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Obama's vacuum doctrine

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 24, 2013. REUTERS/M
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 24, 2013. REUTERS/M

By Ian Bremmer

In President Barack Obama's speech at the United Nations on Tuesday, he made the case for sustained American engagement in the Middle East:

"The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, and aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim World, may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill. I believe that would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. I believe the world is better for it."

When we look at Obama's speech, the two biggest trends in American foreign policy are conspicuous by their absence. First, while Obama describes the need for sustained American engagement in the Middle East, the opposite is already on full display today — and Obama has contributed to this disengagement at almost every turn. In the 2012 election, only 5 percent of voters dubbed foreign policy as their priority. You needn't look further than Obama's decision to punt on Syria strikes in the face of withering domestic support. The failed G20 summit in St. Petersburg made it painfully clear that "a vacuum of leadership" is already the reality in our G-Zero world. The United States' ability and leverage to drive outcomes in the Middle East is increasingly limited.

Second, the United States' interest in redirecting that leverage from the Middle East towards Asia was nowhere to be found in the speech. Obama's address was completely at odds with broader U.S. foreign policy as outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Obama's first term. The Hillary Doctrine involved a pivot to Asia, with an emphasis on engagement with China and its neighbors, as well as a push for economic statecraft: the utilization of economic policy to drive political outcomes. At the U.N., all of this was swept under the rug. Obama issued a clarion call for the global community to engage on the deepest Middle East security issues, discussing Iran at length (25 mentions), as well as Syria and its civil war (20) and the conflict between Israel and Palestine (15 and 11, respectively). Meanwhile, China was only mentioned once — and that was with regard to Iran — and no other East Asian nation was mentioned at all.

For as long as Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State, her Asia-oriented doctrine filled the vacuum of Obama's foreign policy. Obama adopting her doctrine was the closest he has yet come to establishing one of his own.

The pivot to Asia was Clinton's cunning way around the longstanding notion that a new Secretary of State has to cut her teeth in the Middle East. But with the accelerated economies in Asia driving a huge share of global growth, the State Department realized success could be defined by how well it could capitalize on — and hedge against — China's rise. With China as the second-largest economy in the world — and on track to become number one — and the principal national security threat of the U.S. and its allies, it was clear that Asia was the true structural priority of the future. Clinton refocused the U.S.'s policies accordingly.

The second tenet of the Hillary Doctrine was built in relation to the first. With China's new economic might and a leaderless global community, economic statecraft was a logical approach to diplomacy. It was a recognition that, increasingly, the global order is set not by the strength of militaries, but by the strength of economies. In a world where China's state capitalist model is a mainstay of geoeconomics, America realized it had to insure a positive economic environment for its companies abroad, or else risk a weakened economy at home.

So what's happened to these policies since Clinton left the State Department? They certainly have not gone away — the logic behind them is as airtight as ever — but you'd never guess it based on the recent focus of the Obama administration. The Hillary Doctrine has been buried by one distraction after another, whether Egypt, Syria, or Iran. It's telling that John Kerry's attempt to make a mark of his own came not in Asia, but in Israel, where the path towards peace is well-worn, and always leads to the same dead end.

The only high-profile overture toward Asia in Obama's second term was his meeting with Xi Jinping in June. But that summit was stymied by the revelations (that came out the day before the two leaders met) that the NSA had been collecting data around the world, undercutting the administration's efforts to push for China to curb its cyberattacks. Those revelations, in turn, have been a major headwind for economic statecraft, harming American diplomatic outreach and making some American corporations appear acquiescent in the data gathering.

But it's not just the onslaught of distracting global events or a new foreign policy team with Middle East expertise that has muffled Obama's focus on Asia. It stems from the fact that it is now all too clear that Obama has no doctrine of his own, instead preferring to respond to the most pressing events in the most limited fashion possible. The only state dinner that Obama has scheduled all year, with Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, was canceled by the Brazilians last week after revelations that the NSA had been accessing Rousseff's personal email. Obama's inclination is clearly to be risk-averse first, to take all measures possible to limit U.S. involvement, for fear of becoming attached to policies that fail or problems that grow. There's a willingness to engage in diplomacy, but not in strategy, and the American public echoes this preference for domestic focus over international engagement.

So what does it all mean? That "vacuum of leadership that no other nation is willing to fill" is not a grim prospect of the future. It's already a reality. Regardless of his rhetoric at the U.N., Obama's vacuum doctrine is fully in keeping with a downsized American role abroad.

(Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, the leading global political risk research and consulting firm. This column is based on a transcribed phone interview with Bremmer.)

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