Obama’s record on foreign policy
Barack Obama is under criticism for his foreign policy. In Syria he supported the overthrow of the Assad regime but failed to give help to the moderate rebels, allowing the jihadists to gain influence. He drew a red line over chemical weapons but took no military action when it became clear Assad had gassed his own people.
American troops have left Iraq and the country is torn apart by conflict. In Egypt Washington has little leverage when it tries to get the military government to respect human rights.
According to The Economist there is wide suspicion in the Middle East that the ‘lion has turned into a pussy cat’. Saudi Arabia and Israel both fear that the US will be unable to stop Iran finally acquiring a nuclear arsenal. Yet again the Middle East peace process has stalled.
The list of failures grows. American sanctions have failed to deter Putin interfering in Ukraine. In Asia China’s claims in the East and South China seas are alarming its neighbours. According to some economic indicators, China has now taken over a position America has occupied since 1872 as the world’s largest economy. Asian nations are concluding it is only a matter of time before China’s military might reflects its economic power.
But it may be too soon to write off either Obama’s foreign policy or American dominance in the world. The President has made mistakes. He has not handled Syria well. Probably the best solution now is to try to patch up an agreement between the moderate rebels and Assad, even if this means Assad stays.
Obama knows that following the Iraq War there is little appetite in America for foreign intervention. Faced with Democrats who will not cut entitlements and Republicans who will not raise taxes the administration has been forced to reduce defence spending. When they look at what is happening in Ukraine, many Americans wonder why it falls to them to act when Europe is unwilling to do its bit. Very few NATO members fulfil their treaty obligation to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence.
One lesson of the Iraq war that seems to being repeated in Afghanistan is that it is easier to win the war than win the peace. Nation-building has not been a success in either Iraq or Libya. The exception is Kurdistan where a flourishing semi-independent state now exists. Religious and tribal divisions and the existence of artificial states created after World War I are likely to make the Middle East unstable for a long time to come. Obama’s caution about getting too deeply involved is understandable.
Iran remains a major problem. Washington continues to insist no option has been taken off the table but it is hard to see the US resorting to military action if the nuclear talks fail. What Israel will do is another matter.
While resisting military involvement, Obama has sought to build on America’s great strength: its large number of alliances. As one expert has pointed out, America has some 60 allies while China has just North Korea. America will remain the world’s leading power as long as it can count on wide international support. The revelations of Edward Snowden have certainly angered many allies but Obama is finding ways to soothe relations.
At home the fracking revolution has transformed the American economy and given the country a secure domestic source of energy. What happens in the Middle East is now less crucial for America although it remains of significance for the world economy.
Foreign policy expert John Ikenberry has made a useful distinction. Obama, he claims, is no interventionist but he is an internationalist and certainly not an isolationist. His internationalism can be seen in the way he tries to work with what Ikenberry terms ‘the wider spectrum of partnerships, institutions, and diplomatic engagements that make up the American-led order’.
There may be times when failure to take military action undermines confidence in American power (a point made by The Economist but there may also be times when the wrong kind of military intervention can erode internationalism (a point made by Ikenberry).
Ikenberry and other supporters of the President are probably right to argue that America’s image in the world has improved under Obama. What some see as weakness is the US learning strategic lessons from the last decade and coming off its post-9/11 war footing.
Obama’s honesty does not go down well with the patriotic American right but the rest of the world approved when he was asked about American exceptionalism and replied: “I guess every nation is exceptional in some way.”
He also shows humility. In his Nobel acceptance speech he remarked that: “America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.”
Obama’s Presidency still has three years to run. Big challenges lie ahead, notably Iran, Ukraine and the quarrels in the China Seas. Ikenberry describes his strategy as one of ‘pragmatic internationalism’. Given that America’s power is reduced even though it remains predominant and its leadership is still required, that is the right strategy. ‘Leading from behind’ is not a bad idea if America can get others to move in the same direction.