MANILA, Philippines -- At a news conference Monday afternoon in the Philippines, President Barack Obama initially scoffed when a reporter asked him to explain the "Obama doctrine" in light of his handling of recent world events. But then he seemed to embrace the idea.
Surveying hot spots from Syria to Ukraine, Mr. Obama laid out an incremental, dogged approach to foreign relations that relies on the United States deploying every possible economic and institutional lever before resorting to armed force.
"That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn't make for good argument on Sunday morning shows," said Mr. Obama, who is nearing the end of a weeklong, four-nation tour of Asia. "But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world."
The passion in Mr. Obama's delivery -- he admitted he had gotten "all worked up" -- underlined the quandary the White House now faces. With an array of unpalatable options around the globe, he and his aides are convinced that a cautious approach is helping the nation avoid dangerous overseas entanglements while producing modest successes. But they are also increasingly frustrated with critics on Capitol Hill and in the media who have questioned why the president has been so reluctant to intervene abroad.
"Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force," Mr. Obama said. "And the question I think I would have is, why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we've just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?" He added later: "We don't [take action] because somebody sitting in an office in Washington or New York thinks it would somehow look strong."
But Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Obama's "track record, as a foreign policy president, has been an exceedingly poor one, despite the spin put on it by the president in Asia." Mr. Gardiner said, "This is not a president who has projected strong U.S. leadership on the world stage or powerful engagement with key American allies," adding that "foreign policy often seems to be an afterthought" for Mr. Obama.
The past week highlighted some downsides to the administration's strategy, as the Middle East peace process ran aground and Russian President Vladimir Putin showed no interest in bringing a peaceful end to the standoff in Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and the government in Kiev.
But it also showed some of the possibilities, administration aides said. The Malaysian government signed on to the Proliferation Security Initiative, a global effort aimed at curbing the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, which it had resisted embracing for more than a decade. The Philippine government agreed to a 10-year deal giving U.S. naval and air forces the most access to its waters since 1992. And Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said he was confident the United States could help establish a rules-based order that would keep China or any other powerful nation from violating the territorial claims of other countries.
"We want to make this a peaceful region which values laws, and in doing this, strengthening of our bilateral alliance is extremely important," Mr. Abe said. "On this point, I fully trust President Obama."
All four Asian leaders who met with Mr. Obama over the past week made clear they not only appreciated his visit, but also saw their economic and security fortunes as tied to the United States. At a time when China's expansionist efforts have alarmed some of its neighbors, the president's emphasis on the importance of the rule of law and international arbitration pleased not just long-standing allies such as the Philippines, but also newer ones such as Malaysia. "We are closer now than ever before," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said.
Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution's John L. Thornton China Center, wrote in an email that the defense agreement with the Philippines signed Monday embodies Mr. Obama's approach: aiming for greater U.S. flexibility in the region without provoking China. "It is very much in the spirit of the administration's foreign policy as a whole, signaling commitment without overt intervention," he wrote. "The operative test in Asia is whether (unlike in Syria and in Ukraine) it inhibits rather emboldens others."
In the case of Ukraine, administration officials said they are convinced that they can pressure Russia more effectively if any sanctions are coordinated with Europe and the other members of the G-7 -- even if that means delaying sanctions on sectors of Russia's economy.
On other foreign policy questions -- such as the war in Syria and the push to contain Iran's and North Korea's nuclear capabilities -- the president said he continues to believe his administration's cautious efforts to keep these situations in check are America's only logical option. He said early in his trip that 87 percent of the Syrian government's chemical weapons cache has been turned over to international authorities.
Still, it's unclear whether Mr. Obama's approach will be enough to reassure South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who warned Friday during a joint news conference in Seoul that the prospect of North Korea's enhanced nuclear capability "is not going to be a problem only for the northeast Asia region. This is going to be a serious threat to global peace."
For his part, Mr. Obama offered little comfort, saying that when it comes to North Korea, "we are not going to find a magic bullet that solves this problem overnight. What we're going to have to do is to continue with a consistent, steady approach."