Barack Obama’s foreign policy changed the world permanently, from who has a voice at the UN to who has access to nuclear materials. His eight years in office featured epochal developments over which he had little or no control: the EU’s internal crisis, the Arab Spring, China’s economic slowdown. Yet two things shifted much less over the last eight years—Obama’s core strategy, and Americans’ ability to enunciate in a sentence or two what the strategy is.
We’ve had eight years of listening to Obama foreign policy critiques that, from every ideological quarter, agreed on one thing: The President apparently “just doesn’t understand”—whether it was red lines, allies, opponents, or the persistence of the DC establishment “blob.” Even when it wasn’t coded racism—remember the Romney associate who said claimed that Obama “didn’t fully appreciate the shared history” of the United States and the United Kingdom’s “Anglo-Saxon heritage”?—this view of Obama and his team as at sea in a harsh world is starkly countered by the image Obama and his strongest supporters have sought to instill: that the President is, rather, a chessmaster whose “long game” is often too sophisticated for his critics to grasp.
It’s past time to acknowledge that Obama did have a firm aim in foreign affairs, and to judge him on it. Obama sought to retract and refocus U.S. military power—and build stronger international cooperation to fill in. His Administration’s willingness to empower international coalitions that combined state and non-state actors in unprecedented ways—most notably how climate NGOs drove the process leading to the Paris Accords, but also the unprecedented role set aside for civic and corporate actors in the UN Sustainable Development Goals—is likely to transform both our planet and how power is wielded on it.
Obama saw the need to shift not just the habits of U.S. foreign policymakers, but also the underlying structures of the global order, from NATO to world trade patterns to how UN bodies function.
The 2008-vintage U.S. weakness that many in the Democratic and Republican establishments saw as a result of overreach or of specific Bush-era mistakes, Obama saw as a deeper problem: U.S. policy too often sought to speed the movement of the arc of history—particularly through military force—and too arrogant about its own ability to perceive which direction was, in fact, bending toward justice.
Redressing this imbalance demanded three moves, each of which might have daunted a President with less self-confidence, or more foreknowledge of the rough political climate he would encounter: reducing the proportion of U.S. foreign engagement that came through our military; creating global capacity that was multilateral while still promoting core U.S. interests (think eight years of pressure to increase European defense contributions to NATO); and building the American people’s comfort with a more diffuse global leadership strategy (think “leading from behind”).
George Washington University’s Marc Lynch frames the first move explicitly: “Obama came to office with a conviction that reducing the United States’ massive military and political investment in the Middle East was a vital national security interest in its own right.” Obama drew down the two massive U.S. deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and resisted pressure to open new long-term engagements of ground forces in Syria and Libya. Yet Obama’s response to threats he did believe rose to the level of core national interests reinforced and even intensified the military face Washington presented to the world (as funding for U.S. diplomacy and development aid stagnated). He presided over exponential growth in the use of targeted killing, drones, and special forces around the world and made a late decision to invest in a massive and expensive upgrade of U.S. nuclear forces. Although the Administration still claims the Iraq and Afghanistan drawdowns as major achievements, troop numbers continue to mount in both places as Obama leaves office.
Although Obama did not get as far away from a “military first” policy as he had hoped, his diplomacy will have lasting impacts on how the international system works and where and how the U.S. engages in the future, yes, even with Trump in office.
His focus on transnational threats and opportunities reshaped the international system in ways that have been underappreciated by his realist fans (since they tend not to have much use for international institutions) as well as by his interventionist critics. His focus on climate change, although it materialized more slowly than climate advocates hoped, expended U.S. prestige abroad and political capital at home to move climate talks forward, eventually resulting in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Obama and his appointees quietly improved the functioning of a number of multilateral bodies, along the way achieving a bump in NATO countries’ defense expenditures, groundbreaking UN recognition for LGBT rights, improved quantity and quality of UN peacekeepers and a next generation of benchmarks for social and economic growth, the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Administration acquiesced, or actively supported, civil society and business groups as they elbowed their way into international negotiating formerly reserved for states alone. The developments the Obama Administration helped bring about in terms of climate policy, development, and Internet governance will change the global order forever—though its secrecy on trade deals and drone strikes remains a stark contrast. The President’s agenda to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons produced the nuclear summit process that led to the elimination of more than 150 bombs’ worth of nuclear material from 30 countries, as well as to the critical multinational agreement to stop and turn back Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama’s “re-balance” toward Asia produced reinvigorated ties with allies and new partners in the region. At least some of that vigor and goodwill will survive even without the Trans-Pacific Partnership, intended as the anchor of an economics-, rather than military-focused, strategy. In our own hemisphere, the opening to Cuba removed a long-time obstacle to effective U.S. diplomacy, though it came too late for his own Administration to make much of the opportunity.
In Europe and the Middle East, Obama believed he was opening space for local leadership that failed to materialize. Elites in traditional allied nations, from Poland and Germany to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, saw the same choices as reflecting an Administration insufficiently engaged. When Obama’s first gambits failed, they said, as in Egypt or Syria or Russia, he lacked a backup plan. In Africa, Obama’s tenure was marked by much good will if few tangible accomplishments: little-remarked successes at halting mass atrocities in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire, balanced by utter despair as government rivalries have spiraled back toward mass violence in South Sudan, a country his advisers had been essential in midwifing.
Looking back now, eight years of a new approach was hardly enough to undo 60 years of expectations of how the United States would behave, not to mention 60 years of politics and planning in other societies that depended on Washington behaving as it always had. Obama and his strongest supporters will say that they weren’t so naïve. Obama has pointed out to Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg that he fully expects to be alive in 25 years when longer-range judgments can be made—and that he anticipates they will be favorable.
This assumes, however, that the President’s successors would continue his approach. This same assumption seems to have informed decisions to make key policies by executive action rather than to invest the political capital needed to put them into laws and treaties—from the rules governing targeted killing to the Paris Climate Accords to the slowness in dismantling the Bush-era system of registering visitors to the United States by religion.
And this assumption rested on another one: that Obama, such a talented communicator, could sell his approach to both American and global publics. However, here too, results were mixed. Pew Global Research found that global publics did generally feel more positive toward the United States in 2016 than they had at the nadir of the Iraq War, but less positive than in the first years of Obama’s presidency. At home, public skepticism toward military intervention stayed more closely in line with Obama’s views than those of more interventionist elites and, while U.S. society is divided sharply along partisan lines, majorities continued to see globalization as positive, alliances as important, and trade as a net plus.
Yet Obama had difficulty hanging onto those majorities who, in theory, should have been supportive of his policies—much less in support of his party on national security and foreign affairs. The American people’s views of Obama’s foreign policy trended down during his first term, and up again slowly in the past year. But, on the aggregate, they’ve been more negative than positive since mid-2013, according to trend lines developed by HuffPost Pollster. (By comparison, Obama’s polling trend lines have been net negative on health care since 2009, while positive on the economy since mid-2016, and net positive on overall job performance.)
Importantly, the Democratic Party and its elected officials in Congress never capitalized on early enthusiasm for Obama’s international record, never got much rhetorical cover from Obama on foreign policy, and drifted back down to a significant disadvantage against the GOP in public perceptions of security policy. The White House’s choice to limit the rhetoric it expended in support of international goals had multiple consequences: It made legislators less willing to go along with the White House, and it made every vote more politically costly. This pattern was set early when a plan to move some Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. evaporated when national security staff asked political staff for more public support, and were told by then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel:
We are trying to bring in two 747s [the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq] at the same we are trying to reform our national health care system, and right in the middle you want to send up a flock of Canadian geese, which is Guantánamo, which could take down one of our 747s.
But perhaps most of all it deprived Obama of surrogates, at home and overseas, who could have made his case on international policy, and could still be making it now.
This mixed record suggests two main conclusions. First, that Obama well understood the mood of the American people. But, second, that he and his team did not come prepared to put in the capital and buy the political space to change 60 years of global diplomatic habit. His emphasis on negotiation and targeted force over large-scale occupation and old habits of alliance now appear a precursor to our new Dealmaker-in-Chief. Continuing to run many programs through the Defense Department rather than move them back to civilian agencies, and limiting the transparency and oversight accorded to many security initiatives, seemed efficient and effective, but may haunt the nation for decades ahead.
Simply put, the fact that few of Obama’s supporters could provide even a two-sentence summary of his policy vision could mean that the longest legacy of his tenure might not be felt in the United States at all, but instead in the battle over who controls the spaces he helped open to new actors in the international arena—from the freedom other countries feel to use remotely-piloted vehicles for killing, as we have done, to the expectations NGOs and businesses have that they can set and move the agenda on climate, development, and Internet governance. His biggest failure? After his departure, The American people may find ourselves disadvantaged in those spaces.