A Realist Manifesto?


Colin Dueck, The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).


Do not be fooled by the title. This book is focused more on the horizon than the present and will appeal to realists and most Republicans, especially as the 2016 campaign cycle kicks off. Dueck, an associate professor at George Mason University, offers an alternative grand strategy that should satisfy both realists and conservatives within the GOP. I predict presidential candidates for 2016 will mine this book for its clarion call for strategic change.

In terms of the present, Dueck is relentless in his attack on the Obama administration’s foreign policy. President Obama, in the author’s estimation, fails to realize the fundamental nature of competition in the international arena. Instead, the administration’s policies are guided by an “overarching American retrenchment and accommodation internationally” [emphasis in original] in order to sustain a priority for domestic legacies founded upon progressive policy goals.

Dueck joins a long list of critics about trends in defense spending:

On national defense, President Obama proposed and implemented deep military cuts beginning especially in 2011 that by the account of his own secretaries of defense have left the United States incapable of supporting its existing international commitments — not to mention any new ones such as America’s Asian pivot.

The criticism is unyielding but also redundant and unbalanced. Dueck’s critique conveniently ignores the security and fiscal challenges President Obama inherited. Professor Dueck overlooks the meltdown of the U.S. economy and the global fallout from the recession on America’s influence. The author does not balance his tone by recognizing forces beyond the control of the present administration, including the current sequestration and a Congress controlled by the Republicans.

Despite his failure to acknowledge these constraints on President Obama’s decisions, Dueck offers an incisive depiction of the Republican Party and its various foreign policy and defense camps. They include:

  • Anti-interventionists who strongly favor avoidance of foreign entanglements, reduced overseas commitments, and cuts in both foreign aid and defense spending.
  • Internationalists who are on the flip side of most of the positions of the anti-interventionists. They favor “clear American leadership internationally, support a forward U.S. strategic presence overseas, and are comfortable with the current and historical institutions behind American national security policy.”
  • Nationalists who reject liberal internationalists and their penchant for multilateralism, international governance activities, nation building, and humanitarian projects as “naïve, wasteful, unlikely to earn foreign gratitude, and threatening to U.S. national sovereignty.”

The latter camp, Dueck notes, is often mislabeled as isolationist and anti-military. The author dismisses that miscategorization and puts them closer to Walter Russell Mead’s Jacksonian tradition in U.S. foreign relations. Such a populist element can be seen throughout American history, and has consistently supported a strong military. It just is wary of idealism and crusades. Anyone looking for insights into the GOP’s prospects during the 2016 election will find this chapter illuminating.

The author proposes an alternative strategy called conservative American realism. It is designed to appeal to the center mass of today’s conservatives by triangulating the three factions. This strategy seeks to counter the perceived retrenchment of the last six years, and explicitly embraces American primacy. Primacy, to Dueck, is “a circumstance and an interest, not a strategy.” Conservative American realism emphasizes reassuring allies that the United States seeks to remain a key player in the international arena by expanding forward presence and bolstering deterrence. Dueck details U.S. fundamental interests, and defines the specific adversaries that must be countered. These include state competitors (China and Russia), rogue states like North Korea, and jihadi terrorists. To deal with the latter, the author chides Mr. Obama for half-hearted approaches, and suggests these implacable foes require solutions that are “appropriately Carthaginian.” One wonders how far Dueck would really take that historical analogy — enslave Muslims or salt their lands?

Against regional powers that threaten U.S. primacy, Dueck proposes what he calls “strategies of pressure.” These would rely heavily upon coercive diplomacy. While admitting that carrots can and should be combined with sticks, the overall absence of genuine sticks and a lack of credible readiness to use them undercuts our ability to influence real world competitors today, according to Dueck. Rather than retrench and accommodate competitors, as the present administration allegedly does, he argues for increased pressure on them. “The aim,” the author contends, “should be to impose costs, intensify pressure, and gain leverage” against adversaries in regionally tailored approaches. The complexities of the statecraft required to influence states by pressure, while retaining desired economic, are not sufficiently explored.

In order to sustain a more engaged and credible military presence, Dueck argues that additional budget resources are needed. He estimates that four percent of GDP is a reasonable standard for sustaining the U.S defense establishment, which is about one whole point higher than the end point under current budget plans. This is one percent of a $17+ trillion economy. The basis for this amount appears aspirational, and I have previously written on why such general goals are astrategic if not tied to specific requirements and threats. More importantly, details about how he would employ the additional $170 billion per year in defense spending are lacking. A bigger Navy, a long-range strike bomber, more directed energy weapons, a modernized strategic deterrent, additional submarines or undersea robots? Any priorities in terms of modernization? Regrettably, we don’t get details.

This book makes an interesting match with MIT Professor Barry Posen’s Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy. Dueck would find Posen’s book troubling, given his concerns about retrenchment today. Posen lays out a far less assertive foreign policy, and defines a much smaller military force structure (only six active U.S. Army divisions vice today’s 10). Posen is more sanguine about threats and advocates military cuts well below what this reviewer is comfortable with. But it is a coherent mapping of policy aims, defense policy, force structure and costs. I disagree with many of Posen’s conclusions, but greatly admire his comprehensive approach.

The Obama Doctrine offers a strategy that integrates diplomacy, allies, forward presence, trade, and military power. But I would have preferred a book that was just as scrupulous in defending (and paying) for its proposed grand strategy as it was with criticizing the administration. This book reflects a common affliction among my conservative colleagues — a tendency to generalize about the costs required, and a lack of details regarding the required force structure, investments, and commitments. The thrust is fine, but details matter too.

Details help identify the tradeoffs involved in large shifts in government spending, and in defining where the money comes from to increase defense. It is ironic that a foreign policy seeking to protect American sovereignty might do more to weaken it, by requiring us to increase our national debt, much of which will come from foreign creditors.

All in all, however, The Obama Doctrine was smartly executed and is well worth reading. The targeted readers of this book are making stump speeches in town halls in South Carolina, Iowa, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Since America’s overall security posture will be (or should be) part of the coming election debates, they should find the time to read this book between stops.


Frank Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University, a member of the Board of Advisors at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks. These remarks are his own and do not reflect official DOD or U.S. government positions or policy.

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