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What is Obama’s “grand” foreign policy strategy?

Question submitted by Zahra Fatima, from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, April 16, 2013

Answered by: Richard K. Betts, Adjunct Senior Fellow for National Security Studies


"Grand strategy" is defined as a coherent plan to use diplomatic, military, and economic instruments in certain ways to achieve national, overarching objectives. Grand strategies are usually identified by simple labels such as "containment," "détente," or "engagement and enlargement." In reality, international politics is complicated, and a democratic political system at home imposes constraints from public opinion, mobilized interest groups, and Congress. The result in practice, therefore, is usually an eclectic and inconsistent foreign policy strategy. Indeed, the Obama administration does not really have a grand strategy in the usual sense of the term, and that is not a bad thing.

President Obama's foreign policy balances between contending views, some more liberal than the preceding Republican Bush administration, and some more conservative than the liberal wing of his own Democratic Party. Obama set out to maintain American leadership in the world, but also to terminate the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which the United States had become entangled. Obama endorses multilateralism in security policy, but pursues unilateral initiatives where collaboration is impractical or undesirable, as in some counterterrorism activities such as drone strikes.

One initiative that sounds like a specific change in grand strategy is the "pivot" or "rebalancing" of strategy toward East Asia. This reflects the decline in security problems in Europe since the Cold War, and the concern over the emergence of Chinese power, although neither reason has been officially acknowledged. In concrete terms, however, there is no change at all in commitments and no significant change in military deployments attached to this rhetorical shift.