Many questions are raised by The Atlantic’s extraordinary extended candid conversations with President Obama on his foreign policy principles ‘The Obama Doctrine’, but the overall sense of Obama’s world view is of pragmatic pessimism. As befits a legacy piece, Obama strikes a strident tone in much of the interview, demonstrating the same disdain for differing opinions that his detractors say have led to many poor policy choices. The candidate of hope and change has been wearied by office and consistently frustrated and irked by unreliable international allies and Washington foreign policy hawks. His contempt for the Washington foreign policy establishment and for America’s traditional Sunni Arab allies is striking, and many would agree with it.
Obama’s guiding principles as portrayed in The Atlantic are that American power is limited post-Iraq and that is should use it sparingly and only on top-tier national interest issues. He has been consistent in stating that view, as the interview highlights, back in 2002 whilst an Illinois State legislator he told a Chicago anti-war rally that he was imposed to intervention in Iraq because it did not pose a direct threat to US security. All Presidents are human and have limited time and resources and the modern Presidency requires prioritisation, but Obama’s concerted retrenchment has unquestionably impacted the impression of American power abroad and consequently global stability.
The first Pacific President’s reassessment of American interests is leaving traditional allies behind and the vacuum being created by the re-prioritisation of American interests is not being filled by friendly forces. The chaos in Europe and the Middle East has not been lessened by the Obama approach; his justified frustration at free-riding low defence spending allies in Europe and more exploitative allies in the Middle East does not mean it is in America’s long-term interests to abandon those regions of the world.
In The Atlantic Obama stands by the decision not to enforce his red line on the use of chemical weapons against civilians in the summer of 2013, arguing that this decision removed chemical weapons from the field of war and that defence of American credibility was exactly what led to the Vietnam War. Both are legitimate points, but the recent lack of credibility in American power has led to the invasion of Crimea and the flourishing of the Islamic state. Obama’s retort on Crimea is that Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 under Bush’s watch, an assertion that ignores the fact Bush was a significantly weakened force in his final months in office and that Russia withdrew from Georgia within two months, whereas it has permanently annexed Crimea. Obama also counters that whilst Russia may be able to occupy European countries at will, it has no influence at the G20, a fascinating insight into his belief where true power lies in the 21st century. In an ideal world true power would lie in peaceful influence in international organisations, but whilst major world powers show willingness to use blunt force and ignore international opinion it’s hard to concur with Obama’s reasoning. Failure to strike Assad for using chemical weapons on his own civilians is described as Obama’s ‘liberation day’ in The Atlantic, when he broke with American foreign policy orthodoxy, but the flip-side is that it was also Putin’s liberation day.
As The Atlantic makes clear Obama’s assessment on Ukraine and, particularly, Syria as lower tier threats to US interests is not shared by many of his friends and foes in US politics. Nor is his thinking that climate change is a greater existential threat to US interests than Islamic fundamentalism. He may be right that in the longer term climate change, if there were no international effort to assist poorer affected regions, does pose a significant problem for US security and interests, but Islamic fundamentalism is challenging America now. It remains mercifully true that Americans are highly unlikely to be victims of a terrorist attack, but the fear of terrorism is most of its power and the challenge to societal cohesion it poses is an existential threat to our common security. The rise of Donald Trump and his divisive rhetoric and disinterest in the Western alliance has not been hindered by Obama’s attitude to Islamic fundamentalism. The impact of fundamentalism is being felt in Europe too, not only in France and Belgium, but in the challenges across the continent created by the unprecedented levels of migration caused by the war in Syria. Obama’s unwillingness to address this issue could be seen in a similar light to his other foreign policy decisions that go against the curve, a determination to reject US foreign policy orthodoxy at almost any cost.
Historians will have the benefit of hindsight in addressing the Obama foreign policy legacy. The ink is still drying on many potentially historic achievements such as the reopening of relations with Cuba and the nuclear deal with Iran. Obama looks quite likely to leave his successor a technically ‘clean-slate’, an America largely free of military engagements in the international arena, a desire he expresses in the The Atlantic. Whether that leaves his successor with an America safer and stronger in the world is an entirely different question, the risk is that Obama’s pragmatic pessimism has limited American influence to the extent of weakening the West’s collective security. History suggests that some form of American retrenchment was always likely after the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the financial crisis, and that the personality of the President has only limited influence on this trend, but history also shows that American retrenchment is not typically followed by a period of global stability and peace.