The Void that Is Obama's Foreign Policy
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
The Void that Is Obama's Foreign Policy
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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INSIDE the Washington beltway is abuzz with scuttlebutt about US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel's resignation this week.

The secretary felt locked out of White House decision-making; he had clashed with National Security Adviser Susan Rice over Syria policy; he was increasingly critical of the reductions to defence spending in the face of mounting national security challenges.

Whatever the proximate ­causes of Hagel's departure, there are signs that something deeper is amiss in American foreign and defence policy under Barack Obama.

Hagel is the third of Obama's defence secretaries to resign - of the 24 US defence secretaries to have served, his is the 12th shortest tenure. His predecessors Leon Pan­etta and Robert Gates had the 11th and 14th shortest tenures, ­respectively.

The evidence is mounting that none of Obama's defence sec­retaries have been able to work with the President's particular ­approach to the exercise of foreign policy initiative and the deployment of US power.

Obama's use of initiative and power within the American government is strikingly parallel to the US approach to initiative and power abroad during his presidency. At home, Obama's presidency has been marked by the obsessive centralisation of control within the White House, a lack of initiative and perception of drift while rival groups fight it out, then last-minute lunges of executive authority.

In foreign policy, sudden uses of force such as the killing of Osama bin Laden and the bombing of Libya, along with tough rhetoric, have covered a deeper passivity as regional crises have ­escalated.

The phrase that seems to have come to define the Obama foreign policy is "leading from behind". This was how the President described his approach to NATO alliance management; and although he has distanced himself from it after critics threw it back at him with glee, it still captures something fundamental about Obama's approach to governing and foreign policy. It is an alignment between personal style and foreign policy doctrine.

Some American commentators have described Obama as more like a king than a President: aloof, controlling, paranoid; waiting for the most opportune moment to use his authority among a coterie of squabbling nobles. And this is how he sees American power is best used.

Some of America's foremost international relations scholars have been calling for the US to adopt an "offshore balancing" strategy for more than a decade - and in Obama, they have found a President who listens and believes.

Offshore balancing is a doctrine that counsels that American military power should be carefully positioned but kept in reserve, only to be used when events in any particular part of the world seem to be moving against US interests.

It is an approach that argues that Washington should look to its allies in each of the world's regions to take the lead in maintaining order and stability, and back them when they need American power.

Almost three-quarters of the way through Obama's tenure there are clear signs that while offshore balancing may be an elegant formula, it leads to major problems on the ground.

Foremost, the policy of waiting for the most opportune time to weigh in with US power sends a signal that the US has stepped back from leadership.

In the world's three key strategic arenas - Asia, Europe and the Middle East - this has allowed dangerous challenges to stability and order to evolve to levels where potentially they can no longer be checked.

America's allies in each of these regions are too used to clear US leadership, within an articulated global vision, to suddenly act as mature strategic players in their own right. In each region, US allies have resorted to a combination of pursuing their own narrow interests and trying to manipulate Washington to intervene in a way that suits them.

The casualty is what has lain at the core of US leadership for 70 years: an articulated vision of global order and stability within which the order and stability of each different region fits.

What we have now is a series of different regional crises: 1930s-style revanchism in Europe; Cold War-like confrontations in Asia; and a 21st-century sectarian insurgency in the Middle East.

The loss of a global perspective means that the challengers to stability and order - primarily China, Russia and Iran - can play off one regional crisis against the others. Thus China can't be pressured in Asia because it's needed to deal with Iran; Russia acts boldly in Ukraine because it's needed in Syria; Iran stalls on scrapping its centrifuges because it's key to fighting Islamic State.

No wonder Hagel and his predecessors struggled to forge a coherent defence policy to fit an increasingly incoherent foreign policy. He will likely leave the Pentagon both relieved and alarmed.