As the Trump presidency nears, it has suddenly become fashionable to downplay the achievements of Barack Obama, not least because the President-elect seems so keen on ripping up much of what he did. One view in particular has become popular: that Obama pursued a weak foreign policy, which is to blame for many of the problems facing the world today.
Donald Trump, for example, has regularly credited the outgoing administration with “creating Isis”, while US inaction in Syria and Ukraine has seen Obama accused of emboldening Russia.
Such a view is not only short-sighted, but totally misses the core strategy that Obama has been following.
When George W Bush became president, the US was at peace with the world and enjoying its first budget surplus since 1969. When Obama entered the White House, he inherited two unpopular wars and an economy teetering on the brink of collapse.
Remember, this was a time when even Wall Street and the Financial Times feared that capitalism, as we know it, was about to end, while bankers and financiers suddenly started quoting Karl Marx.
Bush’s presidency also saw the return of “declinist anxiety” in America, with even the National Intelligence Council predicting a future where the US was no longer the dominant power in the world. It wasn’t necessarily the fall of the West, but “the rise of the Rest”. In 2008, Russian President Dimitri Medvedev observed that “the times when one economy and one country dominated are gone for good.”
This was a key challenge Obama faced when he entered the White House. And it is in this context that his foreign policy should be understood.
From the outset, Obama argued that America had overextended itself in the “War on Terror”, at the expense of economic security. Recognising the shifts in global power, he stated he was seeking to “rebalance” and “move beyond today’s wars”.
This included the “Asian pivot” – a recognition of the rising powers in the Asia-Pacific and a need to position America accordingly. He also reaffirmed a commitment to stop nuclear proliferation, and proposed a foreign policy based not just on military power, but on diplomacy – specifically diplomacy aimed at making other nations share the burden (something not too distant from Trump’s rhetoric around NATO).
Addressing an audience at West Point in 2014, Obama stated: “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” Such comments led many Americans to view their president as a weakling on the world stage.
But was he? When Trump blames Obama for the rise of Isis, he is referring, in part, to the decision to withdraw troops from Iraq. American troops did leave Iraq, and Isis did move in. However, it’s often forgotten that Obama tried to persuade the Iraqi government to allow 10,000 troops to remain in the country. They refused.
To suggest that America has done little to confront Isis since then is to overlook the airpower deployed by Obama in the region. By July 2016, the US had carried out 11,000 air strikes against Isis, more than 9,000 of which were against targets in Iraq.
In Syria, Obama’s failure to attack the regime when Assad crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons was again seen as weakness. Did this decision send a negative message about America’s power in the world? The President put it simply: “Dropping bombs on someone to prove you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.”
In reality, he may not have been able to use force regardless. As the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, recently conceded, there was little he could do after David Cameron’s failure to get British MPs to support action, effectively undermining Obama’s attempt to get Congress on board at a time of public unease about sending troops overseas.
Instead, Obama chose diplomacy. It seemed logical to get Putin to persuade Assad to give up his chemical weapons, which he did. What happened next in Syria lies squarely at the feet of those two men.
What both Iraq and Syria clearly show is Obama’s aversion to committing troops – and therefore immense expense – to wars in a region shifting from America’s focus.
Where his Middle East priorities were clearly expressed was in Iran. The Iran nuclear deal, designed to slow down the speed of nuclear proliferation in the region, has been heralded as a triumph. It may have rough edges, but these, it could be argued, are prices worth paying to prevent a further, potentially catastrophic element in Middle Eastern politics.
Another criticism levelled at Obama regards his approach to Russia. The reality is that Crimea was sacrificed in much the same way his predecessor, George W Bush, did with South Ossetia. The lack of appetite in Europe for a tussle with Putin weakened Obama’s options, but the deployment of additional troops and military hardware that followed made it clear that the US had every intention of upholding its NATO commitments.
Indeed, under Obama, America has remained by far the world’s dominant military power. In 2014, the USA accounted for 34 per cent of the world’s defence spending. China accounted for 12 per cent, Russia 4.8 per cent. Yet this inaction over Crimea again highlights America’s shifting priorities, as it chooses to focus its energies on Asia rather than Europe.
US Marines are now stationed in Australia, US Navy nuclear warships are now allowed in New Zealand’s harbours, and economic ties have been strengthened with the Trans-Pacific partnership. India has also been courted as a counterbalance to the rising China. If Obama has done less in the Middle East, he has done more in the Asia-Pacific, in line with his global strategy.
Furthermore, by focusing less on foreign interventions and more on domestic issues, Obama has sought to address the issues behind the “declinist anxieties” he inherited. He has argued that retrenchment is not a cause of decline, but the precise opposite – it enables the strengthening of America “at home” and its economy in turn.
Critics of Obama don’t see it this way, and argue this all adds up to a policy of retreat, of deliberately downsizing the role of the US, emboldening its enemies, and allowing American interests and values to be challenged.
But there is a rose-tinted risk of misunderstanding America’s legacy here. Obama may have steered away from aggressive foreign intervention, but it should not be seen as a major disaster for American prestige.
The US has failed repeatedly since World War Two to realise its overseas ambitions. It failed to stop China falling to communists in 1949, it did not prevent the USSR from becoming a nuclear power, was thwarted in Korea, humiliated in Vietnam and failed in Lebanon in 1984.
Obama leaves a US still leagues ahead in military power, the dollar the preferred currency of the world, and a nation well-positioned to respond to an Asia-centric future. His foreign policy represents a response to the threat of decline, and one which has prevented it.
As the President himself put it: “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline... doesn’t know what he is talking about.”
Dr Andrew Moran is an Associate Professor of International Relations at London Metropolitan University, and the co-author of the new book, ‘The Obama Presidency and the Politics of Change’
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