Okay, since you know that I’m going to point to the empty upper half of the glass, I’ll start with the half-full part. President Obama’s foreign policy accomplishments are considerable, and whatever his successor does, they will have lasting value as markers of important movement in the right direction.
Obama’s most important specific accomplishments, in descending order, are the Paris climate change agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and the opening to Cuba. I’ve written before about Iran and Cuba, so won’t say more about those. The climate change agreement represented an important breakthrough, particularly in the US’s reaching agreement with the global climate’s other most consequential country—China. The achievement is all the more notable because Obama was undeterred by the relentless opposition of the climate change denialists dominating the GOP.
More broadly, Obama deserves recognition for what he didn’t do: he didn’t get American troops bogged down in a new war in the Middle East or elsewhere. He certainly had opportunities. Most notably, despite some false starts and ill-advised half-measures, he has avoided a major intervention in Syria, where the US had little ability to improve the situation in any case. His handling of ISIS and of Putin’s expansionism has also been appropriately measured considering the limited ability of this country to change the facts on the ground in the Middle East and Ukraine. If these negative achievements seems unimpressive to you, consider all the voices decrying Obama’s weakness, passivity, fecklessness, etc., etc. These laments come mostly from neo-conservatives and their ilk (remember Marco Rubio’s charge that Obama was deliberately weakening this country?), but can also be heard from liberal interventionists. Obama understands the limits to American power better than any of these people. That understanding may have been gradual and uneven in coming , and only partially acted upon (more on this in a bit), but Obama has articulated it more effectively than any prominent American public figure, most explicitly in his important Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg:
I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it.”
So, while Obama does remain just within the longstanding US foreign policy consensus that sees the United States as essential to upholding international order practically everywhere in the world, he stands on the appropriately skeptical edge of that consensus. On the edge but not quite outside of it, and therein is the empty half of the glass. It is very difficult for any incoming US president to really break with long-established policies, patterns and assumptions. Exhibit A is the war in Afghanistan, now the longest-running war (15 years) in US history. How long is too long? It’s not clear that Afghanistan is now better off than when Obama came into office. The date for ending US involvement in that country was repeatedly put off under Obama; now it will be up to Donald Trump to get us out.
Of course, it’s not just Afghanistan. The United States is involved in more military operations than any other nation in the world. (The fact that you probably find this unsurprising tells you something about the continuity of long-established assumptions, does it not?) We are currently dropping bombs in five countries besides Afghanistan—a total of 26,000 bombs in 2016 alone (mostly in Iraq and Syria). We are engaged in continuing drone warfare in eight countries, despite evidence that drone strikes may be counterproductive, not to mention morally dubious.
Needless to say, being the planet’s only global superpower is expensive. The US accounts for over one-third of the world’s military spending. We spend more than the next seven biggest spending countries combined. The second-biggest spender—China—spends less than one-third as much as we, despite its considerably greater land area, surrounded by historic enemies to which it is exposed by thousands of miles of coasts and borders. Obama has restrained increases in our “defense” budget, but he has never questioned the need for maintaining America’s unapproachable global military dominance. And, despite rhetoric about wishing for an eventual world without nuclear weapons, Obama has initiated a modernization program for our nuclear arsenal which, over the course of several decades, is projected to cost close to $1 trillion. You might wonder why we need to modernize an arsenal that is still capable of obliterating most life on earth. So do I.
During the Cold War, the United States maintained close cooperative relationships with a variety of oppressive regimes around the world, some of which owed their existence to American policy. The stated rationale then was to oppose communism. We have fewer unsavory allies today, but enough to belie American claims to being a beacon of democracy and human rights. Take Saudi Arabia, which has done so much to spread fundamentalist Islam around the world. Despite Obama’s well-justified coolness toward that country, we continue to provide the Saudis with logistical and material support in its intervention in the Yemen civil war, in which Saudi airstrikes have demonstrated a cavalier indifference to civilian casualties. Or take Egypt. Obama took a cautiously welcoming stance toward the Arab Spring, which overthrew the US-friendly Mubarak dictatorship. When Egypt’s unstable new democracy was in turn crushed by a coup, the United States acquiesced. The Obama administration even refused to use the word “coup” to describe what had happened, in order to evade the US law proscribing military aid to such a regime.
In sum, under Obama continuity in foreign policy has been no less impressive than change. He has inched away from what he calls the playbook of the Washington foreign policy establishment, a playbook that tends to prescribe military responses to a wide range of events. He has tweaked, rather than overturned, the bi-partisan foreign policy consensus that exalts American globalism. These are laudable changes, especially after the spectacular failure of the aggressive globalism of his predecessor. I suspect and fear that Donald Trump will give us reason to appreciate Obama’s foreign policy even more.