Obama’s ‘Strategic Patience’ Strategy Could Backfire Among U.S. Allies.
By Nikolas Gvosdev, Feb. 11, 2015
|U.S. President Barack Obama talks with National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice in the Oval Office.|
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has drawn a good deal of criticism for its concept of “strategic patience,” which serves as the core for the recently released National Security Strategy. It’s understandable why the president’s national security team chose that specific language. It is meant to give more gravitas to an approach more jocularly described as “don’t do stupid [things]”—and is supposed to convey that the current management does not plan to respond impulsively to the challenges of the day. In a 24/7 news culture, when demands for the United States to “do something” erupt within minutes of breaking news and often without regard to longer-term consequences, strategic patience allows for taking a step back to see the larger picture before rushing to expend American resources.
As with other facets of Obama’s approach to foreign policy, the language may have been chosen through a domestic politics filter, to reinforce the image of the “professorial” Obama who is not seeking to embroil the U.S. in new conflicts. Perhaps it is meant to evoke comparisons with the Chinese, famed for their long-term outlooks and willingness to think in terms of decades for strategies to unfold and take root. Unfortunately, whatever the motivation, there is a real danger with the strategic patience formulation, because, depending on how it is interpreted and understood, it could undermine the basis of America’s network of alliances, which have been so critical to creating the present global system.
Strategic patience implies that the best way to respond to a potential foe is to let the adversary expend its energy and resources on its initial action. In so doing, the competitor overextends and overreaches, while the U.S. husbands its resources and reserves. Once the challenger is in a weaker position, the U.S. is in a much better place to dominate the situation and impose a settlement on Washington’s terms.
This approach echoes former U.S. President Herbert Hoover’s 1950 recommendations to view the United States as the “Gibraltar of Western civilization” rather than as the manager of a series of overseas regional security communities. Hoover’s approach called for the U.S. to hold the line against further advances and to allow its enemies to exhaust themselves if they so chose on the battlements of the American defensive perimeter.
Yet, as Gen. Omar Bradley recognized, this would not sit well with the partners America needed to enlist. He observed that the U.S. could not count on friends in other parts of the world “if our strategy dictates that we shall first abandon them to the enemy with a promise of later liberation.” Waiting for the Soviet Union to overextend might have made sound strategic sense from Hoover’s point of view, but to those frontline states that would have to bear the brunt of the Soviet force, it might look far less attractive. Under such conditions, why might they not seek to reach their own accommodation with Moscow?
Thus, it was necessary to forge the alliance relationships in Western Europe and East Asia that were essential for constructing an international order capable of not only containing the Soviet Union but also creating a better global order. This required an ironclad commitment to the security and well-being of the partner states, a process described by Robert Jervis as the “globalization” of American security guarantees.
The 2015 National Security Strategy is certainly not a call to retrench to a Fortress America. It still commits the U.S. to a global leadership role. But there is greater ambiguity now over what happens when allies and partners are not prepared to take up their share of the burden of paying for and sustaining the current international system. More worrisome, the doctrine of strategic patience may lead other states to question the extent to which they can depend on rapid American assistance should they get into trouble.
This has been a perennial source of concern in the U.S.-Japan relationship, even though the Obama administration has repeatedly stated it will honor its commitments to assist and defend Japan, including the islands that are disputed with China. Yet worries remain. Other states in Asia look to hedge on their security relationship with the U.S. with growing economic ties to China.
Similar concerns have been expressed in Europe. One year ago, while being secretly recorded, Poland’s then-Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski pointed out that the U.S. alliance “creates a false sense of security” that could be dangerous for his country as it attempted to navigate through the Ukraine crisis.
Of course, an argument can be made that the best examples of what strategic patience entails are Syria and Ukraine—something not particularly reassuring to other partners. Sanctions and low energy prices may end up damaging Russian President Vladimir Putin, but possibly not soon enough for Ukraine to stave off economic collapse and considerable bloodshed. Al-Qaida, the so-called Islamic State, Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard may all be bleeding each other to death in Syria, but at a horrific cost for Syrian civilians caught in the crossfire. Other countries may not wish to serve as flypaper to attract the world’s problems. None of this is what the administration intended the message of the strategy to be, but other countries may be primed to accept this interpretation.
Obama has a difficult balance to strike. The U.S. will become more selective in where and when it chooses to act, both because of budget cuts at home and the rising power of other states. Yet Washington is also eager to maintain the current system, which has depended on U.S. willingness to shoulder the lion’s share of the burdens. This strategy seems to have been an attempt to signal that other partners need to step up more, but it may have the unintended consequence of casting doubts on Washington's reliability—at a time when clear statements, not purposeful ambiguity, are more critical than ever.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the co-author of “US Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Evolution of an Incidental Superpower” (Georgetown University Press, 2014) and a contributing editor at The National Interest.