American Presidents have become known for “signature” statements and responses to foreign policy and national security challenges. Ronald Reagan is known for his efforts to defeat Communism and advance “peace through strength.” Bill Clinton is remembered for his argument that military operations, such as his humanitarian intervention in the former Yugoslavia, are justified “where our values and our interests are at stake and where we can make a difference.” It is fashionable to describe presidential statements or responses to foreign policy challenges as “doctrines.”
President Barack Obama had hoped to improve America’s standing in the world by crafting a foreign policy vastly different from his predecessor’s. He said, for example, that America would reach out to other countries as “an equal partner” rather than as the “exceptional” nation that many before him had embraced since the Founding Fathers; that “any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail”; and that “[o]ur problems must be dealt with through partnership” and “progress must be shared.”
Throughout his tenure, Obama has laid out in public statements the tenets of a doctrine that purports to remake America simply as one nation among many, with no singular claim either to responsibility or exceptionalism. These tenets are: (1) America will ratify more treaties and turn to international organizations more often to deal with global crises and security concerns, often before turning to our traditional friends and allies; (2) America will emphasize diplomacy and “soft power” instruments such as summits and foreign aid to promote its aims and downplay military might; (3) America will adopt a more modest attitude in state-to-state relations; and (4) America will play a more restrained role on the international stage. These tenets, however, will make America and the world far more insecure.
The Obama Doctrine will fail because, in the end, no one will prefer the instability, vulnerability, and economic stagnation that follows from a weaker America. America has seen dangerous times before—during the Revolution, the Civil War, and two world wars. Each time, America emerged stronger because most Americans decided they did not want to be defeated. What Ronald Reagan believed remains true: America must secure the peace through strength—strength of character; strength of will; strength of leadership; moral strength from our values, virtues, and aspirations; economic strength born of opportunity; and military strength hewn from the ingenuity and ideals of a free people. America’s decline is not inevitable. It is a choice.
The tenets of the Obama Doctrine will have both intended and unintended consequences: They will make America less exceptional and put us on the road to decline, and they will make us less secure as other countries feel emboldened to threaten us and hold our policies hostage. The alternative is not to become the world’s bully, but rather to reassert American leadership in defense of U.S. vital national interests and liberty around the world.
- Strengthen our security alliances, create new ones, and establish new coalitions and entities based on shared values. President Obama has talked about the significance of international partnerships, but partnerships will fall short of our expectations if the countries with which we align share neither our values nor our goals. The U.N. is a prime example. As one of 193 member states, our efforts there frequently are sidelined or voted down. For many states, the U.N. is their only claim to relevance in the global arena and their only chance at influencing or restraining the actions of the United States.Many of the institutions created in the aftermath of World War II, like the U.N., are outdated, unable to respond to today’s challenges. The U.S. is not required to run all of its initiatives to spur peace, security, and development through the U.N. or these other bodies. Instead, to spur economic development, respect for human rights, and security, the U.S. should take the lead in creating new and more effective institutions and arrangements that will enhance strong bilateral cooperation among like-minded nations. Examples could include a Global Economic Freedom Forum that focuses on expanding free markets, a Liberty Forum for Human Rights that promotes individual freedoms and human rights, or a Global Freedom Coalition to promote security.
- Invest in peace through strength. Our ability to defend our nation and our allies and to advance our interests depends on our ability to maintain the strength, flexibility, mobility, and quality of our forces. Declining defense investments that take us to the margins of military superiority while countries like China and Russia invest heavily to modernize and expand their forces is risky business. In addition, both Iran and North Korea have active nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Threats to the U.S. are increasing. A robust U.S. military is both the surest way to deter aggression and the backbone of effective diplomacy.Despite this, the Obama Administration has already imposed $500 billion in defense cuts on the United States military through the cancellation or delay of over 50 major weapons programs. Ten years of combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, and new conflicts arising from the “Arab Spring” revolutions have taken a toll on people and equipment.Rather than invest badly needed funds into recapitalizing the force, the August 2011 debt ceiling deal threatens to “hollow out” the military. If Congress does not enact a sufficient deficit-reduction plan by January 15, 2012, automatic reductions would be triggered, cutting upwards of $600 billion from the defense budget alone. This would irreparably harm the U.S. military and strip it of its ability to secure vital U.S. interests.
This is deeply concerning because a strong military deters would-be aggressors and is the foundation for American leadership in the world. The military’s main purposes are to enhance diplomatic efforts and act as an insurance policy, or “Plan B,” when diplomacy fails. America’s Founders believed that peace through strength is preferable—militarily, financially, and morally—to allowing war to come through weakness.
- Finish the job in Afghanistan. The United States will sacrifice its credibility, undermine the confidence of the NATO alliance, and place vital U.S. national interests at risk if it prematurely withdraws from and accepts defeat in Afghanistan. The world will become a much more dangerous place if al-Qaeda is able to establish a sanctuary again. On the other hand, winning in Afghanistan will guard against the possibility of another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the U.S. and create the necessary pressure on nuclear-armed Pakistan to deal with organized terrorist groups within its borders, partner to demobilize the Taliban, and recognize the importance of normalizing relations with India.Winning will be a crushing blow to those who support Islamist terrorism and a stern warning to all our enemies that the U.S. can and will defend its vital national interests. But winning will require renouncing a predetermined timeline and fully resourcing the U.S. military counterinsurgency strategy.
- Adopt an agenda to bring freedom to Iran. The U.S. has wasted much time and effort trying to engage the Tehran regime on nuclear issues and conduct secret talks to broker a regional solution in Afghanistan. Iran has played rope-a-dope with Washington, using engagement to buy time to advance its own agenda in the region and weaken the implementation of sanctions. The Iranian regime is dangerous when left unchecked. Pushing back is the only way to counter Tehran’s quest for regional dominance and weaken the regime’s hold over its people. For starters, the Administration should press for aggressive implementation of existing sanctions, fight for more comprehensive sanctions, and rally international condemnation of Iran’s human rights abuses.
- Undertake responsible arms control with a strategy to “protect and defend” the nation. Such a strategy would allow the U.S. and Russia to reduce their operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads below the levels in the Moscow Treaty without constraining missile defenses. It would move the U.S. and Russia away from the retaliation-based strategic posture of the Cold War toward a more defensive posture that is adapted to changes in the international structure. It would seek mutual cooperation from Moscow in fielding effective missile defenses against strategic attacks. It would seek, as an offshoot of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, to negotiate bilateral treaties with Russia and others to counter nuclear-armed terrorism. Finally, it would seek to invite other countries to join the U.S. and Russia in a global stability treaty that emphasizes strategic defenses, not offensive nuclear arms.
- Reset the Administration’s “reset” policy toward Russia. The Obama Administration and Congress need to reassess the “reset” with Russia, which requires huge payoffs for small results. To uphold the “reset,” the Administration has agreed to significant cuts in U.S. strategic nuclear forces under New START, abandoned missile defense deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, pursued a policy of geopolitical neglect in the former Soviet Union, and downplayed violations of political freedom in Russia.The U.S. and Russia have mutual interests in opposing Islamist radicalism and terrorism; countering proliferation; boosting trade and investment; and expanding tourism, business, and exchanges. However, Congress and the Administration should not tolerate Russian mischief, either domestic or geopolitical. The U.S. should not shy away from articulating its priorities and values to Russia—and should play hardball when necessary.
- Avoid joining treaties and international conventions that do not serve U.S. national interests. The Obama Administration’s approach to international treaties such as the New START arms control treaty with Russia puts the United States on a path that could undermine U.S. sovereignty and strategic superiority. Other international treaties and conventions, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS or LOST) or the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), that the Administration favors also would undermine U.S. sovereignty and interests. UNCLOS establishes unaccountable institutions and puts U.S. economic interests at risk. While the United States has much to lose, it has little to gain. CTBT ignores that states have different national interests and that there is a new highly proliferated security environment. It also assumes that the United States will never need to modernize its nuclear weapons, assign them new missions, or develop new capabilities.
Facts & Figures
- Both as a percentage of our economy and as a percentage of the federal budget, the burden of defense is declining. The baseline defense budget is 3.5 percent of America’s GDP. Entitlements now account for 65 percent of all federal spending and a record 18 percent of GDP. The three largest entitlements—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—eclipsed defense spending in 1976 and have been growing ever since.
- If the Administration succeeds in further cutting defense, as it envisions under its current plans, or if cuts are made under the debt limit law, the percentage will drop to 3 percent or lower.
- Under New START, only the United States is required to cut its nuclear arsenal. Russia can actually increase its nuclear stockpiles.
Selected Additional Resources
Ted R. Bromund and James Phillips, “Containing a Nuclear Iran: Difficult, Costly, and Dangerous,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2517, February 14, 2011.
James Jay Carafano and Henry Brands, “Building a Global Freedom Coalition with a New ‘Security for Freedom Fund,’” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2236, February 4, 2009.
Ariel Cohen, “Reset Regret: U.S. Should Rethink Relations with Russian Leaders,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3294, June 15, 2011.
Lisa Curtis, “After bin Laden: Do Not Retreat from Afghanistan,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3259, May 17, 2011.
The Heritage Foundation, “A Strong National Defense: The Armed Forces America Needs and What They Will Cost,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 90, April 5, 2011.
Kim R. Holmes and James Jay Carafano, “Defining the Obama Doctrine, Its Pitfalls, and How to Avoid Them,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2457, September 1, 2010.
Heritage Experts on The Obama Doctrine