President Obama of pursuing “a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore,” while others believe that the President lacks a foreign policy entirely. Most recently, The Economist joined the chorus, questioning America’s credibility in the face of its “retreats” around the world.
It’s certainly true that America is changing its role on the world stage. But that’s not the same as retreating from that stage altogether. In fact, the opposite is true: by many measures, the Obama administration has increased American engagement with the world. What has changed is not the amount of engagement, but its nature. Obama has sought to re-orient our foreign policy away from a military-first approach, and toward a more comprehensive approach that leans more on diplomatic and economic tools.
This new approach is hard to stomach for those who conceive of American strength and influence as military in nature. This conception assumes, incorrectly, that that “clashes across the planet are all about ‘us’ and that the dominoes of the world rest precariously on [our] every move.” But because this worldview is so unpopular, having yielded disastrous results over the years, its proponents prefer to cast Obama’s sensible re-orientation in a negative light, through the use of dirty words like “retreat,” “decline,” “weakness,” or “isolationism.”
Consider the case of Iran’s nuclear program. If you ask the naysayers, this is just another example of U.S. fecklessness: It has become an article of faith on the right that the weak, irresolute Obama has “given up” on pressuring Tehran and even that he “conceded the bomb to Iran.”
But the facts tell a different story. Not only has Obama aggressively pursued the Iranian nuclear issue, he has also produced concrete results. The administration’s groundbreaking diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement with Iran have meaningfully and verifiably limited the country’s nuclear program for the first time in a decade. And last year’s agreement in Geneva was the culmination of years of coalition-building by an administration determined to convince a reluctant international community to join in on pressuring Iran, including through the creation of a devastating international sanctions regime. There’s no way to credibly argue that Obama is disengaged from this issue, that he doesn’t have an Iran policy, or that this policy hasn’t achieved results. By contrast, under George W. Bush, any hopes of long-term diplomatic progress were dashed by the administration’s unrealistic insistence — described by one analyst as an “abstinence-only approach” — that Iran halt uranium enrichment altogether, coupled with Bush’s infamous inclusion of Iran within the “Axis of Evil.”
When critics say that Obama has failed to address the Iranian nuclear issue, they mean that he has failed to address it the way they want him to — that is, he hasn’t given enough credence to the military option. That’s a policy disagreement that critics should feel free to air (although they no doubt know that doing so will pit them against both American public opinion and the overwhelming consensus of security experts against military action). But to suggest that Obama hasn’t been a leader on this issue and many others is simply incorrect.
Similarly, critics are quick to point to Asia as an example of Obama standing idly by while a rising adversary threatens our allies. They decry his Asia “pivot” as little more than rhetoric. In reality, though, the pivot — conceived as a way to re-focus our resources on a region of increasing importance to U.S. security in the post-9/11 years — has produced some impressive results. Asia expert Ely Ratner recently chronicled the successes of the pivot, pointing out that we have increased our substantive diplomatic engagement with Asia, and garnered a number of victories in the areas of trade and development. Ratner, a former political officer on the State Department’s China desk, contends that contrary to the claims of “Pivot Deniers,” the administration has actually “accomplished more in Asia, and has a more coherent approach to the region than any other part of the world.” Researchers at National Defense University found that, if visits from high-level officials are any indication, the Obama administration has indeed paid more attention to Asia than its predecessor. Contrary to what the critics say, the pivot is not all talk.
The list goes on. On the Israel-Palestine issue, John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts are often characterized as “frenetic.” The pejorative use of the term indicates the widespread belief that Kerry’s initiative is going nowhere, but it nonetheless contradicts the idea of a disengaged White House that is not interested in leading. Even the Russian “reset” — which has taken its fair share of hits following President Putin’s aggression — was an ambitious, and in many ways useful, effort at increased engagement, and so cannot reasonably be marshaled as evidence of a lack of engagement. And that engagement has been beneficial: The current Ukraine crisis would be even more unstable without the transparency, predictability, and stability that the New START treaty brings to the U.S.-Russia nuclear relationship.
So where does the meme of “retreat” come from? The answer is that America is retreating away from a particular type of foreign policy. This was the policy associated in historical memory with the Bush years, characterized by militarism, a “go-it-alone” mentality, and the seemingly endless war on terror. Obama came to office with a clear mandate to re-orient this policy, and this remains the best way to understand the President’s international priorities. Recently, Fareed Zakaria argued that while Obama has succeeded in rejecting the neoconservative model, he has failed to construct any new doctrine to put in its place. But in a number of trouble spots across the globe, there is, in fact, evidence that Obama is attempting to fill the post-Bush vacuum with a new model of U.S. engagement.
Critics who believe that Obama has pulled back from the world stage are confusing quantitative changes in the nature of U.S. engagement with a qualitative decline in that engagement.
One more point bears mentioning: Opponents inevitably trot out the tropes of “retreat,” “decline,” and “fecklessness” when a global crisis erupts that, they believe, President Obama should have been able to solve. But this is a canard that attributes too much influence to Obama, to the institution of the American presidency, and to America in general. As analyst Ali Wyne points out, the United States has “never been able to exercise anything approximating control over the course of international affairs.” And Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times reminds us that during the Cold War, presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan undertook limited, behind-the-scenes foreign policy maneuvers that seemed “weak-willed” at the time, and could even have been tarnished as “appeasement.” But these more circumscribed moves, Tanenhaus notes, often turned out to be more effective than belligerent shows of strength or outright confrontation.
It was using this logic that President Obama defended his foreign policy in Manila last month. In a speech concluding his tour of Asia, Obama characterized his opponents’ preferred course as long on bluster and short on substance. We cannot take an action, Obama argued, simply because “somebody sitting in an office in Washington or New York think[s] it would look strong.” Measures like targeted sanctions, trade and basing agreements, the mustering of international coalitions and sustained, behind-the-scenes diplomacy “may not always be sexy,” as the President put it. But neither are they signs of weakness or harbingers of decline.
Far from presiding over a reduction in U.S. global engagement, the Obama administration has sought to deepen, reshape, and re-orient that engagement. To be sure, this rebuilding effort has not been fully successful. For instance, James Traub argues that on Syria, Obama presented the public with a false choice between going to war and doing nothing, which would support Zakaria’s claim that the President has failed to find the middle ground between the two extremes that could form the basis of a new “Obama doctrine.”
But we can make these valid critiques at the level of individual issues, while still recognizing that broader progress has been made toward finding that middle ground — that is, progress toward a world in which U.S. engagement exists, but is not synonymous with military engagement. This is the larger problem that Obama, for all of his stumbles, has sought to solve through diplomacy, economic measures, coalition-building, and more. These measures hardly add up to a picture of retreat, and Obama’s critics should be honest in acknowledging that.
Usha Sahay is an Assistant Editor at War on the Rocks. She is the Director of Digital Outreach at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and Council for a Livable World.