Unipolar No More: The Obama Doctrine and the Emerging Powers


The dramatic advance in Iraq by the extremist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) poses perhaps the most serious test of the Obama Doctrine as outlined first by President Barack Obama at West Point on May 28, then by his National Security Susan Rice at Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., on June 11.

The Obama Doctrine has two aspects: The first and the more well known (and critiqued) concerns the selective use of force. In the president’s words:

…let me repeat a principle I put forward at the outset of my presidency: The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it: when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger….On the other hand, when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone.

But for those interested in the future of international order, the second element of the Obama Doctrine is no less important. This has less to do with American power, and more with U.S. leadership in world affairs. In fact, it is the logical corollary to the first. If the United States is to be selective (critics would say too selective) in using direct force, then diplomacy and leadership must take on an ever-more important role.

Let me be quite upfront. I am a supporter of the first element of the Obama Doctrine. But I do have serious concerns about the second element, which is marked by vagueness and contradictions.

On the question of leadership, the president had an Albright-esque punchline: “Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will.”

How realistic is this pledge? It faces at least three major challenges.

The first is domestic politics. In the United States, some conservative critics are likely to see Obama’s “America must always lead” principle as a prescription for free riding by emerging powers like China. Another challenge would be Congressional opposition to international agreements that might support U.S. leadership. In fact, this was highlighted by Obama himself when he drew references to two key areas of U.S. policy: climate change and the Law of the Sea, which is relevant to U.S. diplomatic credibility in managing East Asian territorial disputes.

We can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if a whole lot of our political leaders deny that it is taking place. We can’t try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is ratified by the United States Senate, despite the fact that our top military leaders say the treaty advances our national security. That’s not leadership. That’s retreat. That’s not strength; that’s weakness.

Is this situation going to change? Not likely, at least during the remaining 30-month lifespan of the Obama Doctrine.

Second, global leadership requires resources. Here, the Obama Doctrine falls back first and foremost onto military power. As Obama put it to West Point’s graduating class, “The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership.” Two weeks later, Rice followed up with the following words:

As we move out of a period dominated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we will lead by drawing on every element of our national power. That power starts with our unparalleled military might…

It is one thing to have unparalleled military might, quite another to use it wisely and appropriately. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey has said in a recent interview that in the changing international strategic environment, the United States would find it increasingly “harder to articulate the proper use of military power” and have to rely less on direct military action and more on “building partnership capacity and enabling other actors.”

And military resources are not always enough. Does the United States have the national power to always lead in all issue areas, not just areas that require military action, but also in peacekeeping, peacebuilding, climate change, human rights, and economic development?

The problem is that this American aspiration for global leadership runs against the changing realities of world power. This is not about the decline of the United States, which Obama dismissed, arguing that so-called “declinists” are “misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”

Yet, an assessment in December 2012 by the U.S. National Intelligence Council, not known for engaging in partisan politics, concluded:

The US most likely will remain first among equals among the other great powers in 2030 because of its preeminence across a range of power dimensions and legacies of its leadership role. More important than just its economic weight, the United States’ dominant role in international politics has derived from its preponderance across the board in both hard and soft power. Nevertheless, with the rapid rise of other countries, the “unipolar moment” is over and Pax Americana—the era of American ascendancy in international politics that began in 1945—is fast winding down.

A third challenge relates to the U.S.’s relationship with the emerging powers, such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Here, the tone of the Obama administration appears to have have become less optimistic. Like Obama and Rice now, in a 2010 speech, entitled “The New American Moment in International Relations,” then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also asserted the importance of U.S. leadership in world affairs: “So let me say it clearly: The United States can, must, and will lead in this new century.”

But there is a big difference. In 2010, Clinton was quite positive about engaging the emerging powers. As she put it,

American leadership does not mean we do everything ourselves. We contribute our share, often the largest share, but we also have high expectations of the governments and peoples we work with.

To this end, the U.S. approach, she added, would be “to deepen engagement with these emerging centers of influence.”

Contrast this with the following words in Rice’s CNAS speech: “With emerging powers, we must be able to collaborate where our interests converge but define our differences and defend our interests where they diverge.”

The reasons for this shift of tone are not hard to find. Chastened by Russia’s land grab in Ukraine and China’s ocean grabs in East Asia, the Obama administration appears to be shifting from its policy of accommodation to assertion in dealing the rising powers. Hence the Obama Doctrine is not just about selective use of force, but also about selective containment of the emerging powers.

A recent article reported that the Obama administration is considering an “updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment” to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine. This effort might include “cutting off its economic and political ties to the outside world, limiting its expansionist ambitions in its own neighborhood and effectively making it a pariah state.”

Russia has been expelled from the G-8. A more intriguing question is the fate of the G-20. Will U.S. efforts to isolate Russia extend to the G-20, of which Russia is a founding member?

Playing politics with the G-20 will anger other emerging nations that are members, which former NATO and EU foreign policy chief Xavier Solana described as “the only forum in which world powers and emerging countries sit as equals at the same table.”

To compound matters, while both Obama and Rice spoke of the importance of collective action in U.S. leadership, for the emerging powers, there was less to it than meets the eye. To quote Obama:

…we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.

But for the emerging powers, the call for collective action raises two major questions. First, who is involved? Obama singled out “allies and partners” and laid particular stress on NATO. This is hardly new. Can the United States also listen to the voices of the emerging powers? And if it did, will they in turn be receptive to American perspectives? This is going to be far more difficult, as the decision of all the remaining BRICS nations to abstain in the U.N. General Assembly vote on Crimea showed.

Another question is on whose terms? If America must always lead, then America must always decide. Where does this leave others, aside from its closest allies, who may disagree with America and may propose their own ideas of collective action?

If Obama is to make good on his promise of collective action, then he also has to embrace the principle of shared leadership. This requires pushing for the reform and democratization of international institutions. Here, too, there is a huge gap between rhetoric and reality of U.S. leadership. Obama asserted that:

After World War II, America had the wisdom to shape institutions to keep the peace and support human progress, from NATO and the United Nations, to the World Bank and I.M.F. These institutions are not perfect, but they have been a force multiplier….Now, just as the world has changed, this architecture must change as well. At the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy spoke about the need for a peace based upon a gradual evolution in human institutions. And evolving these international institutions to meet the demands of today must be a critical part of American leadership.

All these words would be very welcome to the emerging powers. But Obama disappointingly provided no specifics on the progress of and challenges facing the reform of global institutions. In fact, U.S. leadership on reform of global governance has been less than stellar. The United States has little ability to advance Security Council reform in the absence of consensus from other Permanent Five members. This effort has stalled beyond redemption. And in the one area in which reform has made most progress, concerning IMF voting rights, Congress has blocked ratification.

The problem with Obama’s assertion that if America does not lead, “no one else will,” is not just that it sounds a trifle self-serving and arrogant, but it also does not take into account different forms of leadership exercised by others such as Canada, Australia, the EU, and the Scandinavian countries in promoting human rights, transitional justice, and humanitarian law. Collective action can also be decentralized to the regional level. At West Point, Obama talked mostly about NATO, more so than the U.N. or any other global or regional multilateral group and made only passing references to other regional groups (he did mention the OSCE and ASEAN). The emerging powers don’t share the same love for NATO. Strangely enough, Obama did not even mention the EU, preferring to use terms such as Europe and European allies. He ignored other non-Western regional groupings such as the African Union and the Organization of American States. Yet, only a relatively blinded analyst of the contemporary world order would fail to recognize that regional multilateral groups such as the EU, ASEAN and the AU have an important place in shaping the security of their respective regions. The United States itself recognizes Indonesia’s leadership in Southeast Asia and ASEAN’s role in Asia-Pacific security. Regional powers such as Japan, South Africa, and Brazil have played key roles in regional economic development and diplomacy.

This does not mean regional organizations are always effective or can substitute for the U.N. But as Hillary Clinton had recognized in her new American moment speech, “few, if any, of today’s challenges can be understood or solved without working through a regional context.” In that speech, Clinton mentioned region (including “region,” “regional,” “regionally,” “regions,” etc.) no less than 24 times. There was an entire section on strengthening regional architecture, (excluding discussion of NATO, which was under a separate preceding section on alliances), and this section was longer than that on global institutions in the 21st century.

Instead of claiming leadership solely for itself, might it not be better for the United States to help these other actors lead in different issue areas where they have special interest and expertise? Many regional groups in the developing world could do with greater authority from the U.N. Security Council and support in material resources from powers like the United States in advancing collective action.

The unipolar moment in international relations is over and the emerging world order is not multipolar, as many mistakenly characterize it. It is better described as a multiplex world (further elaboration in my book, The End of American World Order). Like in a multiplex cinema running several shows with different scripts, actors, directors, producers within one complex, we live in a global system with multiple key players (traditional great powers, emerging powers, international institutions and non-state actors) interacting closely with each other while bound by complex forms of interdependence. Indeed, when Rice referred to the challenge of U.S. leadership in “a world that is more complex and more interdependent than ever before,” she provided an apt description of the multiplex world. But collective action to manage stability of the multiplex world requires shared leadership. The Obama Doctrine’s vision for that shared leadership lacks clarity and consistency.

The coming weeks and months will severely challenge the first aspect of the Obama Doctrine, i.e. the selective use of force, as the president responds to the threat posed by ISIS in the Middle East. That threat will also provide a critical test of the second aspect of the Doctrine, which is about the U.S. capacity to mobilize collective action and shared leadership. Indeed, the latter may well be the key to the ultimate success of the Doctrine.


Amitav Acharya is Professor of International Relations at American University, Washington DC, and author of The End of American World Order (Polity 2014). Follow him on Twitter @AmitavAcharya.