In search of an Obama doctrine

Whether you like them or not, Obama's domestic policy proposals form a coherent program. Can the same be said of his foreign policy? My new column for the FT considers this question.

Who can fail to be impressed by Barack Obama's energy, or a little stunned by his self-confidence? Show this man a financial crisis, sufficient to occupy or overwhelm an ordinary president, and he sees the chance to "remake" - as he puts it - the entire US economy. You might dismiss that as rhetorical exuberance, but it becomes ever more apparent that his ambition is real. For good or ill, he means to do it.

In foreign policy, one sees the same disposition - the same appetite, the same willingness to bring new thinking to old problems. In recent days, the administration has conceived a spate of new approaches and initiatives.

Just as the financial breakdown is too small a domestic canvas, so Iraq and Afghanistan - where the US currently has most at stake and which constitute by themselves a crushing workload - are too mild a test. The White House has recently made approaches to Cuba and Iran, alongside diplomatic "resets" on Mexico and Latin America, Russia, China, the Middle East, Nato, global summitry, global warming, the international financial institutions and almost anything you care to name.

In every case, Mr Obama seems to say, this administration starts afresh - and if it can break with the diplomatic and strategic failures of George W. Bush, remaking the world as well as the US economy is so much the better.

In domestic policy, an organising principle directs the innovation. Mr Obama wants to shove the US in the direction of a more social democratic - Americans say "progressive" - social contract, with universal healthcare and a tax and benefits system much more attuned to reducing inequality. Whether this is wise, feasible or what the country even wants is questionable, but the connecting theme is clear.

Is any such theme emerging in foreign policy? Can one begin to talk of an "Obama doctrine"?

If style and temperament can constitute a doctrine, the answer is yes. The intellectual traits that Mr Obama says he most prizes in himself and those around him are pragmatism and perseverance. Many would say that Mr Bush also had perseverance, carried to the point of dull-witted obstinacy, but nobody ever accused him of pragmatism. Mr Obama's willingness to start anew, ask what works, offer respect to governments that crave it (even if they may not deserve it) and patiently seek progress where he may is refreshing.

One aspect of this pragmatism is the president's desire to build alliances and cool old enmities, and work towards US aims through co-operation rather than confrontation. The trouble is, most US presidents - including Mr Obama's predecessor - felt the same way until the world beat it out of them. Foreign policy doctrine is put to the test only when co-operation in pursuit of mutual interests fails to achieve results, and the hard choices that Mr Obama insists he is willing to make actually present themselves.

Though it is much too soon to write off Mr Obama's friendly overtures, you could hardly describe them so far as a notable success. He travelled to Europe this month and received ovations at every step; presidents and prime ministers jostled like giddy teenagers to be photographed with him. Yet he went away with nothing: no co-ordinated fiscal stimulus; no meaningful commitments of new military support in Afghanistan. Judged by the outcome, could his predecessor have done much worse?

The world agreed that North Korea's missile test should be opposed; the US even hinted it might shoot the rocket down. The launch went ahead without repercussions. The US and its allies could not agree on a response.

The world believes that Iran should be stopped from developing nuclear weapons, but the allies drag their feet over sanctions. Privately, the US tells Russia it would not build missile defence sites in Poland or the Czech Republic if it received help on Iran in exchange; publicly, Russia says no. Next, the new administration tries outreach, signalling a willingness to talk to Iran without preconditions - and an American-Iranian journalist is sentenced to eight years in jail for spying. At this, Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, say they are "deeply disappointed".

The persevering president will no doubt keep plugging away and for a while will be right to do so. The new opportunities afforded by his global popularity are worth exploring - where this can be done at low cost.

In Iran, despite the great stakes, there is not much to lose because the Bush administration's unyielding line had failed in any case. The debacle in Iraq rendered the threat of US military intervention not credible: Israel permitting, Iran was on track to get its nukes regardless. On many other issues as well - Cuba is an obvious instance - the preference for confrontation over co-operation has failed to advance US goals. In both Cuba and Iran, moreover, the US and its foes have real interests in common, so a warming of relations is at least possible. More generally, as Mr Obama would doubtless point out, most nations have a shared interest in peace and security.

Unfortunately, not all are as willing as the US to pay for them. Soon, the leaders who say they so admire Mr Obama will have to return more than warm feelings. Europe should bear more of the burden in Afghanistan. Iran would be better induced to co-operate if US overtures were combined with solidarity among the allies should those overtures be rejected. If US allies keep demanding the benefits of co-operation without the costs, Mr Obama's respect for them will evaporate and so will his country's - and that will be that for the Obama doctrine on foreign policy.