Obama’s Strategy: adjustment, not revolution

Obama’s new National Security Strategy is evidence that the US is involved in ‘strategic adjustment.’

In other words, the superpower has recognised the shift in the distribution of power and  is trying, at least in theory, to adjust to the new landscape. Translated into practical moves, this means a mix of internal and external balancing to realign resources with commitments:

  • Restoring the economic foundations of its power
  • Burden sharing (and interestingly, an attempt to make it more expensive to be a rising Asian power)
  • Reducing the number of enemies (Iran, North Korea) through diplomacy
  • Reducing commitments, entanglements and dependencies (such as oil imports)
  • Restoring charisma and legitimacy to America’s image

How big is this change?

While these moves taken together may go some way to alleviating America’s current difficulties, this marks not a fundamental shift from the Pax Americana, but an attempt to shore up and prolong America’s muscular liberal ‘primacy.’

The Obama Administration may renounce anticipatory war of the Bush II era and be more accepting of multilateralism. But it is still carrying on combats and assassinations without formal multilateral approval, for example in Somalia on a regular basis.

And the notion of the recklessly unilateralist and headstrong Bush Administration is a good description of its first four years but is less useful for the following period. After which, Condoleezza Rice was intensively involved in diplomatic efforts, for example in countering Iranian influence in the Gulf through American allies there, and the Annapolis Conference of 2007. The Bush Administration also, after all, went to the UN to seek approval for its war in Iraq. It was unquestionably a more swaggering Presidency and more dismissive of institutions and co-operation, but the story is more complicated than often summarised.

The most telling aspect of the doctrine is that it doesn’t seem to identify things that matter less or that are merely peripheral. All things are vital: climate change, extremism, nuclear materials, economic growth everywhere, forging peace and resolving conflicts, etc. It is still a universalistic vision that doesn’t seem to do hard-headed means-ends thinking. Though the US wants rising powers to do more, it looks as though it reserves the right to intervene. And it maintains its formal commitment to military supremacy.

None of this is to chide Obama, but to recognise that the political constraints of his Presidency mean that he cannot break with the Pax Americana model, even if he wants to. Why should the US want to be militarily preponderant, to the point where it has bases in nine out of ten nations and does half of the world’s military spending, more than 46 or so combined? Why should it be the guarantor of wealthy and advanced countries elsewhere? Why does it need more than 1550 nuclear warheads, rather than say 311?

The debate in Washington remains tightly within the parameters of hegemony: not whether America is best served as the dominant power in the world, but what kind of dominance it should have, consensual or willful, super-armed or astronomically armed, exercising dominance with a smile or not even bothering to ask first?

It is these basic questions that should inform a country’s grand strategy. But typically, the debate quickly becomes not one of America’s role in the world, but a question of technique.

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