The Obama Doctrine: A Rational Foreign Policy

The Obama administration has pursued a foreign policy strategy of engaging states on the outskirts of the international community and working to negotiate agreements that would end these states’ diplomatic isolation. For example, on May 6, the U.S. lifted a ban that has lasted over fifty years, and has issued ferry permits for travel between the United States and Cuba. The most ambitious component of the engagement strategy is the potential for a negotiated agreement by the end of June, which aims to constrain Iran’s nuclear program and put an end to Iranian isolation.

In pursuing this policy of engagement, the administration has received heavy criticism from political detractors levying charges that the government is neglecting to sufficiently protect U.S. interests. Those who defend the Obama strategy, on the other hand, characterize the outreach to peripheral players such as Iran, Cuba and Myanmar as “courageous” measures. In early April, the administration responded to the attacks by clearly outlining its perspective on the Iran negotiations in a New York Times interview with Thomas Friedman. In the interview, President Obama not only defends the Iran negotiations, but also outlines his administration’s foreign policy approach, or the “Obama Doctrine.”

The interview, by clarifying the administration’s “Obama Doctrine”, helps shed light on a number of truths. First, that contrary to the claims of some pundits, the administration is pursuing a rational foreign policy strategy aimed at bolstering U.S. interests both at home and abroad. Second, that the point of contention lies in a difference of core beliefs about the state of the international system. In this article, I argue that the underpinnings of the Obama Doctrine rests on three core assumptions: 1) the poor bilateral relationships also offer the possibility of at least one other better equilibrium outcome 2) The United States is strong enough to withstand small defections by other sovereign actors 3) poor bilateral relationships pose a serious threat to U.S. interests.

  • The possibility for a better equilibrium. The Obama policy approach, similar to the Wilsonian approach, is steeped in an idealism that states are better off when they cooperate. The barrier to cooperation, this administration believes, is not any fundamentally immutable antipathy towards other states, but instead a deeply-rooted mistrust. In other words, countries like Iran and Cuba do not fundamentally hate the United States, and there exist alternative outcomes besides international isolation that would serve both Iran-Cuba AND United States interests. Because these less hostile relationships would be mutual beneficial, both sides would prefer to be in this other “world” of sustained cooperation.

We see this belief in a possibility for a mutually beneficial improvement in relations in Obama’s description of the current Iranian regime. “[What w]e’ve also seen is that there is a practical streak to the Iranian regime. I think they are concerned about self-preservation. I think they are responsive, to some degree, to their publics. I think the election of [President Hassan] Rouhani indicated that there was an appetite among the Iranian people for a rejoining with the international community, an emphasis on the economics and the desire to link up with a global economy.”

This belief in the pragmatism of the Iranian regime stands in stark contrast to the opinions of some of the administration’s sharpest critics. For example, Senator Tom Cotton (initiator of the Open Letter to the Leaders of Iran) argues that attempted rapprochement with Iran is a wasted effort because “they’re run by an apocalyptic cult of ayatollahs.” Clearly, this disparity in beliefs leads to very different policy recommendations. However, in order to understand the administration’s foreign policy outlook, it is imperative to appreciate that they believe that the governing body in Iran (and in the other isolated countries) are potentially amenable to improving mutually beneficial bilateral relationships for the long-term.

  • The ability to withstand defection. However, even for those that believe that the Rouhani or Castro administrations might be willing to maintain better diplomatic relations, they still must contend with decades of hostility. As such, both sides face the significant barrier of mistrust, both personally and politically. Extending the olive branch and pledging cooperation also exposes weaknesses that might be exploited by a ruthless opponent. By pursuing good-faith measures to amend the relationship, the countries are putting themselves at risk of the other state acting in bad faith and taking advantage of any vulnerabilities resulting from the diplomatic outreach. For example, while the U.S. negotiates with Iran over its nuclear program, Iran may be taking the time to relocate its nuclear activities or even reach a short enough breakout period that they could credibly leverage the threat of a nuclear bomb. (Or Iran could agree to an agreement, only to violate the terms and place itself far closer to obtaining fissile nuclear material.) On the other hand, the Iranian leadership would suffer a terrible humiliation and lose their nuclear bargaining chip if they dismantled their nuclear proliferation program and the U.S. did not remove the economic sanctions regime.

Thus, while both states might be much happier in a stable state of cooperation, in order to reach that point, they must first overcome the barriers of mistrust plaguing the bilateral relationship. This step, to reach out despite the risk of bad faith, is what supporters call “courageous” and detractors call foolhardy.

When the president lays out his Obama doctrine, he very clearly outlines his belief that the U.S. can withstand defection from these rogue states:

“You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us…It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies. The same is true with respect to Iran, a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us. … You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.”

As such, the administration’s policy is specifically targeted to overcome the barriers of mistrust in order to establish a better equilibrium. This translates into a policy promoting genuine goodwill measures. The administration is able to pursue such a policy because it does not believe that taking a “leap of trust” poses a serious threat to U.S. interests. In short, with the potential for better relationships on the table, the Obama Doctrine prescribes a first move mentality that rests in the assuredness of unassailable U.S. military superiority.

This assessment diverges from the viewpoint of some critics, who see the potential for the U.S. to weather defection, particularly in terms of a potential nuclear breakout, as much more constrained. Other critiques target the fact that while the U.S. has the unmatched superiority to withstand the risks of foul play, the same does not hold true for American allies. Admittedly, in the case of Iran, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia has the same capabilities as the United States. If Iran does defect from the agreements with the United States, both Israel and Saudi Arabia will be highly dependent upon U.S. assurances of support. Recognizing the differences in risk tolerance, Obama uses the Friedman interview to make a clear, public commitment to Israel’s welfare: “I would consider it a failure on my part, a fundamental failure of my presidency, if on my watch or as a consequence of work that I’ve done, Israel was rendered more vulnerable.” However, in a fickle world of Realpolitik, it comes as no surprise that Israel is discomfited by the idea that their security balances on the edge of a U.S. security guarantee.

As such, critics who say that the U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran leaves regional allies more vulnerable are not entirely wrong. From the U.S. perspective, it is a calculated risk, with a possible payoff that justifies any blowback from their allies. Moreover, with a security promise that the U.S. (presumably) intends to uphold, the only real casualty is the peace of mind of some strategic allies. While such security assurances can be labeled as “useless” by dubious stakeholders, the reality is that a U.S. foreign policy that prioritizes the pursuit of national interests over those of strategic partners is simply a reflection of realist world outlook. For the Obama administration, the Iran outreach program does not threaten core national interests and, given the potential payoff to U.S. strategic interests, the threat to regional allies is an acceptable risk. While this leaves room for some to argue that jeopardizing American allies in the Middle East is not a good strategy, there is little doubt that from the administration’s perspective, the prioritization of national interests is an entirely rational strategy.

  • Poor bilateral relations pose a major threat to U.S. interests. The third assumption undergirding the Obama doctrine is that the status quo is unacceptable. Hostile relationships with states like Iran and Cuba foster an environment where the U.S. has to constantly guard against the threat of attacks against national assets. As Obama relates during the Friedman interview, “But if in fact we can resolve these issues diplomatically, we are more likely to be safe, more likely to be secure, in a better position to protect our allies[.]” In other words, if the administration can successfully reach a mutually beneficial sustained agreement with current rogue states, the United States will be significantly safer as a result. Therefore, looking towards the long term, the U.S. is better off to risk a move towards an alliance than to continue under the ever-present shadow of enemy threat.

In sum: the danger of the status quo, combined with the possibility of a sustained improvement in national security and a low risk of failure makes the Obama administration’s outreach to isolated actors a rational foreign policy strategy.

Formalizing the Argument

To formalize this approach, the Obama administration views these poor relations between rogue states and the rest of the international community as an example of a stag hunt game theory scenario. The analogy sets two hunters, who both have the choice of pursuing either a stag or a rabbit. Both prefer to catch the stag, but it takes both of them to pursue it, while either can catch a rabbit by themselves. If both pursue the stag, they are happy with their decision—this is the best outcome. If both pursue the rabbit, they are also both satisfied with their outcome, for neither wants to venture into the scenario where they pursue the stag alone and are left with nothing.

Currently, isolated states fall into the bottom-right category. Both sides are safer when not trusting the other side—to get duped by the other side would leave them worst off. However, if they could successfully move into a state of cooperation, both sides would be better off.

Traditional Stag Hunt:

    Hunter 2
    Stag Rabbit
Hunter 1 Stag 5,5 0,3
Rabbit 3,0 3,3


Furthermore, there is another wrinkle that changes the expected outcomes of each relative position. The U.S. leadership sees the ongoing poor relationship as a serious threat to national security, and therefore believes it is imperative to move to a state of greater cooperation. It is also sufficiently confident in its position of strength, so that a betrayal of cooperation (i.e. defection) is a cost that the U.S. could easily absorb. As such, according to the administration’s perspective, the expected cost of continuing a state of hostile non-cooperation is actually higher than the expected cost of taking a calculated risk at improving relations with both countries.

Obama Administration’s Strategic Calculus—Long Term Payoffs


Behind The Numbers

A Good Faith Agreement: Improve, Improve (IRAN5,US5): A scenario where both Iran and the United States decide to improve relations would produce a result that would not only offer a better result than the status quo, but actually produces the optimal outcome. For Iran, the agreement gives the Iranians a crucial respite from the economic stranglehold imposed by the international sanctions regime.  The tradeoff, however, is that Iran loses face by negotiating with its enemy, and agreeing to dismantle its nuclear energy program will be extremely costly, as the program has become a mark of pride for the Persian country. In an non-iterative (one-off) game, the costliness of dismantling  the nuclear energy program would have pointed to a defection model (Iran maintains bad faith, and the U.S. agrees to improve relations) as the ideal outcome. After all, this would provide short term economic relief, and Iran would be able to cheat and reach the nuclear threshold.

However, the administration believes–and this is a fundamental point–that Iran has calculated that the long term costs of this defection strategy outweigh the benefits of a long term agreement. Namely, that a good faith agreement saves face and helps salvage national price by transforming Iran from a rogue pariah state into the international mainstream as a significant world player. Moreover, a good faith relationship will result in long term economic integration, as opposed to an immediate opening followed by severe and protracted economic pressure. Critics believe that a nuclear capability would allow Iran to weather the sanctions backlash and that Iran would be able to force its way into the international community as an entity that is too dangerous to be ignored.

Iran Cheats in Bad Faith: Poor, Improve (IRAN4,US-4): Iran undoubtedly benefits from any U.S. attempt to improve relations. Not only does the Islamic Republic receive validation as a legitimate target of rapprochement, it also provides a much-need release of frozen assets and economic relief. As discussed above, a bad-faith agreement also allows Iran the potential to cheat on agreements and gain the wherewithal to reach nuclear capability. Traditionally, nuclear-capable states receive an aura of invincibility—once crossing the nuclear threshold, Iran will not have to worry about a military confrontation with the West. The attraction of deterrent-insured safety is not insignificant, and is a primary reason why many do not believe that there is a possibility for a better equilibrium. In other words, they believe that Iran cannot be convinced to forgo nuclear capability, so no matter what the U.S. does to attempt and improve relations, Iran will defect.

This is an assumption made by the administration in creating the rationalist matrix: for the reasons discussed above, the Obama administration believes that when taking the long term strategy into perspective, there is a chance that Iran would prefer to improve relations than defect from an agreement.

From a U.S. perspective, Iran cheating is bad. It may allow the Iranians to reach nuclear capability, a prospect that the U.S. is trying to prevent. However, the American assumption is that without any action on their behalf, Iran will still reach nuclear capacity, so this is not a major change from the status quo. Again, while a nuclear capable Iran is an unsavory prospect, the U.S. administration does not believe that a nuclear Iran seriously compromises U.S. military superiority. While the cost of an Iranian defection may be an expedited timeframe to reaching the bomb, the U.S. gains a critical leverage point deciding to “Improve” relations: credibility. U.S. activity abroad during the past few administrations has given the Americans a reputation for neo-imperialistic aggression. By attempting to negotiate with Iran, the United States covers its bases by assuring the international community that they earnestly pursued all possible options before turning to the international use of force. Not only would such a gambit forestall international condemnation, but it could even help catalyze the formation of an international coalition; particularly important as international norms of intervention continue to shift towards an emphasis on coalition operations.

US Cheats in Bad Faith: Improve, Poor (IRAN-7,US3): This catastrophic scenario for Iran is (luckily for Iran) the least likely outcome. From Iran’s perspective, they would have agreed to dismantle their nuclear weapons program in good faith and would not receive the economic relief that they desperately need. The finally, the reputational fallout would be disastrous, as Iran would give up a core symbol of national pride only to be duped by their chief enemy.

However, the option wouldn’t look much better for the United States. For an administration extremely attuned to a need for international cooperation, a failure to honor their agreement would destroy U.S. credibility abroad. While the U.S. could try to argue that the Iranians need to go further for relief, such as cease all funding to terrorist organizations, any bad faith agreement would so seriously compromise U.S. credibility within the confines of world leadership. As such, an intentional U.S. defection is nearly unimaginable.

Both Maintain Poor Relations: Poor, Poor (IRAN-3,US-5): This fourth option is a maintenance of the status quo. For the United States, this is the worst possible option, as it results in Iran becoming a nuclear capable enemy with no change in its aggressive posture. As the economic sanctions continue to squeeze Iran economically, Iran is hurting politically as well, and needs to end sanctions as a means of maintaining popular support. While the status quo could lead to a painful path to nuclear safety, the U.S. believes that Iran is open to possible alternatives.

Looking at the decision matrix as whole, there is one key way in which this not an example of a stag hunt. Based on U.S. priorities, the U.S. will want to improve relations regardless of Iran’s decision to defect or improve relations. If Iran is going to defect and maintain poor relations, then the U.S. wants to try improve relations and negotiate an agreement in order to have the moral high ground when gathering a retaliatory coalition. If Iran is going to improve relations, then the U.S. also wants to improve relations, as the elimination of bilateral hostilities is a key strategic objective for the administration’s engagement with Iran. As such, no matter what happens, the U.S. will be pushing hard for improved relations with Iran.


As such, from the administration’s perspective, mutual defection (poor relations, poor relations) is no longer an equilibrium outcome, and the optimal move for the United States is to cooperate and attempt to IMPROVE the relationship into the upper left-hand quadrant. The U.S. believes that Iran’s behavior depends on their belief of the United States’ intentions. If the U.S. intends to improve relations, then Iran is better off improving relations (5>4). If, however, the United States is operating in bad faith, then Iran’s optimal move is to maintain poor relations as well (-5>-7). Therefore, in order for the U.S. to move the ball, the U.S. must convince Iran that they are truly working to cooperate in good faith and improve bilateral relations.

Note: It is important to note that this discussion paints in broad strokes. In particular, the above analysis conflates “Improving Relations” with a good faith agreement that requires Iran to forgo its nuclear weapons capabilities and for the United States to lift sanctions. Of course, in practice the available options are far more numerous and nuanced, but the high level discussion serves to highlight some of the key strategic considerations.

About Brian Mund

UPenn '13; YLS '18. My research focuses on sovereignty, the United Nations and the legitimacy of secession.
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