The Obama Doctrine: A war of dollars instead of missiles

Generally speaking, the attachment of a President’s name to a doctrine is about a foreign policy position and by now it is public knowledge that President Obama has been confronted with some great foreign policy challenges. The latest being the Russian annexation of Ukraine. As a result of Russia’s movements, politicians and critics have encouraged the President to take more concrete action. Although many politicians, both conservative and progressive have reiterated consistently that they do not want the American military on the ground in Ukraine, their calls that the President’s actions are not heavy handed enough have implied that maybe this is not the case.

In my opinion, President Obama has been quite pragmatic in his foreign policy. Given America’s weariness of wars in which American soldiers are engaged in foreign countries, he has adopted a much deeper way of engaging nations that do not fall in line with the objectives of Western civilization.

I believe President Obama is showing us something that politicians and analysts often overlook. When we talk about hard power, there are two types. There is military might and there is economic influence. One of the great advantages of being the world’s only superpower is the ability to not only use military might but also to use economic sanctions as a means to bring rogue nations in line with Western objectives. Of course the great thing about economic power is that it achieved on the foundation of great military might.

As a result of its military might, America is able to guarantee relatively secure global trade. In a very real sense what America can guarantee, it can also take away from nations that do not fall in line with its objectives. It is this option that comes into clear focus when we look at how President Obama has dealt with foreign policy challenges. From his actions, I think we can safely infer that the President views public opinion to be adamantly against military involvement in a nation has not attacked us directly. However, he has also recognized that America cannot simply shy from involvement on the world stage. Therefore, the President has come to rely on options that shield the administration from the wrath of the public. In some cases this has meant adopting covert military options with high risk if they are thwarted or discovered, but also high reward if they are successful. The killing of Osama Bin Laden is the most high profile of these types of operations. In other cases, the President has chosen to opt for economic sanctions. I believe the field test for economic sanctions was Iran and in that case global economic sanctions were credited with forcing Iran to negotiate with the West on the subject of nuclear weapons.

Given that the President counts Iran as a success for his doctrine of deterrence or punishment through smart economic sanctions, he is now testing the limits of this doctrine against Russia.

There is some evidence that this strategy might work. I have always thought that it went unappreciated that one of the biggest reasons that the Soviet Union collapsed was not the wholesale inferiority of communism, although that is key. Rather, the Soviet Union was pretty systematically locked out of the global trade system controlled by the West for many years. As a result, they could not afford to support their empire, they could not afford the consequences of attempting to unseat America as the protector of the global trade system, and they could not competently build a competing trade system. They were stuck in a game they could not win. It was just a matter of time. I think this is what the President is banking on. In the short term, people may criticize him and the leaders of other nations may laugh at sanctions. But sanctions enforced with the help of the European Union can cripple a nation’s economic foundation. I think this was proven in the case of the Soviet Union and I think it was proven again in the case of Iran. It may be an unfortunate reality for Putin as the West continues to consider locking Russia into a tight economic sanctions regime. Russian leaders may have laughed at first, but America and the West may get the last laugh.