An Obama Doctrine Emerges in Moscow

ABC News called President Barack Obama's trip to Russia a "breakthrough" and the new agreement to cut nuclear arms "extraordinary." Henry Kissinger compared Obama to a chess master playing simultaneous games. But just as significant as the nuclear accords and the reset of US-Russian relations may be the worldview that Obama elaborated in his Moscow speeches. He deftly buried the deeply flawed strategic doctrine that launched an unnecessary war with Iraq and posited military force as the chief tool of US statecraft.

There is sometimes a sense that old ways of thinking must prevail; a conception of power that is rooted in the past rather than in the future... In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries... As I said in Cairo, given our interdependence, any world order that tries to elevate one nation or one group of people over an other will inevitably fail. The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game - progress must be shared.

Obama applied this thinking to America's "interest in reversing the spread of nuclear weapons and preventing their use." Rather than narrowing the threat to one or two states, he described "the core of the nuclear challenge in the 21st century":

The notion that prestige comes from holding these weapons, or that we can protect ourselves by picking and choosing which nations can have these weapons, is an illusion. In the short period since the end of the Cold War, we've already seen India, Pakistan, and North Korea conduct nuclear tests. Without a fundamental change, do any of us truly believe that the next two decades will not bring about the further spread of these nuclear weapons?"

But "picking and choosing" is exactly what we did under the doctrine elaborated by his predecessor, President George W. Bush. In his infamous "axis of evil" formulation, Bush declared the greatest threat to the United States to lays in the "nexus" of outlaw regimes, terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. The solution was to overthrow these regimes.

Iraq was the first implementation of this doctrine, but it was never intended to be the last. The war's architects expected regime change in Iraq to lead to regime change in Iran, Syria, North Korea and other states. It would trigger "a democratic tsunami," claimed American Enterprise Institute scholar Joshua Muravchik. The results were a disaster, with Iran and North Korea accelerating their nuclear programs, making more progress in the past six years than they had in the previous twelve.

Obama eulogized and then put to rest the Bush Doctrine:

Now let me be clear: America cannot and should not seek to impose any system of government on any other country, nor would we presume to choose which party or individual should run a country. And we haven't always done what we should have on that front."

Obama shifts away from the neoconservative notion that the problem is not nuclear weapons but a few bad states that have nuclear weapons. Obama's threat trio is not countries that may someday have weapons, but the countries that have actually exploded them since the end of the cold war, irrespective of their political orientation: India, Pakistan, and North Korea. This group includes allies, friends and foes. That is his point. It is the same point made by past presidents including Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan. Obama returns to this basic understanding that it the weapons themselves, not certain regimes, that must be eliminated. In order to prevent a nightmare world of "10 or 20 or 50 nuclear-armed nations" that may not "protect their arsenals and refrain from using them," he says, "America is committed to stopping nuclear proliferation, and ultimately seeking a world without nuclear weapons." He underlined his core message: "This is not about singling out individual nations -- it's about the responsibilities of all nations."

In Prague, in Cairo, and now in Moscow, we are witnessing the emergence of an Obama Doctrine. A world view guided by universal compliance with democratic norms and the rule of law; policies driven by the convergence of shared interests and responsibilities; and a statecraft that does not shirk from the application of military force when necessary but promotes America's interests with respect for other nations and the strength of joint enterprise.