What to Make of Obama's World

The US president’s unabashed realism leaves behind a mixed legacy.

US President Barack Obama. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

US President Barack Obama. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

US President Barack Obama has ten months left in office, but the contest over his legacy has already begun. In a detailed article in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg has fired an early salvo in what will certainly be a long drawn out intellectual battle over Obama’s foreign policy. This is not simply a partisan or academic debate. Whether Obama leaves behind a world that is fundamentally safer, more stable and better off is a matter of global interest. The answer will not be apparent for some time.

The single biggest contribution made by Goldberg’s article is that it removes the ambiguity, if ever there was any, about Obama’s realist instincts. A note of explanation is perhaps required here. The central divide in Washington foreign policy circles is not between Republicans and Democrats, but between liberals and realists. There is a little confusion about the terminology, but it is helpful to think of all American foreign policy thinkers and practitioners as falling somewhere along a liberal-realist continuum.

Liberal-realist continuum

Those on the liberal side of the spectrum place a good deal of emphasis on liberal democratic values, which they believe to be universal. By and large, liberals also embrace economic globalisation. They are generally less averse than others to the use of military force to advance their security objectives. They also have greater faith in American leadership and Washington’s ability to wield its power to shape the world in positive ways. They believe that the US should be engaged globally and actively, whether commercially, diplomatically or militarily, to ensure long-term global stability and American leadership in the international order. Critics of this approach describe liberals as warmongers and use, particularly with Republicans, the term “neoconservative” to pejoratively describe them. Bill Clinton falls instinctively within this camp, as do the Republicans who dominated the George W. Bush administration. Among those running for presidency, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Marco Rubio have positioned themselves on this end of the spectrum.

Realists, on the other hand, believe that the US’ capabilities are limited and that foreign involvements often come at the cost of nation-building at home. They believe the US’ alliances should be instrumental, rather than based on any shared sense of values. They can be more sceptical of globalisation and trade liberalisation than liberals, and are generally hesitant about attempts at promoting liberal democratic values. They also believe the US should act only when its interests are directly imperilled. Critics often describe their approach, particularly in its extreme form, as isolationist or neo-isolationist. Many Democrats would find themselves on the realist side of the liberal-realist continuum, but so would Republicans such as former President George H.W. Bush and his closest advisor Brent Scowcroft, or even former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Among the US presidential candidates, Democrat Bernie Sanders and, in certain respects, Republican Donald Trump have positioned themselves closer to realists.

During the presidential electoral campaign of 2008, Obama situated himself as the realist in opposition to his rival Clinton’s liberal instincts. Vulnerable to charges of inexperience, particularly on foreign policy, Obama stuck to the claim that he – unlike Clinton – had opposed the Iraq War. But throughout his presidency, he latched onto certain elements of a liberal worldview. Rhetorically, he made attempts early in his tenure to lay out an idealised, international vision, whether in his now-forgotten speech to the Muslim world in Cairo or during the acceptance of his ridiculously premature Nobel Peace Prize. Obama also found inspiration in Reinhold Niebuhr, the mid-century theologian and thinker who bridged realism with idealism. Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, described the president recently as an “ideological liberal with a conservative temperament.” And it is true that in practice, Obama belatedly turned his efforts to trade, initiating two mega-trade agreements, the recently finalised Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which is still under negotiation.

Obama’s foreign policy

But with less than a year to go, Obama has started to become much more candid, defensive even, about his fundamentally realist approach to foreign policy. It has won him few admirers and many critics. Yet Obama will leave his mark on American foreign policy in more ways than one. Each of at least three elements is worthy of some admiration but also deserving of healthy doses of criticism.

The first element of Obama’s foreign policy legacy – the most politically loaded and easily derided, and possibly the one that will most closely be associated with the Obama Doctrine – involves a simple mantra: “Don’t do stupid shit.” This is self-explanatory. Early in his tenure, Obama made it clear that he wanted his legacy to be that of the president who ended wars – Iraq first and, after giving the ‘surge’ a decent shot under Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, Afghanistan too. The US intervention in Libya was minimalist, and in any case was led by France and Britain. Conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Yemen were, in the president’s view, not worth the loss of American lives. The US’ overseas military commitments when Obama steps down in January 2017 will be far less than on the day he took office eight years earlier, something his proponents will herald as a victory of sorts. But it is worth asking whether Obama’s reluctance to involve the US in conflicts as a matter of principle doomed these countries to long drawn out, horrifically violent and perhaps avoidable wars. After all, more than 50% more people have died in Syria since 2011 than in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion – in less than half the time. By another test, is the Middle East better off today than it was in 2008? Not by any stretch of the imagination, the Iraq debacle notwithstanding. The dangers of prudence and retrenchment are that a situation might deteriorate too fast, spiralling out of control, rather than being nipped in the bud by a decisive early intervention. And Obama and his supporters perhaps underestimate the effects of the uncertainty generated by the US’ reluctance to use military force. Not just Tehran and Pyongyang, but Beijing, Moscow, New Delhi and Tokyo all noticed that the US declared – and then did not enforce – a red line in Syria. This will no doubt hasten the onset of a multipolar world.

The US president might take more solace in a second major foreign policy legacy, and that is his partial resetting of the US’ longstanding matrix of allies and adversaries. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are, in Goldberg’s telling, the allies that Obama holds in greatest contempt, although Israel is not immune to criticism. At the same time, Obama has overseen diplomatic openings to Myanmar, Cuba and Iran, all arguably long overdue. These developments have created more diplomatic space for the US in East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East respectively. If there is criticism in this respect it is that Obama has not gone far enough in overturning some of Washington’s predispositions. To be sure, he has faced severe opposition in Congress on Cuba and Iran, while Myanmar opened up both economically and politically largely of its own volition. But Obama’s cutting his India visit short to attend the funeral of Saudi King Abdullah and his administration’s decision to continue supplying Pakistan with F-16s indicate the level to which the US remains in thrall of its dysfunctional alliances, despite Obama’s apparent objections.

Obama’s third major legacy could in fact be the most uncharacteristic and least realist: the so-called ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to Asia. It remains a work in progress, but Obama is very much guilty of adopting this approach belatedly and pursuing it inconsistently. At the outset of his presidency in 2009 and 2010, Obama tried working with Beijing to reach a condominium – a so-called “G2” – in order to resolve certain issues of bilateral and global significance, such as economic and trade relations, climate change and the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. Beijing, exhibiting newfound arrogance in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, rebuffed his overtures. By the end of his first term, in 2011, liberals within the Obama administration were ascendant and Clinton, his secretary of state, unveiled the pivot to Asia, a conscious attempt at rebalancing American military, diplomatic, and commercial attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific to better manage China’s rise. But with the departure of Clinton and certain other key advisers, the momentum behind the rebalance was lost. This was in part a casualty of new Secretary of State John Kerry’s obsession with the Middle East and the realist disposition of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. It is only in the second half of Obama’s second term that the rebalance has been pursued with more purpose. The conclusion of the TPP negotiations has been of great significance, as have the improvements in US relations with Japan, Vietnam, Australia, the Philippines and India, and the US Navy’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. The doubts about the US commitment to Asia that marked most of Obama’s tenure have largely been put to rest.

The legacy

How will Obama go down in history? Probably not as badly as many of his critics allege. The US economy has made a steady recovery since the downturn in 2008-2010, and Obama has achieved major domestic and foreign policy victories by securing Obamacare, reaching a climate deal and killing Osama bin Laden. He leaves an Asia policy on mostly sound footing, he has advanced two of the most ambitious trade agreements in history and he has overseen historic diplomatic openings with several longstanding adversaries.

But his legacy will nonetheless be tarnished by a broader approach of restraint or retrenchment in international affairs, one that has led to a significant loss of credibility for the US the world over, and one that has contributed to the utter mess that is the Middle East. Even his biggest champions will have difficulty defending that. Only time will tell, but it is quite probable that Obama’s greatest successes have been achieved despite his realist impulses, not because of them.

Dhruva Jaishankar is a fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington DC.