The Obama legacyPresident Obama’s decision to visit Hiroshima is a signal that he is in the “legacy” phase of his presidency. Symbolic gestures about large issues such as nuclear weapons are much more easily made than complex agreements to do something about them.
What will the Obama foreign policy legacy be? The answers hinge on what you think it is possible for the United States to do in the world, since the President’s views of the use of American power are cautious. Indeed, a well-known slogan within the administration was “Don’t do stupid stuff.”
For an Asian audience, it is hard to convey the extent to which assessments of the Middle East — rightly or wrongly — will drive the President’s legacy. For Obama, President Bush’s Iraq entanglement rested on a combination of hubris, wishful thinking and an overemphasis on military solutions. President Bush believed that military victory could be translated into a political transformation of Iraq into a thriving democracy, thereby changing the entire political complexion of the Middle East.
President Obama saw it as a top priority of his presidency to reduce the American footprint in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the extraordinary cost that the United States paid for the Iraq war, and the extraordinarily limited return on it, the withdrawal from the ground wars in the Middle East and the attempt to pivot U.S. foreign policy back toward Asia must be seen as a major plus.
Obama is also rightly impatient with those who believe the U.S. should do more with respect to Syria than those who are more immediately affected. Staying out of Syria — in the face of a chorus of voices on both right and left to do more about both ISIS and the humanitarian question — has been one of the most difficult and contentious choices the administration has made.
If “not doing stupid stuff” is one legacy of the Obama administration, the Iranian nuclear deal will hopefully enter into the positive column. Yet the Iran agreement was but one example of what is now being called the Obama doctrine, one of the President’s more important legacies.
In Obama’s view, small countries such as Myanmar, Cuba and Iran do not pose existential security threats to the United States. As a result, it should be possible for the United States to take the relatively limited risks that come from engaging these difficult regimes. In contrast to Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama rightly believed that if the effort to engage Iran ultimately failed, we would be no worse off than if it had continued to pursue its nuclear course.
To date, the bet on Myanmar appears to have paid off, and if the communist regime in Cuba survives, it will clearly be very different than if the embargo had been maintained. Iran is more uncertain and the deal badly strained U.S. relations with Israel, but on the whole the agreement required substantial political courage and will hopefully represent one of the administration’s biggest accomplishments.
What about Asia? It should be counted as a plus that the president simply stated the obvious: that engagement with Asia is ultimately more consequential for the U.S. than the Middle East, where reliance on oil is gradually diminishing. If we do not see similar headline deals, the accomplishments are nonetheless quietly real: negotiation — but not ratification — of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, closer ties with Southeast Asia and India, and strengthened alliances with Japan and Korea, despite absence of progress with North Korea on the nuclear front.
The big uncertainty remains the state of the U.S.-China relationship. Obama’s pivot to Asia is wrongly confused with an effort to contain the country. Yet meaningful engagement with China was included in the very definition of the pivot. Much of what can be achieved with China at the moment hinges not on the United States but on unfortunate developments within China itself: a more authoritarian style of rule at home and a more assertive foreign and military policy in the South China Sea. Yet the Obama administration has neither overestimated nor underestimated the challenges China presents and has been rewarded with a subtle re-embrace from Asian capitals.
In sum, the legacy of the Obama administration reflects not only his choices but changes in both domestic politics and in America’s global role. Reflecting a public weary of foreign entanglements, Obama has restrained American military engagements. But he has done so while pursuing robust regional diplomacy, including in Asia, engaging with adversaries, and pushing on the most significant issue of our era: climate change. He has spoken eloquently on the fact that the people of the Middle East must ultimately solve their own problems. This may sound like a modest set of accomplishments, but restraint is not a small virtue for a major power. Let’s hope his successor learns the lesson.
*The author is Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of University of California in San Diego.