Few articles have made a greater immediate impact on the political realm than the Jeffrey Goldberg piece in The Atlantic titled, “The Obama Doctrine.” This 22,000-word tour de force, generated by hours of exclusive interviews with President Obama, has sparked dozens of responses from across the foreign policy world.

One notable reply, also published in The Atlantic, is Josef Joffe’s “Obama is Not a Realist.” This critique has perhaps garnered the most attention of any of the responses to Mr. Goldberg’s work. Mr. Joffe is a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, as well as the published/editor of Die Ziet, Germany’s largest weekly newspaper.

On March 18, 2016, I sat down with Mr. Joffe to explore the themes of the Obama Doctrine and his critical response to it.


Jake Dow: In your article, you discuss how Obama’s instinct towards retrenchment was probably the correct one at the beginning of his presidency because America was overextended; however, the precautionary principle of waiting for certainty before action went too far. Where was the turning point where he went from having the correct thinking on retrenchment to too much caution?

Josef Joffe: I don’t know if there is a single turning point. I think that the retrenchment — what I call “self-containment” of U.S. power — began pretty much in 2009. That was when Obama tried to make nice to Islam, to Iran, to the Russians with the famous Reset, and then further hollowed out [the U.S presence abroad]with the withdrawal in 2011 from Iraq, the drawdown in Afghanistan, and a declining defense budget. That’s the trend that began right away. I guess the next turning point was the refusal to engage in Libya, but then being dragged into it by the French. After a few days, the Europeans ran out of ammunition, and in the end the heavy lifting was done by the U.S. Air Force. So to repeat the basic point, there is no clear turning point, it is a consistent slope or line that he follows, which to me is self containment or even self disempowerment.

JD: I guess the more important question is how has the President’s thinking changed during his time in office? Has he demonstrated one coherent doctrine?

JJ: I don’t see coherence. On one hand, he signs on to zero nuclear weapons, but at the same time, he asks Congress for billions in new funds for the modernization of nuclear weapons. There is incoherence in the Egyptian policy: we couldn’t quite decide if we were going to keep Mubarak in power or go with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the President is not averse to the use of power. He went after Bin Laden and got him. This incoherence is built into Obama’s foreign policy because it tries to do too many things at once. The only point on which he doesn’t become incoherent is when he says there’s no nation building, there’s no militant human rights policy, regime change, all that. On that he stays consistent.

JD: One of the catchy quotes that stood out in your piece is, “Obama is not a realist, but he’s an isolationist with drones and special ops.” Can you explain your thinking here?

JJ: Isolationism is a tricky point, in a limited sense. It is the unwillingness to use force for political ends, except in a careful dosage with use of force like drones and special forces. Doing so doesn’t commit you to anything the way intrusion with real forces does. It’s almost an anonymous war that you can fight. We aren’t “there.” In a way, Obama set the model for the Russians, who also “aren’t there” in Ukraine. It’s the “little green men.” So, Obama practices the beginning of hybrid warfare, a war that doesn’t commit and allows you to pull back at any time.

JD: Goldberg describes Obama as a “Hobbesian optimist,” which I understand to mean he’s an optimist in terms of long-term trends. However, in the short term, he believes that we live in a world where the currency of international politics is power and you have to push and influence actors to achieve your desired ends. Do you think that’s a fair characterization of Obama?

JJ: You just touched on a central element of Obama’s foreign policy. It is the belief that history is on our side. There’s a very strong strain of that in American foreign policy. It begins with the Founding Fathers and Jefferson, and continues through to John Quincy Adams, and the phrase “we shall shine forth as a light unto the nations and the world will follow our good example.” So there’s very little we have to do to bring history to it’s consolation, except maybe a little war against the Barbary pirates.

Another next dramatic instance of this is the Clinton Administration. If you look at the speeches by him and by his henchmen, it’s that we live in a world where history is bending our way, therefore we don’t have to help history. Then, you get a replica of that with Obama who unfortunately keeps bumping against reality where if you don’t use power, others will do so.

JD: In Syria, we did practically nothing and Syria became a disaster. In Libya, we did a limited, aerial intervention and Libya became a disaster. In Iraq, we went full out with an invasion, regime change, state building, and Iraq became a disaster. Do you think we overestimate our ability to produce desired outcomes? The narrative Obama pushed in the interview is that he’s squaring our means with our ends. How successful has he been in rebalancing our means with our ends?

JJ: It’s one thing to bomb; it’s another to build. With massive military power you can destroy very quickly, but you can’t build. Once you get into regime transformation and nation building, you need a dentist’s drill, not a jackhammer. America is very good at using the jackhammer: they wiped out the Taliban and the Iraqi army. They destroyed Gaddafi’s power without issue. In that respect, power talks and American means are perfectly suited to that objective.

When it comes to societal transformation, that’s where the jackhammer doesn’t work. If I may mix my metaphors, the United States is very good at being a fire brigade. You get the alarm, you roll in, you break down doors, you douse the fire, you destroy more parts of the building as you do it, and then you go home. If you want to do regime transformation, like we did very successfully in Germany and Japan, you can’t be a fire brigade, you have to be a police force, which stays forever. That turned out to be a multi-decade project, but going in, kicking ass, and leaving, will not get you where you want to go. So, I agree with Obama that the United States should not engage in ambitious projects like that. Nobody has been able to do it. The Russians weren’t able to do it in Afghanistan. The United States hasn’t been able to do it.

JD: In what ways would a Hillary Clinton presidency meaningfully differ from this Obama Doctrine?

JJ: She would have a better sense of American power and its requirements than Obama has. I don’t think she will believe in the helping hand of history. I would suspect she would pay more attention to power, more attention to demonstrating will, more attention to American armed forces. I think she’s tougher than Obama.

JD: On the left and the right in America, it seems there’s a growing movement toward isolationism. How do you sell internationalism to a public that doesn’t view it as an interest, that doesn’t view it as essential?

JJ: You’ve just asked the big question. They [Trump and Sanders] express a similar reflex. In academic parlance, it’s raising the walls of the nation state to protect the American lower-middle class against the tribulations of globalization. Trump embodies defensive nationalism, which is protectionism and isolationism in that we want to keep the “bad stuff” out: imports, Mexicans, Islam. All this is protectionist in the widest sense of the term. The populists want to turn inward and widen the moats and it’s close to a national majority between Sanders and Trump, so any activist foreign policy will run smack against the wall of protectionism. Obama’s famous line is “it’s time for a little nation building at home,” and so in this way, Obama’s policies may live on in the White House.

JD: But how do you legitimize internationalism? How do you make the case for it politically, not strategically? How do you convince people to vote for and finance an active “indispensable” internationalist America in an era where it’s not clear to them why they need it?

JJ: What animated American activism was the personalization of the enemy. It was King George the III and Kaiser Bill (Wilhelm II). It was the Nazis and Communists, as personalized by Hitler, Stalin, Mao. It’s very hard to personalize the enemy in the 21st century because you’re dealing with abstract forces. I think America needs some embodiment of evil. If you can get down to that concrete level, it can be done.

Meanwhile, I have seen significant opinion polls in which Americans do not refuse the use American power. It’s not clear to me that the American people want to hunker down. There is American nationalism, don’t forget that. It’s nationalism that attached itself to power, to being exceptionalist, to being a “beacon on to the nations.” It’s not clear to me that even with all the rhetoric of Trump and Sanders and “come home America,” that the United States will want to hunker down and play second fiddle to China, to Russia, to Europe. Think about the Russians making more inroads. Think about when China’s push comes to shove in the Pacific. I don’t think the people of the United States will take that lying down. When threat perceptions rise, leaders can make hay.

JD: What aspect of the Obama Doctrine or era merits greater discussion?

JJ: The debate about the nature of the United States as a nation: whether the United States will maintain its sense of exceptionalism, or whether the United States wants to be kind of a Europe writ large. Europe conquered the four corners of the earth and then bingo, you get the Europe of today, where Europe is a construction that doesn’t want to act strategically. It’s a Europe which is as rich as the United States, which is in some respects, better ordered and better run than the United States, but which has folded and left the gaming table of the great powers.

Europe had called it quits, by the way, under the strategic umbrella of the United States. But the United States doesn’t have another United States. The Brits could drop the mantle because their American cousins stood ready. The American cousins built the post-war security order which allowed the Europeans to become what they have become. The United States doesn’t have another United States and that Hobbesian logic will always prevent the US from becoming like Europe. But that’s somewhat the Obama promise, and also the Sanders promise and the Trump promise. In this respect, Trump and Sanders are like two peas in a pod.

Does the United States want to be Europe, a social-democratic Europe? One that forsakes global policy and global footprint for the sake of social spending, higher taxation, and welfare rather than warfare? That, to me, is the most fascinating question.

Jake Dow, a freshman studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.