Obama Doctrine?

Obama Doctrine?

By Richard Halloran - November 29, 2009

In the summer of 1969, President Richard Nixon ended a journey to Asia on the island of Guam to proclaim what later would be called the Nixon or Guam Doctrine. It decreed that henceforth Asian nations would be responsible for their own frontline defense while the US would assist if requested.

In contrast, President Obama has reversed course in meetings in Asia with the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and nine other Southeast Asian nations, and with the leader of India in Washington this week. The president is scheduled to see Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia in the White House on Monday. With all, the president has reaffirmed America's security commitments. In addition, he had a frosty visit with leaders of a potential adversary, China, in Beijing.

After the Nixon Doctrine had been decreed, the US withdrew in defeat from Vietnam, let the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization wither, and forsook Taiwan to recognize China. Okinawa was reverted to Japan with restrictions on US forces, New Zealand was booted from a treaty with the US and Australia in a dispute over nuclear arms, and US bases in the Philippines were abandoned after a volcanic eruption.

Moreover, the stationing of American troops in East Asia slipped from 106,000 in 1975 to 73,500 this year. Within that, US forces in South Korea dropped from 40,200 to 28,500 over the last 15 years while those in Japan went down from 48,300 to 34,500; another 8,000 are scheduled to leave within five years.

Now President Obama has forged an ambitious strategy intended to reverse a perceived decline in US power in Asia.

In Alaska on the way to Japan, he said the US would retain the ability to project military power into Asia. In a press conference with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of Japan, the president said: "I intend to make clear that the United States is a Pacific nation." He pledged to maintain a nuclear umbrella, called extended deterrence, over Asian allies even as he seeks to abolish nuclear weapons.

During this first venture into Asia, President Obama gave a theme-setting address in Tokyo, saying "our commitment to Japan's security and to Asia's security is unshakeable." In an unusual move, the text of that keynote speech was translated into Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Indonesian and is carried on the White House web site.

Similarly, the president assured President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea of the "unwavering commitment" of the US to South Korea's security. South Koreans have become increasingly anxious that the US is planning to reduce American forces there beyond the current 28,500.

In Singapore, the president told President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia and his colleagues in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): "I reaffirmed to my ASEAN friends that the United States is committed to strengthening its engagement in Southeast Asia."

India, which for many years professed non-alignment, has become more receptive to US overtures in what President Obama called a "new strategic dialogue." He told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this week: "The relationship between the United States and India will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st Century."

China, whose economic progress, political antagonism, and military modernization have made it a possible adversary, was wary of President Obama. President Hu Jintao insisted that the US accommodate China's nationalistic and territorial aspirations. President Obama cautioned that "our relationship going forward will not be without disagreement or difficulty."

Assembling a partnership of Japanese, South Korean, Southeast Asian, Indian, Australian, and like-minded nations will be a tall order, especially with the Obama administration bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict.  If, however, the president goes beyond the promising rhetoric of this month, it could be a signal accomplishment.

Dare we call it the "Obama Doctrine?"

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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