This is Part III (International) of a series of posts on the legacy of President Barack Obama: Part I (Economics) appeared on August 26; Part II (Obamacare) appeared on September 2; Part IV (Race Relations) will appear on September 16. Collectively, the four posts are intended to reflect what future historians will see as the salient points of his presidency.
The overarching international feature of the Obama presidency is the reduced standing of the United States in the world.
- The world has always been populated by nations on the rise, trying to supplant the established powers, and since the Reagan era the United States has enjoyed the historical anomaly of been the only superpower. It is natural that Obama was faced with a rising China, a resurgent Russia, Islamic terrorists, and nascent nuclear powers in Iran and North Korea. All had been challenging the United States before Obama, and all would have presented challenges to any American president.
- The harshest critics would point to Barack Obama's atypical upbringing (born to a Kenyan father and expatriate mother; raised partly in Jakarta by an Indonesian step-father; tutored by a communist friend of the family in Hawaii) as depicted in his autobiography, "Dreams From My Father", and reflected by his 2009 quote at a NATO meeting in Strasbourg that "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." At various times he has tried to walk the comment back, but it is the essence of what Michael Kinsley called a political gaffe - when a politician tells the truth. The world heard his impression of America.
- Obama's training and experience as a community organizer does not transfer well to the Hobbsian world of international relations. The Western Organization of Resource Councils has this to say about community organizers: Organizers listen to their members, who know the community, and let people go at their own pace while also helping them develop the self confidence to try new things. In community organizations, decision making is vested in the members. Big decisions should be made by as many members as possible. In the Libyan conflict this was aptly described by a White House adviser in the New Yorker as as "leading from behind". What may work on the South Side of Chicago does not translate to the Shores of Tripoli.
It is hard to find a place in the world where the United States is better respected or more influential after two terms of Barack Obama.
- The administration's primary foreign policy initiative - a "pivot to Asia" - has foundered with the lack of support for the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (essentially an economic alliance to limit China's influence), China's increasingly militarized claims over the South China Sea, and China's sponsorship of international financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to rival the western World Bank. The huge decades-long trade imbalance shows few signs of abating. The protocol-conscious Chinese forget to provide a stairway for Obama to deplane when he lands for the G-20 meeting, and - not to be outdone - the president of the Philippines publicly calls Obama a "son of a whore". So much for the pivot.
- In a real sense, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are the father and mother of ISIS - the decision to abandon Iraq; the naive encouragement of rebellion against Assad; the killing of Qaddafi. If there is an Obama Doctrine it must be some combination of give a speech, oust a despot, and hope that the locals can handle the aftermath. JayVees!!
- Mitt Romney was ridiculed for calling Russia our main geopolitical opponent. Hillary Clinton started 2009 by presenting the Russian foreign minister with a "reset" button - which some since-missing State Department functionary mistakenly translated to the Russian word for "overcharged". Proving Romney right, Putin has annexed the Crimea, supported rebels in eastern Ukraine, expanded militarily and diplomatically in Syria, sided with Iran in nuclear talks, and threatened the former Soviet republics which have moved toward the West.
- The list of symbolic events is long - some Obama's fault; some just bad happenstance on his watch: Edward Snowden; Bowe Bergdahl; Benghazi; abandonment of control of the Internet; ransom for prisoners in Iran; the series of snubs by the Israeli prime minister; North Korean missile firings; cyber attacks across the US government; and on and on.
- And perhaps most importantly in a long term horizon, the proliferation of nuclear weapons which had been curbed for some four decades accelerated with North Korea actively testing both bombs and missiles, and Iran being given an open path to develop their own.
The Barack Obama who was elected in 2008 had the hearts of the Global Left fluttering. After the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Committee set the bar a bit too high, the chairman found that there were no Mulligans. American troops remained in Afghanistan; Guantanamo remained open; bin Laden was killed rather than captured; Libya was bombed; the war in Yemen escalated. But the award was not returned. And the humble president's assertion that his election would stop the rise of the oceans has come to not very much - although he is still giving speeches and making unenforceable international commitments.
Unfortunately, the statute of limitations on blaming Bush passed a couple of years ago.
Given all of the hoopla about Donald Trump's racist immigration policies, it is worth a re-visit to this speech by President Bill Clinton in 1995.
bill bowen - 9/9/2016