Has the US Entered a Period of ‘Keeping a Low Profile’?

Since the Obama administration took to the stage six years ago, both U.S. global strategies and a number of its foreign policies have undergone substantial changes. The resulting foreign diplomatic style has come to be known as “Obamaism.” But over the upcoming years, will Obama’s U.S. foreign policy transformation satisfactorily help the U.S. make progress in the challenges it faces?

It’s Evident the U.S. Is Trending “Inward”

Both the Obama administration’s foreign policies and its rallying for domestic development are part of a strategic set. Obama has given primacy to promoting both economic development and social transformation. He wants to focus on putting resources into the U.S. domestic market and cutting back on defense force spending. But Obama’s most crucial foreign policy adjustment is that its major focal points are on combating terrorism and dividing power across central military and security issues with aims at settling global financial markets, promoting worldwide economic recovery, and fixing economic security issues.

Over the last six years, U.S. economic strength, its military strength, technological superiority, as well as its higher education standards have continued to rise on “measurable indicators.” However, the polarization between the left and right in U.S. domestic politics has continued to worsen, and both the Democratic and Republican parties hold each other in mutual contempt, impede one another, and veto one another’s moves. This makes it difficult for the government to enact economic reforms.

Although in terms of power dynamics and self-development among the world’s great nations, the United States is hardly tipping into the abyss of insignificance, it is indisputably losing political clout on the world stage. The reasons are that, first, the strength of the European allies of the U.S. has faltered, Japan’s economy has been stuck in a deep lull, and the power and influence of the West in general has been in decline. Second has been the meteoric rise of China and the speed at which it has come to influence international affairs. Other factors include the decline of national strength in the Internet age, increasingly complex global governance issues, and how the United States has grown weaker at controlling international issues, such as terrorism, climate change and Internet security. Last, the U.S. has lost its confidence and motivation for engaging in external affairs, focusing instead on tackling domestic issues at home. In recent years the U.S. economy has seen a rebound, mostly as the result of its reliance on domestic rather than international demand, and this only reinforces the inward looking U.S. trend.

The Principle of ‘Don’t Do Stupid Shit’

In terms of economic priorities, the features of “Obamaism” undoubtedly include emphasizing multilateral methods and “smart power,” striving to reform the international U.S. image, focusing on global political issues, and constructing international systems. Moreover, these features are the continuation of the Democratic Party’s “Clintonism” policies.

Then, the true feature of Obama’s foreign policy is to pursue one simple tactic, which, to use his own words, is “don’t do stupid shit.” The “stupid shit” that Obama disdains is the war on Iraq that was initiated by the previous Bush administration. The essence of “Obamaism” boils down to two things: “restraint” and “cutting-back.” It also includes motivating allies to take collective action on issues, thereby sharing the risk and responsibility in international affairs. Even if there already is, or there potentially will be, a military conflict, the Obama administration will persevere through the use of foreign diplomacy, economic sanctions, and international pressure on the situation. As far as possible, it will avoid the use of direct military conflict.

“Don’t do stupid shit” also means not getting in the way of China or any other emerging nations. At the same time as the Obama administration is increasing its pressure on China’s military buildup, it is also trying its earnest to improve contact and cooperation with the Chinese military. It hopes that through establishing controls and improving crisis management tactics, it can avert the danger of war with China.

Obama believes that, after finally concluding two exhausting wars, the United States now needs to take a rest. Since Obama took office, the Middle East has gone through its “Arab Spring,” the Islamic State has created major problems for the long term U.S. strategic framework in the Middle East, and chaos is taking over in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout all of this, the Obama administration and some U.S. strategists are slowly coming to realize that Western democracy and Middle Eastern countries just “don’t mix.” As a consequence, although the U.S. has not given up on its fantasies of changing the world with its values, in practice, it has focused more on bringing stability to the world order. This is one of the hidden layers of meaning within the “don’t do stupid shit” policy.

In 2015, the United States National Security Strategy Report went further in revealing the characteristics of Obama’s foreign policy. This report indicated that the best way for the United States to strengthen its global leadership position was to boost its own economy, make itself an example of democracy, build a strong, international coalition, and make an integrated use of U.S. power. In the report, Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, suggested that the United States should not be led off into distraction by current crises, like Ukraine or the Islamic State group, when there were still longer-term challenges, such as climate change, cybersecurity, trade, poverty and public health that required the administration’s strategic focus.

How Long Will the United States “Keep a Low Profile”?

From what we can deduce about the ideology and philosophy of Obama’s foreign policy over these past six years and the changes in U.S. foreign diplomacy as a result of them, it seems that the United States has entered a phase of “keeping a low profile.” We can expect that, barring the emergence of an unexpected major international crisis, Obama will continue attempting to stabilize U.S.-China relations, be headstrong in dealing with Russia, continue to suppress extremist forces in the Middle East without committing troops, reduce, but not entirely stop, restrictions on Iran, continue to battle with getting Japan and other countries to sign up for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, promote Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations with countries in the European Union, and try to improve relations with Latin American countries. To put it simply, Obama will continue to stick to his established guidelines.

However, being a U.S. president, Obama has to also abide by the American “orthodoxy.” The United States will never abandon its aspirations to be a global hegemony, but the way it is now going after those goals has changed. On the one hand, it is ambitious, but on the other, it is yielding and retreating. Throughout the final two years of his presidency, Obama intends to perhaps both respect the American “orthodoxy,” while simultaneously pursuing his policy of “keeping a low profile.” The question is, will the global strategy outlined above be applicable only to Obama’s final two years in office, or will it be a continuing trend into the future?

To answer this question, we need to examine both the domestic and external dimensions facing the United States. On the domestic front, both public opinion and a number of U.S. strategists are dissatisfied with the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy. Many believe that relationships with European countries are far more important than Asia, while Jewish and other ethnicities with strong religious convictions feel the Middle East (especially Israel) should take priority. Others think the Obama administration is too “lenient” with China, making the U.S. look lame in front of this rising tiger. There are even those that criticize Obama’s weak responses to Russia, his retreat from engaging in Middle East issues, and sitting on his hands while Islamic State group radicals run amok.

Right now at the very least, these opposing voices will do little to dissuade Obama of his present foreign policy direction. But after two years, regardless of whether the Democratic Party or the Republican Party takes control of the White House, the ruling party will certainly want to make some adjustments to the “Obamaism” doctrine. Even if the United States doesn’t completely abandon its “low profile” policy, at the very least it will need to look at taking a more active stance, becoming tougher, and being more prepared to seize upon opportunities. However, Obama’s successor cannot entirely dismiss Obama’s centralist thinking. The U.S. will need to focus on domestic issues, like economic development, social equality, STEM education, and put foreign expansion on the back burner for a while.

Over the past six years, we have seen the global economy make a slow recovery, and conflict and chaos in the Middle East give birth to extremists everywhere. There has also been the Ukraine crisis, territorial disputes in the South China seas, tensions in Sino-Japanese relations, and the influence of “the return of geopolitics” across the globe, none of which really pose a security or economic risk to the U.S. directly. However, should any major crisis appear, then Obama’s “low profile” policy will definitely be put to the test. First, the United States is trying to lead from behind, while convincing its allies to engage in battles for their own interests (the Islamic State group situation is an example of this), which isn’t easy to do. Second, a number of international observers are concerned that, because the U.S. is making these strength trade-offs, a number of the Asia-Pacific countries that are “sitting on the fence” with regard to relations with China and the USA, might actually end up going over to China’s side.

This so-called “grand strategic plan” that the U.S. is playing on could only work if the world was like an unchanging “chessboard,” and the U.S. was the hand that shifted the “pawns” on it. The policies in this plan are almost like “homeopathic” solutions, and on an international scale, they might end up becoming harmful to long- term U.S. interests. The degree to which “Obamaism” can continue on depends on prevailing world trends, any unexpected emergencies that might arise, and the actions of other players in the international arena. U.S. domestic politics, along with economic development and strategic objectives will all dictate what the U.S. can and will want to do in the future. Its actions will also be dictated to an extent by international developments and the actions initiated toward the United States by others. In short, both the United States and the rest of the world will dictate the malleability of U.S. international affairs. Of these, China’s strategic position on U.S. policies will be pivotal.

The author is a college professor at Beijing University’s International Affairs Department.

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  1. You hit the nail on the head when you wrote that “although the U.S. has not given up on its fantasies of changing the world with its values, in practice, it has focused more on bringing stability to the world order”.
    The corollary to that is that America believes that stability and order in the world can only be achieved when the people of all countries are able to enjoy the basic human values of freedom, equality, democracy, and the rule of law.

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