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Policy Analysis 07 July, 2014

The Obama Administration’s Foreign Policy: Balancing Isolationist Tendencies and Pressures for External Intervention

Osama Abu Irshaid

Osama Abu Irshaid is a Jordanian academic, lecturer and writer of Palestinian descent who resides in Washington, DC . He gained his PhD at the UK’s Loughborough University, after having completed an MA at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.
Dr Abu Irshaid is the founder and Editor in Chief of the US-based, Arabic language Al Meezan newspaper. He is the author of several different papers in both Arabic and English, including (together with Paul Scham) “Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility” published by the United States Institute of Peace. Dr Abu Irshaid also frequently appears as a commentator on a number of Arab satellite television stations.


On May 28, 2014, US President Barack Obama delivered a speech at the West Point military academy in New York. In the speech, he attempted to redefine America’s foreign policy after more than a decade of wars, all of which have taken their toll on the US, and laid out a comprehensive foreign policy vision for the remaining two and a half years of his second term in office.

The speech came amidst mounting criticism of US foreign policy under Obama’s second administration. Domestic critics accuse the administration of pursuing a policy of withdrawal and isolationism and weakening the US’s position on the world stage, thereby causing it to lose its leadership status.[1] At the same time, US allies have expressed growing anxiety over this foreign policy; their confidence in the United States has been shaken, and their reliance on its leadership has waned. From Syria to Ukraine, and from Nigeria to the South China Sea, Obama’s administration is seemingly exhausted, unable to take decisive positions to reassure its nervous allies. Additionally, Obama’s speech was delivered one day after his announcement of the plan to withdraw most US forces from Afghanistan at the end of this year, leaving in place a token force of 9,800 soldiers, who are to primarily play an advisory role in training Afghan troops and assist in the direction of operations to defeat al-Qaeda.[2] Any US military presence post-2014 will depend on the Afghan government’s signing a bilateral security agreement with the US. According to these plans, American troops will leave Afghanistan for good at the end of 2016, which marks the termination of Obama’s presidency. This in itself has prompted sharp criticism from Obama’s opponents, who accuse him of picking dates on an arbitrary basis for political rather than strategic considerations. This fosters an impression of weakness, and is one of the negative aspects of America’s decline in power under his leadership.[3]

Obama’s Dilemma

In essence, Obama’s West Point speech was an attempt to defend his administration’s foreign policy and its reduced reliance on military action compared to his predecessor George Bush (2001-2009). Obama also sought to strike a balance between those calling for isolationism, non-intervention internationally, and a focus on domestic affairs, and those gung-ho for intervention in international affairs and the use of America’s unparalleled military might. Obama attempted to adopt a middle ground that would secure America’s global leadership without entanglement. Whether he has succeeded in achieving this remains to be seen.

Obama’s dilemma is that American public opinion, drained after more than 13 years of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq and its government’s war on terror, is opposed to any new military venture. Obama shares this view, and partly owes his presidential victory to the popular tide against these wars. Recent opinion polls, however, display that only 36 percent of the populace support Obama’s foreign policy, compared with 49 percent who are against it.[4] An additional contradiction in that part of Obama’s stated rationale for reducing the reliance on unilateral American military force in foreign policy was that it had a negative impact on the US’s image in world public opinion.[5] In the months after his election, at the end of 2008, the American people initially shared this view and supported Obama’s logic of working through frameworks of international alliances. In 2009, 60 percent of Americans considered that the United States’ standing in the world improved after Obama’s election, but today this proportion has fallen to 32 percent, compared with 43 percent who see that America’s image around the world has worsened under Obama.[6] As a result, the American president is scrambling to explain his foreign policy. His problem now is not just with those opposed to and critical of his administration, but also with an American public that purportedly elected him as an anti-war candidate.

The defining features of US foreign policy as set out by Obama are not new, but they are framed within a comprehensive philosophical agenda and presented as a single package to the American public. In effect, the principles and formulae of that speech form the “Obama doctrine” which has been articulated in other speeches either in piecemeal fashion, or without philosophical packaging, witnessed most recently at the UN General Assembly in September 2013.

Obama: US Global Leadership is a Constant

In his West Point speech Obama stressed that the United States is the only power capable of displaying global leadership, but that this does not necessitate the unbridled use of military power, which is only justified in situations involving core US interests.[7]

Obama declared, “America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world [and] those who argue otherwise—who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away—are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”[8] In his view although US military might is unrivalled globally, this does not mean it should be used without a clear vision and with the burden falling upon the US alone. Military power is not the only determinant of international strength and leadership. Rather, other tools and elements define and consolidate the understanding of American leadership today. The odds of a direct threat against the US by any nation are minimal and do not by any means approximate the hazards faced during the Cold War. In addition, the global scene has changed since Obama assumed the presidency: US forces withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011, al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden was eliminated in mid-2011.

With the changes in today’s international environment, however, threats have also changed. Globalization and technology hold latent threats by placing power, once reserved for states, in the hands of individuals, thereby increasing the capacity of terrorists to do harm. The rise of Russia and China, and their provocative policies against their neighbors, poses challenges of another type to the US, its allies, and the entire international order. Additionally, emergent middle classes in a number of developing countries are exerting pressure on the American middle classes to seek a greater say regarding international issues. Simultaneously, advances in news and social media help cast light on global hotspots whose impact on international security and development are impossible to ignore.

Obama argues that with the changes to the sources and nature of global challenges and threats, and if America wishes to maintain its leadership position on the international level, it is essential to modify the sources of American power. This means not becoming embroiled in new wars with dubious, indeterminate features that would only lead to further erosion of American power, as happened with the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Hence, US military power is merely one of its sources of power. Obama’s view is that the United States should invest further in rebuilding its economy, which “remains the most dynamic on Earth,” and whose businesses remain the most innovative. Accordingly, the US is significantly increasing its energy independence. Today, America claims to be the hub of international alliances, and continues to attract immigrants seeking better opportunities. “The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come.” Obama sums up the whole question here as being “not whether America will lead, but how we will lead—not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also extend peace and prosperity around the globe.”[9]

Starting with this redesigned international environment, in addition to America’s weariness after more than a decade of wars, according to this vision, America is no longer willing to employ its military might without an urgent need for it. This would occur solely within the framework of direct US interests and required elements to forge closer alliances with its allies, isolate its enemies, and support free markets and democratic values. America wants international partnerships that accept its leadership, and are prepared to share the human and economic costs that involve a network of alliances in Europe, Asia, and Africa. This network would work with international organizations, such as the UN, the IMF, and the World Bank, “isolating adversaries and strengthening the global order that has proved so beneficial to the United States and the world since 1945”.[10] In this way, diplomacy, international coalition building, and economic sanctions have become the means to express American leadership under Obama’s administration. To date, the Obama administration has restricted military force to the use of drones in its war against what Washington calls terrorism, as in Yemen and Pakistan.[11]


To read the full text of this report, please click on the e-reader image below.

This paper was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Team. You can read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on June 11, 2014, here.

[1] Julie Pace and Jim Kuhnhenn, “Obama seeks ground between intervention, isolation,” the Big Story, the Associated Press, May 28, 2014, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/obama-seeks-recast-postwar-foreign-policy.

[2]“Obama announces plan to keep 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan after 2014,” FoxNews.com, May 27, 2014,

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/05/27/obama-plans-to-keep-800-us-troops-in-afghanistan-after-2014-official-says/.; Steve Holland, “Obama plans to end US troop presence in Afghanistan by 2016,” Reuters, May 27, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/27/us-usa-afghanistan-obama-idUSKBN0E71WQ20140527.

[3] Fox News, “Obama announces plan…”.

[4] Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Anthony Salvanto and Fred Backus, “Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of Ukraine crisis,” CBS News, March 25, 2014, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/americans-disapprove-of-obamas-handling-of-ukraine-crisis/.

[5] The White House, “Remarks by the President at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony,” Office of the Press Secretary, May 28, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/05/28/remarks-president-united-states-military-academy-commencement-ceremony.

[6]Dutton et. al., “Americans disapprove of Obama’s...”.

[7] The White House, “Remarks by the President at the United States Military…,” May 28, 2014.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Fareed Zakaria, “Obama’s leadership is right for today,” The Washington Post, May 30, 2014,


[11]Peter Bergen and Megan Braun, “Drone is Obama's weapon of choice,” CNN.com, September 19, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/05/opinion/bergen-obama-drone/.