The Obama Doctrine: Multilateralism With Teeth

President Obama gave a stirring speech this morning in Oslo, one laced with exhortations of international bodies like NATO, the U.N., and the League of Nations, devoted to collectively upholding right, preventing conflict, and sometimes, ultimately, fighting just wars.

And much of Obama's speech was a discourse on war--how it can be used to uphold peace, and how it is horrible and inglorious but, at times, necessary.

"I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people," Obama said. "For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism--it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."

In other words, make no mistake: our president is not a nonviolent pacifist.

The term being thrown around today to describe Obama's perspective on war and international security is "realism," or as Ben Smith put it, "realism with a heart."

Realism is always a precarious term, as it implies a shared understanding of just what the realities of foreign policy are--and those realities, often, are disputed. But it's an accurate description of Obama's approach: "I face the world as it is" was perhaps the most significant line of his speech--and what term other than "realism" can describe that.

But the central thesis of Obama's speech was a rejection of the dichotomy between realism and idealism, outlined thusly:

In some countries, the failure to uphold human rights is excused by the false suggestion that these are Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation's development. And within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists - a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values.  

I reject this choice. I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear. Pent up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence. We also know that the opposite is true. Only when Europe became free did it finally find peace. America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. No matter how callously defined, neither America's interests - nor the world's -are served by the denial of human aspirations.

If there is an Obama doctrine of foreign policy, up until this point it has been engagement. Today in Oslo, Obama fleshed out that doctrine to mean engagement with teeth, coupled with a strong international commitment. At the beginning of his speech, Obama praised the Marshall Plan, the U.N., and "mechanisms to govern the waging of war, treaties to protect human rights, prevent genocide, and restrict the most dangerous weapons."

Multilateralism was a theme. As was engagement:"I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach--and condemnation without discussion--can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a path unless it has the choice of an open door."

Read: talking to Iran.

And, on the effective sternness of that multilateralism: "...if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure--and such pressure only exists when the world stands together as one."

This speech, in many ways, was a justification of America's military activity in Afghanistan and its role in peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans and in Somalia. Obama did not say the word "Iraq" once. It was also a reaction against the Bush doctrine--of preemptive war--but it was not that doctrine's opposite: if the Clinton era saw the U.S. engage in nation-building efforts, and the Bush era saw the U.S. adopt an aggressively retributive--and ultimately a preemptive--posture toward enemies, Obama's speech marked a return to the former, with an emphasis on internationalism and human rights.

It contained in it the seed of George H.W. Bush's post-Cold War foreign policy vision, outlined by Bush thusly in his speech to Congress declaring victory in the First Gulf War:

Now, we can see a new world coming into view. A world in which there is the very real prospect of a new world order. In the words of Winston Churchill, a world order in which "the principles of justice and fair play protect the weak against the strong. . . ." A world where the United Nations, freed from cold war stalemate, is poised to fulfill the historic vision of its founders. A world in which freedom and respect for human rights find a home among all nations. The Gulf war put this new world to its first test. And my fellow Americans, we passed that test.

The Cold War long behind us, Obama's speech signifies an update to that vision in a further globalized world: of multilateralism with teeth, acknowledging the realities of aggression and oppression.

Significantly, Obama sought to move past the liberal sentiment that Americans felt as a backlash to the Iraq War: the idea that America was engaged in an imperialist enterprise, militarily and culturally. His answer: we do not seek to impose our will, but we will stand for global security and rights.

Here's how the president summed up his point:

Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All of these are vital ingredients in bringing about the evolution that President Kennedy spoke about. And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, or the staying power, to complete this work without something more - and that is the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share.