Obama and the “Under-Reach/Over-Reach” Dilemma in American Grand Strategy

By Michael Clarke - 25 April 2017
Obama and the “Under-Reach/Over-Reach” Dilemma in American Grand Strategy

Michael Clarke examines Obama's foreign policy legacy and Trump's grand strategy dilemma.

Over the course of the tenure of President Barack Obama in the White House American primacy in the international system came under threat from multiple fronts. Obama, as critics would have it, proved to be unable to stem the tide on a range of issues from a rising China to an assertive Russia to fracturing Middle East.

Yet such criticisms ignore the effect of the “under-reach/over-reach” dilemma in American grand strategy. “Grand strategy”, as Hal Brands has recently argued, “requires calibrating the use of power—acting assertively enough to achieve important goals, but not so hyperactively as to risk blowback and exhaustion”.[1]

The record of the Obama years suggests that the administration’s tendency was to err on the “under-reach” side of this equation, driven by President Obama’s apparent belief that it was excessive activism rather than restraint that would imperil American primacy. This dilemma is not only important in the context of assessing the legacy of the Obama administration itself but also in the context of the Trump administrations attempts to recalibrate American grand strategy.

Primacy, as Robert Jervis reminds us, not only means being much more powerful in material terms than any other states but also being able to “establish, or at least strongly influence, ‘the rules of the game’ by which international politics is played, the intellectual framework employed…and the standards by which behavior is judged to be legitimate”.[2]

It is this understanding of the role of American power in international affairs that has been shared by all post-Cold War administrations. “Every president since George H.W. Bush”, as Peter Feaver and Hal Brands argue, has not only been committed “to maintaining American global primacy, and to deepening and expanding the liberal international order’ but also ‘to proactively meeting any emerging or resurgent threat that might disrupt this favourable world order in the near term, while also hedging against deeper challenges that could threaten that order over the longer term”.[3]

However, toward the end of the administration of President George W. Bush the durability of American primacy was undermined by the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) and the so-called “rise of the rest”, such as China and India, which some argued signaled the “end of the American era”.[4]

For some, these dynamics invoked the dynamic of “imperial overstretch” – i.e. the disjuncture between the hegemon’s unavoidable tendency to ever-increasing political and military commitments and its economic capability to meet them. Indeed, Paul Kennedy had argued that the United States’ ability to maintain its pre-eminent position would hinge on whether it could “preserve a reasonable balance” between its “perceived defense requirements and the means it possesses to maintain those commitments” and “the technological and economic bases of its power from relative erosion in the face of the ever-shifting patterns of global production”.[5]

Yet “imperial overstretch”, as Denis Florig argues, “implies an unavoidable, inevitable, mechanical process”, whereas modification to “hegemonic overreach” injects the choices of statesman and policy-makers into the equation: “Overstretch connotes a defective product; overreach invokes bad choices”.[6]

This distinction is especially relevant to an assessment of the foreign policy of the United States under Obama’s leadership as it is apparent that grand strategy was framed by what could be described as a “decline management” approach – defined by caution, restraint and a consciousness of the limits of American power - which sought to “use the significant resources still at its disposal to smooth the edges of its loss of relative power, preserving influence to the maximum extent possible through whatever legacy of norms and institutions is bequeathed by its primacy”.[7]

This was evident in the administration’s responses to three core foreign policy challenges: the Libyan intervention, Syrian war, and the rise of China.

The American role in the use of force in Libya in 2011 was of course described by both supporters and critics of the administration as “leading from behind”.  Yet the various analyses of the administration’s decision-making on Libya have tended to downplay Obama’s over-arching desire to avoid the “over-reach” of the Bush years.[8]

However as Obama himself explained to Jeffery Goldberg, “over-reach” was very much at the forefront of his decision-making on Libya: “because this [i.e. Libya] is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight…to ensure that we could execute a strategy without putting boots on the ground and without a long-term military commitment”.

This rationale amounted to a “surrogate warfare” approach in the Middle East that emphasized “the need for collective action through coalition warfare and for capacity-building of local partners and allies” and prioritized “covert warfare, relying increasingly on technological platforms, special forces operations and CIA operatives to achieve strategic and operational objectives out of the public eye”.[9] Succinctly encapsulating his desire to avoid “over-reach”, President Obama has remarked of Libya that “where our direct interests are not at stake…multilateralism regulates hubris”.

From its beginning in 2011, President Obama also resisted domestic and international pressures for American military intervention. In fact the administration applied the principles behind the “leading from behind” and “surrogate warfare” approaches and employed a “train and equip” program through the provision of “nonlethal and lethal” assistance to select Syrian opposition groups in Syria.

Despite trenchant criticism, President Obama has asserted that this decision to seek to constrain American intervention in Syria was in fact, “a proud moment” where he was “able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interests” and to determine that it was not in the American interest to commit American “boots on the ground.

Obama’s “decline management” approach has also been evident in the administration’s response to a rising China, where it emphasized diplomatic and economic means over military coercion and deterrence. The administration’s much-heralded “pivot to Asia” was “later reframed in less stark terms as a rebalancing of US global commitments” in which the “diplomatic and economic elements…outshone the military aspects that were initially anticipated in the region”.

The core components of the “pivot”  - closer coordination with the five U.S. treaty allies in Asia (Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines); deepening cooperation with emerging powers such as India, Indonesia, and Vietnam; forming a “constructive relationship” with China; increasing engagement with multilateral institutions such as ASEAN and East Asian Summit (EAS); and cementing new free trade and investment initiatives, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement  - amounted to a case of “selective primacy” whereby the US would attempt to maintain strategic dominance in Asia at the expense of its strategic engagement in the Middle East.[10]

Taken as a whole, Obama’s strategy of “decline management” can be seen as direct response to the strategic “over-reach” of the Bush administration. Through a moderated use of force and an awareness for the limitations of American power, Obama attempted to minimize conflict and American military commitments abroad in order to ensure the longevity American pre-eminence.

However this approach, as Paul Kennedy warned decades ago, highlights “the usual dilemma” of all hegemonic states of choosing “between buying military security, at a time of real or perceived danger, which then became a burden upon the national economy” or keeping such security commitments low “but finding one’s interests…threatened by the actions of other states”.[11]

Nicholas Kitchen has argued that the Obama administration’s response to this dilemma was to pursue a grand strategy of “divested hegemony” where “allies and partners were increasingly called upon to contribute to the provision of global public goods”.[12] For Kitchen, a strategy of “divested hegemony” has been engendered as a consequence of “the spread of insecurity across borders and the disintegration of the division between state and non-state actors” that has ostensibly meant that “neither the American public nor US policy-makers continue to value the privileges of unilateralism in the ways they once did”.[13]

The central problem with such “under-reach” is that it can be as dangerous as “over-reach” by weakening “an international system that has long rested on assertive U.S. leadership”, undermining American credibility amongst allies and emboldening adversaries.[14]

However swinging the pendulum back toward a more activist defense of American primacy may not be easily accomplished.

As we witnessed during the 2016 election cycle, a significant proportion of Americans have openly questioned the desirability and sustainability of Washington’s leadership role in international affairs – throwing into question what Richard K. Betts termed the “political support system” for American primacy.[15] This “restraint constituency” – that was mobilized, albeit in very different ways, by both Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders - is “primed against primacy”.

President Trump has certainly tapped into this by openly questioning long-standing American stances on key foreign and national security issues such as alliance relationships, nuclear non-proliferation and global free trade. After some seven decades of American global leadership, the United States has elected an administration that has questioned a number of fundamental pillars of American primacy including a belief in the benefits of an open global economic system and the web of long-standing alliances and bilateral security agreements with long-standing allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

This all raises the question as to whether the new Trump administration can, or is indeed willing, to attempt not only the defence of American primacy abroad but also to reconstruct a “political support system” for it at home.

This, in time, may perhaps be viewed as the most troubling legacy of Obama’s grand strategy.



Dr Michael Clarke is Associate Professor at the National Security College, Australian National University.

Photo credit: MrWyattFord via Foter.com / CC BY-NC





[1] Hal Brands, “Barack Obama and the Dilemmas of American Grand Strategy”, The Washington Quarterly, 39 (4) (2016), 118.

[2] Robert Jervis, “International Primacy: Is the Game Worth the Candle?”, International Security 17 (4) (1993), 53.

[3] Hal Brands and Peter Feaver, “Stress-Testing American Grand Strategy”, Survival 58 (6) (2016), 101.

[4] Stephen M. Walt, “The End of the American Era”, The National Interest, (Nov/Dec 2011), 6-16.

[5] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000, (NY: Random House, 1987), 514-515.

[6] Denis Florig, “Hegemonic Overreach vs. Imperial Overstretch”, Review of International Studies, 36 (4) (2010), 1105.

[7] Adam Quinn, “The Art of Declining Politely: Obama’s Prudent Presidency and the Waning of American Power”, International Affairs 87 (4) (2011), 822.

[8] See for example, Mikael Blomdahl, “Bureaucratic Roles and Positions: Explaining the United States Libya Decision”, Diplomacy and Statecraft 27 (1) (2016), 142-161; and Chris Edelson, and Donna G. Starr-Deelen, “Libya, Syria, ISIS, and the Case against the Energetic Executive’, Presidential Studies Quarterly 45 (3) (2015), 581-601.

[9] Andreas Krieg, "Externalizing the burden of war: the Obama Doctrine and US foreign policy in the Middle East." International Affairs 92 (1) (2016), 104-105.

[10] David S. McDonough, “Obama's Pacific Pivot in US Grand Strategy: A Canadian Perspective”, Asian Security, 9 (3) (2013), 165-184.

[11] Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, 539.

[12] Nicholas Kitchen, “Ending 'permanent war': Security and economy under Obama”, in Michelle Bentley and Jack Holland (eds), The Obama Doctrine: The Legacy of Continuity in US Foreign Policy, (London: Routledge, 2017), 9.

[13] Ibid, 20.

[14] Brands, “Barack Obama and the Dilemmas of American Grand Strategy”, 118.

[15] Richard K. Betts, “The Political Support System for American Primacy”, International Affairs 81 (1) (2005), 1-14.

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