Eight years of hope: reflections on American foreign policy and “The Obama Doctrine”

takes a look at the world after Obama, eight years on from Yes We Can. Better, or worse?

This article was published in print on 5th May 2016

August 30th 2013- the day that Obama sealed the fate of America as the world’s sole superpower. Alternatively, the day that Obama looks into the abyss, and backs away.

So opened the seminal article on the Obama presidency in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg. Referring to the Middle East during the “red line” crisis in Syria, the ultimatum, issued in case chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime, was the incident that served to divide people over Obama’s foreign policy. Having made the threat of serious military intervention over the use of chemical weapons, then not following through, Obama diminished the US’ standing in the world and its international credibility. So argues Robert Gates, former Defence Secretary under two consecutive Presidents of different parties.

President Obama delivering the 2015 State of the Union Address. Image: Wikimedia

President Obama delivering the 2015 State of the Union Address. Image: Wikimedia

As a reflection on what he terms the “Obama Doctrine” and the place of America within the world, Goldberg’s interview with Obama is a glimpse into the mind of the most powerful man in the world for the last 8 years. Here, Obama gives a different perspective on “the red line”. This, he says, would have been his Iraq moment, and he got out just in time. Arguably, this “faltering” is representative of one of Obama’s criticisms: he is trying too hard to not be George W. Bush.

On the one hand: fear of a new Middle Eastern quagmire, enhanced by a frustration with traditional allies; the memory of Iraq; and a deadlocked government at home that is unable to pass the most basic of gun reform legislation. With the Libya debacle for example, it’s hardly surprising that Obama has faced heavy criticism for his handling of American policy. On the other hand, examples of masterful statesmanship can be found in the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and the warming of US-Cuban relations.

A mixed bag indeed.

We should bear in mind one of Obama’s arguably most sensible philosophies however; that politics is a “human enterprise”. By not letting perfect be the enemy of good, Obama has achieved great things in this respect. Critics will point out that because of this, Obama’s policy has lacked a clear and lucid vision for the world. Incremental change however has been the order of the day, arguably with incredible success.

Ensuring that Iran, one of America’s longest standing enemies abroad, doesn’t get nuclear weapons, and is currently opening up to American investment was a master stroke. Unlike Putin, whom Obama criticises of employing a “spectacle” for foreign policy, what with Ukraine and more recently, Syria, Obama understands that power is being able to get others to do what you want, without the threat of force. This diplomatic and pragmatic mind-set has set Obama apart. But what of the future?

With the 2017 US elections looming on the horizon in November, the world holds its breath for America to choose its next President. We must now brace ourselves for a world after Obama. Indeed, the Presidential race has already shown itself to be full of colourful individuals. At the time of writing, Clinton and Trump have both just swept the New York primary, handily defeating Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz respectively. But what does this mean for the rest of the world? Fighting back against climate change, global terrorism, the rise of China, and the largest refugee crisis in Europe since WWII, the world is seemingly unravelling at the seams.

What happens when Obama leaves office? The 2016 front-runners, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are very different animals and time has yet to tell if/how they will take up Obama’s mantle. Clinton has an interventionist streak, as her handling of Libya shows, and is arguably more traditional and conservative in her handling of foreign policy than any president since George H.W. Bush. A less cautious President than Obama seems an ill fit for today’s world but one can hope that the past 8 years in the administration has tempered this. On the Republican side, a candidate that wants to warm American relations with Russia and China, who has never held elected office, and who has a god complex that would make Kim-Jong Il blush; this without even mentioning his advocacy of torture, among a number of other abhorrent things. One thing remains certain however, the world is going to look very different.

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