The Obama Doctrine: Say goodbye to “weak versus strong” in foreign policy

The president’s West Point speech exposed the illusion of a force-versus-peacemaking duality.

There is a new “Obama doctrine” in foreign policy, announced by the president in his much-anticipated speech at the West Point commencement. President Obama decisively rejected the false choice between strong and weak, conceived as military action versus peacemaking.

Thus, argued the president, environmentalism and human rights are strength, as are diplomacy and multilateralism. Military incursions without allies or an exit strategy, however, are weakness. Equally important is that the president rejected the dichotomy of strong versus weak without reversing the poles and claiming that negotiation, environmental activism, and human rights work are always the only definition of strength.

In other words, the West Point speech was a declaration of a big paradigm shift in American foreign policy. No more weak-versus-strong dichotomy.

“I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative — it also helps keep us safe,” President Obama said, adding not “every problem has a military solution.” Thus, military force is not necessarily strength; it can be weakness as it blinds us to other options. This is certainly learned from Iraq and other recent conflicts. “Foreign assistance isn’t an afterthought — something nice to do apart from our national defense. It’s part of what makes us strong.”

It is a wise move on Obama’s part to try to crack open this dualism of weak versus strong and expose it for the illusion it is. Military force looks like “strength” because of the bombs, guns, and armies, and yet it can be weak because it often sets up the next conflict. Peacemaking is indeed strength as it takes determination and creativity to work in and through human conflicts to bring about transformation. This is an echo of the Just Peace paradigm that President Obama referenced in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

The “weak-versus-strong” dichotomy of militarism versus peacemaking will die hard, however, as it is a profoundly entrenched view of war and peace, deeply rooted in Western cultural conceptions of gender and society.

As a woman in the peace movement for many years, I have found that over and over, both peacemaking itself and women’s leadership in peacemaking are unrecognized as proactive, or even despised as weak, and only the use of force is regarded as “doing something” and being “strong.” We can probably blame Aristotle for this original idea that males are the “active principle” and women the passive in nature, but this goes beyond gender itself to the very establishment of society. Greek cities became “states” as they engaged in armed conflict with each other and claimed the right to rule. Hierarchical power grew up in Western culture with the idea that force is the only real strength and authority for rule.

But deep change is occurring in Western society, change that challenges the very notion of gender dualism itself. There is a growing recognition of the many sexual orientations and identities among human beings, and this cultural sea change casts the idea of symbolic gender dualism in the strong versus weak, force versus peacemaking into an interesting relief.

One of the targets of Obama’s address was Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps the poster child of “militarism equals strength” thinking. President Obama said, “In Ukraine, Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe. But this isn’t the Cold War. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away.” Obama went on to give specific examples of how multilateralism, economic sanctions, “mobilization of world opinion and institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, Russian troops on the border, and armed militias.” And thus, he concluded, “Ukrainians were able to vote and pick a leader of their own choosing.”

Is it a stretch to connect these insights by President Obama on how Putin’s vaunted “strength” was effectively neutralized by collaborative work with a rejection of Putin’s homophobia and sexism, as well as his nationalistic fervor? Rejecting this whole package of behavior as our new foreign policy means actually challenging the deep script of heterosexism which is a major force undergirding the dualism of strong versus weak.

President Obama’s address was carefully packaged, however, with the obligatory, traditional “strong” language in regard to the U.S. military. There was also the president’s sincere recognition of the sacrifices made by servicemen and women.

A very unfortunate part of the speech was when the president referred to the truly distorting idea of “American exceptionalism” and strongly endorsed it. Like the equally unfortunate phrase “indispensable nation,” such ideas merely add to American hubris in foreign policy and make the very collaborative approach to settling conflict that the president touted in other parts of his speech ever more difficult.

Sometimes the United States is in fact entirely dispensable in terms of settling conflicts around the world because the American presence is itself (or is made to seem) an engine of the conflict. Take the seemingly intractable Israeli/Palestinian conflict. With tremendous good faith and strong effort on the part of Secretary of State John Kerry, parties to the conflict have again met U.S. efforts with posturing and rejection of a framework for even getting to a two-state solution.

Why not let Pope Francis take a crack at this, as he unexpectedly invited Israeli and Palestinian leaders to come to the Vatican for peace talks? In Bethlehem, Pope Francis said, “In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with Israeli President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace.” Perhaps peace talks at the Vatican will work; even if they are only another beginning, why not let somebody else take the lead there?

“Holy wars” may require “holy peacemaking” to break through where traditional diplomacy has failed.

The president’s speech also contained a deeply troubling section on drones, and another round of calling for “transparency” on the drone program. This wears thin, as the president needs now to actually provide transparency on drones rather than calling for it.

The packaging of praise for our military strength, and our exceptionalism, as well as the drone remarks, however, did not completely overwhelm the fundamental point of the address that was, in my view, to do away with the weak/strong dichotomy.

“Weak versus strong” has driven conceptions of “war versus peace” for far too long.


The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.

Image via Shutterstock.

  • Michael R

    Putin is not the poster child of “militarism equals strength”, that honor goes to China. China is amassing a massive military power and is already asserting itself in the South/East China Sea. China has a policy of comprehensive national power, and aims for massive global domination. It is striding ahead of the USA in leaps and bounds. It is only a matter of time before they rule the world and, presto, it’s lights-out for freedom.

    Asian countries are already terrified that the USA won’t stop China. And they should be. Obama will bomb an easy target like Gaddafi. But a power that can hit back like Russia and China? Obama is a scared puppy dog. He won’t risk American lives in Asia. No chance.

    And so, Asia is on track to soon be ruled by China. Obama and the author of this article are correct to talk about sanctions. But sanctions against China were required long ago, instead of our demented economy policy of financing the rise of the PLA through buying cheap goods.

    The world will soon learn that Chinese goods are not cheap. Evolution is a story of group fitness. Groups rise, then become rich, lazy, and disunified, until a hungry cohesive group rises to take their place. Goodnight America. Hello China. Goodnight freedom. Obama is a puppy dog.

  • Larryinchicago

    Thank you so much for this enlightening article… I’m so glad to hear that Obama verbalized this position. I believe that the cross of Jesus Christ negates all forms of raw power and in it God self-surrenders God’s omnipotence.