Obama’s Foreign Policy, A Balance Sheet

Obama's Foreign Policy

As President Barack H. Obama’s second term is coming to its end and Donald J. Trump has been elected as the new president of the United States, it’s time to make a critical evaluation of Obama’s foreign policy. President Obama entered the Oval Office with an avowed aim to “change” the United States. However, when he is leaving the office, his pledges to end the Iraq War, to pursue a nuclear-free world, to improve relations with Russia, to act as an honest broker between Israel and Palestine, and to improve relations with the Arab world still remain unfulfilled. In spite of the fact that President Obama has been putting his stamp on US foreign policy during the past eight years, the “change” he had promised to his voters, and to the world at large, has ended up in smoke. And the state of affairs has been rightly described by Professor Peter Feaver, who opines: “The American foreign policy position is in a worse shape today than it was when he took over.”

When Barack Obama began his first term as the 44th President of the United States if America in 2009, enormous challenges in the form of domestic difficulties and a deeply divided Congress as well as international issues like increasing global instability and turmoil were waiting for him. On the domestic front, Obama emerged as honourable, reflective and dignified insofar as his years in office were not tainted by any salacious scandals or irresponsible personal behaviour. Considering the deeply hostile Congress and the huge global and domestic challenges he was faced with, at first sight his record looks formidable; though perhaps less so when looking at the issues more closely.

Although Obama achieved some major successes, yet the balance sheet is a mixed one. Despite some successful initiatives, he leaves behind ,many unresolved issues.

Obama’s world view

In his first year as president, Obama optimistically pronounced his desire to rid the world of all nuclear weapons, believed that a “reset” with Russia would be quite possible, and that perhaps a good democratic government could be installed in Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi. After a few years, however, Obama became increasingly cynical. He realized the domestic and international constraints on his power and soon came to believe in a much more neo-realist conception of America’s role in global affairs. He certainly adopted a more pragmatic approach, preferring to focus on the merely “doable” rather than on the “desirable” objectives.

Obama shared the long-held belief of the Washington foreign policy establishment that the US is  indispensable in global affairs. He viewed America as the benign hegemon that is essentially a good and well-meaning power which only uses force and coercion when there is no other option left. Obama, however, stopped viewing the US as the world’s omnipotent policeman. Even more importantly, he believed that no country can possibly fulfil such a role with respect to the ever more complex and intricate global problems the world of the twenty-first century is faced with. In broad strokes, his foreign policy reflected a swing of the pendulum away from his predecessor’s aggressive activism and long wars. On the whole, though not always, the president managed to stick to his core principle of a limited role for US.

The Obama administration pursued six major foreign policy objectives:

1. Ending Afghanistan and Iraq wars

During his 2008 campaign, Obama promised to terminate the country’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was largely achieved by December 2011 and late 2014 respectively though at a much higher price. At present, both Iraq and Afghanistan continue to be highly unstable and are increasingly escaping from US and western influence. In Afghanistan, particularly outside Kabul, the Taliban with their austere, fundamentalist and pre-modern approach to life essentially are once again the rulers of the land, though nearly nine thousand American troops are still in Afghanistan. Iraq is drawn increasingly into the orbit of Iran, which remains one of America’s greatest foes in the region. Iran competes viciously with Saudi Arabia for the predominant role in the region.

2. “Leading from behind” in the Middle East

President Obama clearly wanted to avoid being drawn into more new wars not only in the Middle East but also elsewhere, unless going to war was regarded as absolutely crucial for US national interests. This resulted in Obama merely “leading from behind,” as one of his advisers expressed it, in the French and British-led effort to get rid of Libyan dictator Gaddafi. This “hands-off” approach led to the absence of any attempt to embark on some serious nation-building efforts once Gaddafi had been toppled in October 2011. Instead the North African country descended into chaos with the West largely watching passively from the sidelines.

The outcome of intervention in Libya convinced Obama to take a rather passive role in the Syria war, despite his August 2012 “red line” that he would take action if President Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, however, did not lead to US military engagement but rather to the negotiation between Washington and Moscow of a deal to move all of Assad’s chemical weapons out of the country. While this agreement was largely successfully implemented, the decision not to get militarily involved in Syria remains controversial. Obama has a firm belief that he adopted the right policy, however, many believe that it tarnished American credibility with Russia as well as China.

3. Fighting terrorism by non-conventional means

Another major objective of the Obama administration was the attempt to re-focus on the war against terrorism by different means: terrorism, not least ISIS, was meant to be defeated by enhanced intelligence-gathering, intensive drone warfare and the insertion of American advisers to provide some professional military advice to local rebel forces. Obama was adamant that no “boots on the ground” would be committed in Syria or elsewhere. US arms deliveries to rebel forces occurred only reluctantly and within limits. While protesting about Russia’s alignment with forces loyal to Assad, Obama was careful to exclude the possibility of any direct clash between US and Russia.

A corollary of this policy of fighting terrorism from afar was Obama’s attempt to largely extricate the US from the complex and insoluble problems of the Middle East. The expansion of the hydraulic fracking industry in the US helped to turn America into a net oil producer. It made the country less dependent on Middle Eastern oil. In 2015 only, 24 percent of the oil consumed in the United States came from overseas, the lowest level since 1970.

4. Refocusing pivot to Asia Policy

Both Obama and Hillary Clinton (his first Secretary of State) believed that not only the Middle East but Asia and the Pacific region were also of prime importance for the future of US power, influence and security. A ‘rebalancing’ of Washington’s foreign policy occurred with the “Asian Pivot”—announced in November 2011—that takes due account of America’s geopolitical, economic and security interests in the region. It is believed that by 2020, sixty percent of the US navy may be based in the Pacific. This foreign policy shift was meant to allow the US to manage China’s increasingly influential global role. China’s assertive claim on the sea, rocks and islands within its “nine-dash-line,” and thus over 90 percent of the South China Sea (SCS), sends shockwaves to  the US as well as many Southeast Asian nations, some of whom have competing sovereignty claims in the SCS. Part of the “pivot to Asia,” therefore, was Obama’s intensive wooing of a significant number of China’s fourteen neighbours in Asia and his attempt to channel their fears about Beijing’s potential hegemonic role in the region in a pro-American direction. The successfully negotiated 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) had a similar function.

5. Cementing relations with Europe

Obama’s foreign policy not only sought to continue the close partnerships with the EU and Nato, but also urged the European nations to become more involved in global affairs, and increase their defence efforts with the US. The development of a European army with its own distinct headquarters is viewed sceptically in Washington. The European allies, after all, were able to overcome surprisingly quickly much more serious transatlantic crises such asthe global financial crisis of 2008 which hit Europe badly as well as the NSA espionage scandal.

Still, transatlantic relations at the end of Obama’s presidency look less good than they were at the beginning. It is unlikely that the negotiations for a new wide-ranging transatlantic trade deal—the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)—will succeed anytime soon. This is a personal blow for Obama who has pushed hard for the negotiations to succeed. Similarly, the Brexit was another personal defeat for Obama who had told the British during an official visit that the US wanted the UK to remain a member of the EU. Europe has felt abandoned by the US in its search for a solution to the refugee crisis. No significant help was offered by the Obama administration, though many in the EU blame Washington’s passive stance in the Syrian war and its earlier adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq for having contributed to, if not causing, the refugee crisis in the first place.

6. Overcoming some long-standing problems

Obama made a number of serious attempts to resolve some long-standing foreign policy problems. He invested much time and energy and a lot of political capital in this effort and also achieved some major successes. The P5+1-Iran Nuclear Deal was perhaps his greatest triumph in the realm of foreign policy. In July 2015, his Secretary of State John Kerry and five other countries—China, Russia, France, UK and Germany—signed the landmark deal named Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Under the JCPOA, Iran agreed not to build, or prepare to build, a nuclear weapon and to redesign its existing nuclear reactors, reduce its uranium stockpile and commit itself to “extraordinary and robust monitoring, verification and inspection” of its nuclear energy sector for the next ten years.

Obama administration’s rapprochement and normalization of relations with the military regime in Myanmar and with Cuba also deserve praise. In Myanmar, US influence and economic carrots led to free elections and the restoration of a largely-democratic government. The beginning of a process of normalization between the United States and Cuba was announced in December 2014, and the bilateral diplomatic relations were restored in July 2015. Obama visited the island in 2016 becoming the first sitting president to do so.

The deficiencies

Although Obama was able to resolve some very complex problems that had defeated all of his predecessors, his foreign policy, in a nutshell, is a mixed bag. He largely failed on some global issues.

For instance, he could not make progress in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In fact, the personal animosity between Israeli Premier Netanyahu and President Obama became quite obvious.

During the Arab Spring in 2011, the US failed to support the popular movements, despite its cautiously expressed sympathies. In Egypt, for instance, the White House contributed to ousting of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 but eventually the normalization of relations with new hard-line President el-Sisi has taken place. US military aid to Egypt has been restored to its customary level.

The same applied in Thailand where the military coup of May 2014 initially was much criticized by the administration. Still the relative stability of Thailand under the military government is appreciated in the United States and relations have largely normalized again.

One of the other great failures of the Obama administration was its inability to defeat ISIS. Much more important, however, is the administration’s failure to successfully counter the fundamentalist philosophy and world view held by many in the Middle East as well as in the West upon which the support of the terrorist movement rests. Relations with China, the superpower-in-waiting, are uneasy and difficult but there is some hope that both powers will continue to make genuine efforts not to embark on a serious economic, cyber security and military conflict. And cooperation with China seems quite possible; after all, agreements—P5+1 Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Climate Conference Treaty—occurred with constructive Chinese cooperation.

Perhaps the most disastrous and consequential failure has been the Obama administration’s inability to deal with Russia. After annexation of Crimea (March 2014) and the de facto detachment of Eastern Ukraine, US-EU-Russia relations deteriorated and sanctions were imposed on Russia besides excluding it from the G-8. Anxiety about President Putin’s interest in further expansion, perhaps into the Baltic States and elsewhere in the former Soviet empire, made the West move Nato forces and missile shields eastward and invest in the strengthening and modernization of the Nato alliance.


Toward the end of the Obama’s term, the global economic situation looks better than in 2009 when the world was teetering on the brink of another Great Depression. Yet, global stability, not least in the Middle East, and US relations with the other great powers in the world, notably, China, Russia and Europe, look more precarious than they did eight years ago. President Obama clearly did not succeed in making the world more stable and less dangerous during his eight years in power.

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