By Robert Singh
Obama set himself the task of managing America’s decline while retaining primacy in the international order. Yet his substantive achievements have been modest. Ironically, in pursuing a “post-American” foreign policy calibrated to a changed world, Obama has not presided over the renaissance of US leadership he promised. Rather, his foreign policy has hastened a “post-American” world into being.
In 2006, when Michelle Obama asked her husband why he wanted to be president of the United States, then Senator Barack Obama replied, “The day I take the oath of office, the world will look at us differently.” Six years on, as President Obama seeks a second term in the White House, that assertion looks prescient, but not quite in the way he had imagined. Under Obama’s stewardship, the United States is indeed being looked at anew from Cairo to Beijing – but less as the “indispensable” nation and more as an increasingly irresolute, irrelevant and fading imperial power in a “post-American” world.
Foreign policy is likely to feature strongly in Obama’s re-election campaign. This is ironic, partly because popular American attentions remain resolutely focused on domestic matters, from the tentative status of the economic recovery to debt and deficits and the fate of health care reform at the hands of the Supreme Court. But it is also ironic insofar as Obama is running as the most hawkish Democratic presidential candidate on foreign policy since John F. Kennedy in 1960. To many of his supporters in the Democratic Party base, this was not quite what they had had in mind four years ago when they had eagerly supported “change”, were inspired by “hope” and, “fired up and ready to go.” They had believed Candidate Obama when he claimed that capturing the Democratic nomination represented “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Instead, today, Guantanamo Bay’s detention facility remains open, the administration’s Justice Department holds it legal to conduct extra judicial killings even of Americans deemed to be terrorists, war with Iran remains a real and ominous prospect, and those oceans stubbornly continue to rise.
Nonetheless, on the surface the Obama foreign policy has much to be commended for. The killing of Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011 represented a bold and risky gamble that paid off handsomely. Not only did the al Qaeda leader’s elimination symbolically bring “closure” to the 9/11 era to many Americans, but the decapitation of the senior al Qaeda leadership prompted senior administration officials to proclaim the organization’s “strategic defeat.” The toppling of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011 occurred without a single American fatality. Although rejected, Obama’s offer of an outstretched hand to Tehran helped ultimately to secure new and
far-reaching sanctions that have left Iran internationally isolated. The “reset” with Russia has yielded the new START arms reduction agreement, enhanced access routes to Afghanistan and greater Russian cooperation in the Security Council. The “pivot” to Asia has also helped to reassure nations from Australia to Japan that the US is not about to prematurely cede its regional primacy in the Asia-Pacific to China. And, as Table 1 shows, Obama’s leadership has won reasonable, if not enthusiastic, public backing from Americans. In short, Obama can credibly claim to have passed what Hillary Clinton famously dubbed the “3am” test of White House crisis management.
Moreover, after the global toxicity and anti-Americanism of the George W. Bush years, Obama has gone some way to restoring the US “brand.” Partly, this has been a function simply of his own admirable persona and the historic symbolism of the first black American president. Whether or not Obama has a grand strategy or “doctrine”, and while international relations scholars debate the angels on the head of a pin issue of whether the president is a realist, a liberal internationalist or a pragmatist when it comes to foreign policy, most observers immediately recognise the “un-Bush”: self-consciously cerebral, cosmopolitan, deliberative, and sceptical of rigid dogma or ideology. Although the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 was decidedly premature – akin to “giving someone an Oscar in the hope that he would one day make a good motion picture”, as Christopher Hitchens put it – America’s favorability ratings shot up overnight under Obama in most of the world. As someone who had declared himself a “citizen of the world” in Berlin in June 2008, the expectation of “change” in US foreign policy was widespread outside as well as within the US.
But a closer analysis of Obama’s foreign policy raises questions as to both its purpose and its substantive achievements.
The conventional administration line about its approach to international affairs is simple enough. After the polarizing Bush era, with America militarily overstretched and economically weak after the Great Recession, Washington could no longer politically or financially afford a “forward-leaning” global role. In an era of constrained internationalism, the White House instead pursued a strategy of “engagement” to repair America’s damaged relations, revive international partnerships and restore institutions such as the United Nations and G20 to their appropriate roles in policing the international system. Force would take a back seat to diplomacy. Multilateralism would be stressed over unilateral action. The “freedom agenda” would assume a secondary place behind promoting development and dignity. Mutual interests and mutual respect would be the hallmark of the Obama approach.
But underlying such an approach was a basic yet ineluctable tension. On the one hand, Obama acknowledged from the outset of his administration that the world had altered in profound ways. On the other, he proclaimed that the US could and would still lead this changed world. This abiding conflict – between crafting a foreign policy for a more humble America while asserting its continued primacy – has dogged the administration throughout the president’s tenure in the Oval
Office. Obama has, in essence, accepted the notion of American decline and what Fareed Zakaria called the “rise of the rest.” While this need not see the emergence of an anti-
American order, it would assuredly become a “post-American” one. On this conception, and while he could not publicly admit it, the president’s task was essentially to manage American decline prudently. As captain of a shrinking ship, and with his main focus on “nation-building” at home, Obama’s task was to steer the US into narrower and shallower straits.
Such an approach, though, has proven problematic. Take three illustrative examples.
First, on Iran. Although the US secured new UN sanctions in 2010, and both the US and the EU have tightened their own sanctions regimes, Iran is now closer to a nuclear capability than it was in January 2009. Not only are states such as China and Russia actively assisting Iran to circumvent existing sanctions and opposing new ones, but the closer Iran gets to a “zone of immunity” – in which its uranium enrichment facilities are hardened underground – the more likely Israel is to undertake unilateral action sooner rather than later. Although a new round of diplomatic talks is about to commence, this appears once more a case of giving futility its chance rather than representing a real prospect for convincing an embattled and thuggish regime to negotiate a genuine solution.
Second, on the “Arab Spring”, the Obama administration has proven no more successful than its predecessors at aligning American strategic interests with American values. After much hesitation and internal discussions, Obama eventually came selectively to support democratising forces in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, while maintaining support for authoritarian rulers in places such as Bahrain and Riyadh. Such an approach has neither won popular admiration in the region nor advanced US influence or interests. Instead, with the empowerment of Islamists and the overthrow of autocratic but, mostly, “friendly” regimes, the “tough neighborhood” has become even tougher for Israel, traditional Arab allies of the US, and American influence. Faced with what appears to be a familiar pattern of American double standards, and with Obama’s warm words in Ankara and Cairo of 2009 contrasted with al Jazeera’s coverage of civilian fatalities in Afghanistan, Gaza and Homs, America remains as unpopular among Arabs and many Muslims under Obama as it was under Bush.
Third, while the US has made much of its recent strategic “pivot” to Asia, such an approach has had unintended negative consequences. In Europe, Washington is widely regarded as retreating from the continent at a time when the deepening and expanding of “the West” represents the most reliable guarantor of preserving a liberal international order of open market democracies. This, too, is occurring at a time when Putin’s Russia is flexing its nationalist muscles not only in the “post-Soviet space” but in relation to Europe as well. At the same time, the not-so subtle goal of the Asian “pivot” – to reassure allies about America’s willingness to balance China’s ascent – is itself compounding Beijing’s concerns that it is the new target for a nascent strategy of Cold War-style containment.
The cumulative result is that when one asks of America the geo-political equivalent of the key domestic election question – “are you better off than you were four years ago?” – the answer on foreign policy is not nearly as clear or satisfactory as Obama’s defenders claim. Is US influence greater, and the securing of American vital interests more advanced, today than in January 2009? Yes, the US is out of Iraq. But the consequence is the opportunity cost of a lost strategic partner and the growing likelihood of sectarian strife, a return to a possible civil war, and enhanced Iranian influence. Yes, the US is drawing down to an exit in Afghanistan. But, as leaked NATO reports have confirmed, the likelihood is of a re-Talebanisation of that nation and the possibility that the remaining remnants of al Qaeda, along with groups like the Haqqani network and the Pakistan Taleban, reconstitute their bases and forces. Regardless, the US is no closer to resolving the most serious terror threat, from Pakistan, than it was four years ago. Add on to this the retardation of US influence in the Middle East, the ominous prospect of either war with Iran or the emergence of a poly-nuclear Middle East, the resetting of the Russian “reset” with Putin back in the presidency, and continued tensions over North Korea, China’s militarisation and Europe’s de facto disarmament, and the ledger of American achievements is not impressive.
Against all this, of course, one must set Obama’s likely opponent. Although not exactly edifying, the Republican Party campaign has seen – with the exception of neo-
isolationist Ron Paul – a fairly predictable conservative
critique of Obama’s foreign policies set out. Obama is portrayed as weak, naive and feckless with American power, “apologising” for America’s historic ills and errors, and failing to stand squarely with traditional allies such as the UK and Israel against long-standing foes such as Iran and Syria. Not supporting the Green Movement in Iran in 2009, and failing to articulate the forceful promotion of democratic values and human rights in Russia, China and elsewhere, Obama is condemned for what one of his White House officials infelicitously termed “leading from behind.”
How much purchase such criticisms have is questionable. Even if he was not vociferous in its celebration early on, as his presidency has progressed, Obama has come to embrace at least the rhetoric of American exceptionalism much more forcefully. Earlier this year – allegedly influenced by the recent publications of neo-conservative scholar, Robert Kagan – Obama even went so far as to expressly deny that America is in decline and to reassert the position of the US as the “indispensable nation” that Madeleine Albright had controversially declared back in 1998.
Moreover, the conservative attack on Obama would perhaps have greater force were it not for two factors. First, any fair accounting of the Obama record must note the marked and, to many supporters and opponents alike, surprising continuity of his administration with its ill-loved predecessor. While the administration rejected early on the language of a “war on terror”, its logic was preserved. In fact, one can make a case that the administration has been even more aggressive than that of George W. Bush in using drone strikes to carry out assassinations, infringing Pakistani (not to mention Yemeni and Somali) sovereignty, and in maintaining rendition, detention, military commissions and the pursuit of “state secrets” doctrines. Obama may be uncomfortable with the mantle of a “war president”, but it is difficult credibly to label him as weak when it comes to his willingness to use military force. It is perhaps another irony of the administration that some of its more notable accomplishments have come from advancing the Bush agenda more effectively than did Bush, while some of its more problematic or stalled policies have been Obama innovations (such as the “soft security” agenda of energy independence and combating climate change, as well as the “global nuclear zero” non-proliferation agenda, which has ceased momentum and threatens to crater under the growing nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea and Pakistan).
Second, once we get past the heated campaign rhetoric of an election year, would a Republican foreign policy look markedly different after January 2013 to the current Democratic one? Again, symbolism needs to be distinguished from substance here. Mitt Romney has certainly castigated Obama on international matters from China and trade to non-proliferation. The key areas where one might anticipate a difference, though, are probably Israel and Iran. On the former, a Romney White House would likely prove far more congenial to the Netanyahu administration, whose relations with Obama have been fraught and icy. On the latter, Romney would be more likely to countenance an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and possibly aid one with US forces, than the current incumbent. Beyond these important areas, though, it is difficult to see how a Romney administration – confronting the same budgetary constraints at home and similar geo-political challenges abroad – would make decisive departures in US foreign policy to contain China, weaken Russia, embolden the EU or pacify the Middle East.
One additional important caveat remains, though. Caught unbeknown by the microphones, Obama declared privately to former Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev on March 26 that “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important for him (Putin) to give me space… This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” The quote was a telling one, not simply because it made public what US presidents often say in private to foreign leaders but also because it confirmed Obama’s status as the Rorschach bloc president. What exactly Obama stands for and believes remains in the eye of the beholder to a remarkable degree. Whether he will make further concessions on missile defences to placate Russian anxieties, whether he will abandon efforts to prevent an Iranian nuclear arsenal in favour of containing and deterring a nuclear Iran, whether he will seek to coerce Israel into making peace with the Palestinians – few of us can confidently predict the course of a potential Obama second term.
What can be said with greater certainty is that, in seeking to reconcile American decline with continued US leadership, Obama has had limited success. Hastening a post-American era, in which US power is seriously diminished, downgraded and declining, may not be the foreign policy epitaph that President Obama ultimately seeks for his administration. But it may well be the one that most aptly captures America’s current trajectory under his leadership, where America can no longer
entirely fulfil its traditional global responsibilities but from which it cannot fully extricate itself. To paraphrase the famous quip about the United Kingdom’s downsized imperial status after World War II, by Harry S. Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson: while losing an “empire of liberty”, Barack Obama’s Washington has yet to discover a new world role.
As the influential American scholar, G. John Ikenberry, argues, the contours of the new global order emerging from the legacies of the bipolar Cold War and unipolar post-Cold War eras suggest that “… the United States will not be able to rule. But it can still lead.” In that regard, Obama’s crafting a carefully calibrated US foreign policy for an emerging “post-American” world – a “post-American” foreign policy – has been important but not, as either the president’s supporters hoped or his opponents feared, as yet successful or transformative. But, ironically, although the president has thus far failed either to bring about wholesale change and renewal to US foreign policy or to confirm that the US can lead from the rear as well as the front, Obama has nonetheless hastened that post-American world into being.
As Zakaria argued back in 2008, “the rise of the rest” does not by definition imply that in departing from – for Americans, at least – a congenial era of unipolar US dominance we are entering an anti-American world. Nonetheless, four years later, under Barack Obama’s leadership, it is apparent that even where America’s interests align closely with those of other states – from traditional allies such as Israel, the UK and Japan to the fragile and faltering Faustian pacts with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – American “partnerships” of varying closeness and effectiveness around the globe appear increasingly transactional, acrimonious and conditional. As the former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles (Chas)
Freeman, aptly put it, “After a brief, unipolar moment at the end of the Cold War, regional powers around the world are now essentially stepping forward to assert themselves and, in effect, pushing the United States aside or ignoring us altogether. No American has seen anything like that in our lifetimes.”
About the author
Robert Singh is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. He writes extensively on US foreign policy and American politics. His publications include (ed.) Governing America: The Politics of a Divided Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2003), (co-ed.) The Bush Doctrine and the War on Terrorism (Routledge, 2006) and, with Timothy J. Lynch, After Bush: The Case For Continuity in American Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2008). His new book, Barack Obama’s Post-American Foreign Policy: The Limits of Engagement, is published in May by Bloomsbury.