By: Adam Evans
Upon assuming office as President of the United States (U.S.) on 20 January 2009, Barack Obama inherited two undesirable bequeathments: at home, a tanking economy gripped by a recession; and abroad, a set of unpopular, bloody and seemingly unending military entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The degree of success of Obama’s handling of domestic economic troubles is a subject for debate. However, on most indicators, it would appear reasonable to state that his administration is leaving the country no worse off than when he entered the White House – whether through good fortune or nuanced policies (probably a mixture of both). The same assertion cannot be made regarding U.S. foreign policy. Through eight years of indecision, appeasement and miscalculation, Obama leaves his own endowment of weakening U.S. influence amidst greater global instability to his successor.
If Obama’s foreign policy were to be summed up in one sentence, we need look no further than his inauguration speech in 2009:
‘To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench a fist’.
On one hand, Obama’s remarks appeared to be optimistic, positive, and beneficent – emphasising that good behaviour will be rewarded, and signifying a marked change from years of perceived U.S. aggression and hawkishness. On the other hand, only wistful criticism is levelled at the corrupt and the dissenting for being on the wrong side of “history”, but it is unclear what the penalty of such a course will be – plenty of carrots, but no obvious stick.
That Obama chose such a path is not surprising. By 2009, U.S. citizens and the western world were war weary and drained in terms of blood and treasure. The disaster of George W. Bush’s Middle Eastern exploits had ensured that not only was change necessary but that it would be difficult. As detailed during Jeff Goldberg’s interview with Obama in 2016, a reluctance to be drawn into additional conflicts when Afghanistan and Iraq were still causing headaches clearly weighed heavily on Obama’s thinking.
The Syrian paradigm
However, the retreat of the U.S. from the global stage under Obama has engendered instability and resulted in the weakening of U.S. influence and credibility. The extent of this U.S. malaise is perfectly encapsulated in the current Syria/Iraq catastrophe.
Firstly, a failure to provide decisive military and political support to key U.S. allies has undoubtedly failed to check the expansion of ISIS and other terror groups. Although the U.S. cannot bear sole responsibility for the complexities around the emergence of ISIS, a timid and faltering response has exacerbated the situation, thereby harming U.S. and global interests.
Secondly, a failure to decisively intervene in the Syrian conflict, even when Obama’s self-imposed threshold regarding the use of chemical weapons was breached, has only emboldened a genocidal tyrant in Bashar Al-Assad and others in his ilk.
Thirdly, a failure at a diplomatic level has isolated a crucial geopolitical ally and fellow NATO member Turkey (particularly in the immediate aftermath of the failed coup d’etat of July 2016).
Finally, but perhaps most worrying of all, a resurgent, militaristic Russia has emerged, confident that its contempt for international law and alleged human rights abuse will go unpunished by a U.S. leader who has exhibited only weakness and appeasement in the face of increasing aggression. In the 2012 Presidential election campaign, Obama had derided – with characteristic wit – Mitt Romney’s prescient caution that Russia represented the greatest threat to U.S. interests, quipping that ‘the 1980s were calling to ask for their foreign policy back’. Yet, it is Obama who is laughing no more.
Outside of Syria and Iraq, the U.S.’ diminishing influence as a guarantor of stability is also evident. China’s assertive actions in the South China sea, the severance of the U.S.-Philippine strategic alliance by Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, and the increasing belligerent actions of North Korea all pose malignant threats to the international order.
Reasons for optimism (and nervousness)
To state that U.S. foreign policy has been an unmitigated disaster under Obama would be an exaggeration. Relations with Cuba appear to have been positively reset. The deal with Iran has, at least temporarily, suspended their nuclear ambitions. Osama Bin Laden, the ultimate boogeyman in the U.S. War on Terror has been removed. And, most significantly, the U.S. has not suffered another major terror attack since 9/11. Perhaps Obama played the best of a bad hand, scoring successes in the areas in which he felt he could.
However, opposing this view is the fact that the U.S. in 2016 remains, by a considerable margin, the pre-eminent military force in the world. The annual American defence budget in 2015/16 was nearly US$ 600 billion – greater than the defence budgets of the next seven largest countries combined). In addition to overwhelming military superiority, it has extremely sophisticated channels of soft power. The opportunity for the U.S. to positively and actively shape international relations remains alive and well, contrary to the exaggerated narratives of U.S. decline. Under Obama, however, the conviction to use that power was often lacking, and it is this temerity that led to an increase in global insecurity. Obama’s self-proclaimed foreign policy tenet was ‘Don’t do stupid shit’. Unfortunately, in the interconnected world of the 21st Century, this is not ambitious enough for the pre-eminent power.
So, while the U.S. retains the capacity to influence global events, it is impossible not to feel trepidation at the possible consequences of a Donald Trump presidency. Elected on a platform of isolationism and protectionism, it is difficult to foresee a positive and active U.S. foreign policy emerging in the next four years. Furthermore, whilst Obama could be criticised for excessive cautiousness, the consequences of sheer recklessness would likely be far worse.
Adam Evans is a postgraduate student in Conflict, Security, and Development at Kings College London, and a consultant with professional services firm KPMG. Adam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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