Alphen, Netherlands. 24 April. When asked by a journalist back in the 1960s what worried him most patrician British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan allegedly replied, “Events, my dear boy, events”. President Obama has clearly been taken aback by Russia’s use of force and insurrection in Ukraine. Obama’s opponents like to cast the President as a foreign policy naïve who does not really understand nor feel comfortable with the idea of American power. And yet as President Obama begins a four-nation Asia-Pacific tour in Japan far from lacking grand ambition the ideal of creating a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) built on open trade could be said to be the beginning of a truly grand strategic Obama Doctrine.
The problem is that the Obama Doctrine is more appearance than stated ambition which is the hallmark of this Administration. It would appear to emphasise trade power rather than hard, military power and it would appear to be built on two potentially grand free-trade deals with democracies. The apparent aim is to help America regain grand strategic pre-eminence via the twelve-state Asia-Pacific-focussed TPP and the thirty-plus state Euro-Atlantic Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
The Doctrine also makes some apparent sense. Taken together a TPP/TTIP nexus would represent some 75% of world trade. The message to America’s strategic competitors China and Russia is clear (apparently); continue to rig the trading relationship in your favour and/or use force to resolve territorial disputes and you will be excluded from the partnerships at your cost.
In a sense the Obama Administration is trying to replace the Wild West lawlessness of globalisation which Washington believes permits Beijing and Moscow to flout conventions of state behaviour with an American-centred regime of rules. This is particularly important given that the UN and other world institutions are now paralysed by a Cold War-style grand strategic power lock. If the appearance is correct then the Doctrine is the grandest of grand strategies and if successful would wrest back America’s fading leadership of the world.
However, appearances can be deceptive. The strength of the Obama Doctrine is that America remains for the time-being the world’s biggest economy and leading trading power. As such Washington can continue to try to condition the behaviour of others through the use of strategic economic levers. Its weakness is that 2014 is not 1945 and US leadership of the West no longer enjoys the automaticity it once did. The great financial and economic architectures America established post-1945 to confirm its political primacy such as the Bretton Woods Agreement have become weakened by America’s huge debt burden, the hitherto strategic parochialism of the Administration and the rise of the power challengers.
Furthermore, American leadership is being challenged from within. The US Congress is notoriously short-termist and parochial with even Democrats unlikely to be comfortable with free-trade deals that would appear to take jobs away from their districts. Indeed, the only people more parochial are the many Asian and European politicians notoriously schizophrenic in their dealings with the US. They demand the US taxpayer by and large pays for their defence, insist on their right to tell the Americans what to do and where, and ‘protect’ themselves from American trade when it suits. As a result both the TPP and TTIP could well fail as short-term, regional tactical bickering and protectionism overcomes long-term American strategic ambition.
However, it is precisely the apparent long-term strategic ambition of the Obama Doctrine where both the TPP and TTIP could have their greatest impact. Implicit in both is an American attempt to rebrand the ‘West’ as a global idea built on democracy and trade. As such both partnerships (note they are not formal treaties) could provide the economic underpinnings of a new world-wide security web (WWsW) specifically but implicitly designed to constrain and contain dangerous revisionist powers such as China and Russia.
In that light America’s emphasis on Asia-Pacific is less a pivot and more the rebalancing of twenty-first century American grand strategy away from Europe and and a hitherto exclusive post-911 struggle with Islamism. As an aside Tony Blair’s rather strange intervention in London that the world’s great powers put aside their differences and refocus exclusively on Islamism as a threat was special pleading by yesterday’s man about yesterday’s big issue yesterday. Of course Islamism remains a threat but it must take now its place in the Pantheon of grand threats America and its allies must grand strategically consider.
However, what makes President Obama’s Asia-Pacific tour truly grand strategic is the implicit re-positioning of American grand strategy firmly on the Continental United States and the American interest. Asian, Australasian and European allies and partners need to understand that.
Of course, it would be nice to think President Obama understands the Obama Doctrine. Too often he presents American strategy more as theory than practice. This makes the Obama Administration not only appear unsure of strategic grip but particularly vulnerable to Harold MacMillan’s “events”.