You could probably sum up U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy doctrine in two words: act cautiously. But that was undoubtedly a function of two other key factors—namely, a (mis) adventurous George W. Bush Administration and the Great Recession of 2008-2009.
More importantly, Obama was
much less convinced about the efficacy and effectiveness of exerting brute
military force. And he certainly had qualms about “American exceptionalism” and
imposing America’s model of democracy on other autocratic countries.
Instead, he was more
inclined to opt for greater international responsibility and burden-sharing
among U.S. allies. That led to the unhelpful characterization, emanating from
the White House itself, of Obama ostensibly “leading from behind.”
As a result, outgoing
President Obama will leave behind a mixed record in terms of international
affairs. Even though he tried, he did not always succeed in following his own
foreign policy motto: “Don’t do stupid stuff.”
The 2011 military
intervention in Libya, aggressively pushed by then-U.S. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton, was a case of not planning properly and thoughtfully for life
after Moammar Gadhafi. He forgot that protecting the people of Benghazi and
deposing the dictator were the easy parts.
By eschewing the
heavy-lifting of “nation-building” - as Bush himself came to realize painfully
- it creates less stability and more chaos and factionalism on the ground. So
Obama’s natural inclination toward caution essentially nullified his gifted
Moreover, his reluctance to
expend political, diplomatic and military capital in Syria has contributed to a
humanitarian disaster that shows no signs of relenting. And his ill advised
conduct in 2012 not to follow through on his “red line” (which would trigger
substantial U.S. military intervention) of no chemical weapons use by Syria’s
vicious President Bashar al-Assad diminished U.S. credibility on the world
rapprochement with the Muslim world, actions on the Middle East peace file,
curbing nuclear proliferation and his vaunted “Asian pivot” were all tepid
efforts at best. The touted “reset” with Russia, while on life support after
Vladimir Putin’s aggressive Ukraine gambit and his unlawful annexation of
Crimea, has now completely fallen off the rails.
His inability to close down
the disgraceful Guantanamo Bay detention centre - albeit in the face of stiff
congressional opposition - was a notable failure. His measures to actually
combat climate change were on the minimalist side - and will most likely be
knee-capped by president-elect Donald Trump.
But there were successes,
too. And one could make a persuasive case that those victories generally
outweigh his failures.
Arguably his most
significant foreign policy achievement - besides rebuilding U.S. standing in
the world after the disastrous Bush presidency - was his controversial nuclear
weapons deal with nettlesome Iran. It opens the possibility of improving
bilateral relations with a key regional player, gains better U.S. access to a
sizable economic marketplace, and stymies Chinese efforts at currying favour in
His deft move to normalize
relations with Cuba, after decades of a failed policy of isolation and
hostility, should not be dismissed lightly as low-hanging fruit. Whether the
process continues is an open question at the moment, but the initiative itself
should be seen in the context of improving Washington’s prestige and position
throughout the Americas.
He can also take some
credit for strengthening ties with China, urging the removal of Egypt’s Hosni
Mubarak in 2011, and encouraging long-awaited political reforms and freedoms in
Myanmar. In addition, he minimized the U.S. military footprint in Iraq and
Afghanistan (wars that had cost over $4.4 trillion and thousands of U.S.
military casualties), made the use of torture illegal again, and put
Canada-U.S. relations on a stronger footing.
However, where Obama is
most susceptible to harsh criticism is his preference to resort to unmanned
aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones as the centrepiece of his counterterrorism
strategy. For some, his legacy has been substantially diminished and left him
vulnerable to charges of being “the drone president” or, even worse, “the
assassin-in-chief.” Others have been quick to label the President - who has
approved almost 600 drone strikes during his tenure - as nothing less than
judge, jury and executioner.
No one is suggesting here
that President Barack Obama has not left a solid foreign policy legacy. But his
overall record has been tainted by his heavy reliance, expansion and secretive
use of drone warfare. Now Obama finds himself in the very uncomfortable
position of having to bequeath what he built and institutionalized to the
unpredictable and mercurial Donald John Trump.
- Peter McKenna is professor and chair of
political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.