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Foreign Policy

Obama’s Foreign Policy Legacy

Jan 21 , 2017
  • Chen Jimin

    Associate Research Fellow, CPC Party School

In 2008, the young and vibrant Barack Obama became the first African-American president, making history for the United States. Now, eight years of his presidency has come to end. It takes time to evaluate the performance of President Obama and his status in history. However, the job approval rating from the US public is very high. According to the latest statistics compiled by Real Clear Politics, the average of Obama’s job approval is 54.2% and the disapproval 40.9%. In terms of foreign policy, President Obama has brought many “changes”, with the US international strategy deeply engraved with his personal mark.

In general, Obama’s diplomacy has typical characteristics of liberalism, multilateralism, and even to some extent idealism, which is a significant difference with that of George W. Bush. During the Bush administration, the core mission of US international strategy was the Global War on Terrorism. At that time, the United States followed the principle of preemption, took unilateral actions, pursued regime changes in target states, and promoted active and assertive democracy-promoting policies. However, the Obama administration has done it in different ways.

First, it implemented the “engagement” diplomacy, using “smart power” to transfer “adversaries” to friends. Bush’s unilateralism aroused an upsurge in global anti-Americanism, especially in the Muslim world. Obama showed goodwill to the Muslim countries when taking office in 2009, with his speech at Cairo University as its typical example. In May 2010, Obama’s first National Security Strategy stressed: “We will pursue engagement with hostile nations to test their intentions, give their governments the opportunity to change course, reach out to their people, and mobilize international coalitions.” The “engagement” diplomacy has achieved remarkable results, which can be proved by the facts like the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, the US-Iran nuclear deal, the recovery of ambassador-level diplomatic relations with Myanmar. But the engagement diplomacy didn’t work on the relations with Russia. In the first term, Obama made efforts to “reset” the relationship with Russia, but it didn’t make any progress when Putin became Russian president. On the contrary, relations between Russia and the United States have deteriorated after a series of crisis in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. Recently, the Obama administration’s accusation that Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election was the latest example. Obviously, the Obama administration was not unwilling to improve relations with Russia, but the two countries have too many conflicts or parallels in their strategies, national interests and great-power ambitions, which drive their relationship in its twists and turns.

Second, it has been cautious in the use of force, emphasizing a “lead from behind” strategy. Obama resisted the temptation of using force, especially ground troops. Instead, he preferred multilateral means to promote the US strategic interests, especially enhancing the roles of allies and partners. The “lead from behind” strategy in the Libyan war was the most convincing case. Perhaps because of it, President Obama also has been criticized as “the weakest” president. To some extent, conservative military policies undermined the US credibility. For example, the Obama’s “red line” for the Assad regime was regarded as an international joke, which damaged US prestige in the international community. However, the cautious use of force meant the United States avoided new wars, which provided an important guarantee for the United States to restore vitality.

Third, it reshaped the image of US global leadership, leading the United States back to moral high ground. During the Bush administration, the US image in the world was greatly damaged by its unilateral policies and the scandal of prisoner abuses. In addition, owing to focusing on the war against terrorism, Bush did not give much attention to some global issues, such as climate change, which also had negative impacts on the US global leadership. A report released by Pew Research Center in 2007 showed that the favorable opinions of the United States in the international community had declined generally since 2002. In 2006, the favorability of the United States in Britain, France, and Germany were 56%, 39% and 37% respectively. President Obama made more efforts to abolish torture and close the United States military prison at Guantánamo Bay. Though some efforts failed, it showed the Obama’s position on these issues, which helped improve the image of the United States. Moreover, the Obama administration was also committed to addressing global challenges, such as combating the Ebola epidemic, reaching the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. These efforts played an important role for the United States to strengthen its global influence. Pew Research Center releasing a report in 2015 showed that the average favorable attitudes towards the US around the world was 69%, with Britain, France and Germany scoring 65%, 73%, 50% respectively.

Fourth, it restructured the US alliance system and built a wide range of partnerships. Obama focused on building solid US alliances and promoting modernization. As for the US-Asian alliance, it meant the US wanted to transfer the bilateral coalitions to the multilateral ones. The second National Security Strategy in February 2015 clearly stated: “We will continue to modernize these essential bilateral alliances while enhancing the security ties among our allies.” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made it clear that the United States preferred to build “a principled security network” in a speech at 2016 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. In fact, some mechanisms have been built, such as the security cooperation among Japan, Australia and the US, intelligence communication and sharing among the United States, Japan and South Korea. Besides, the United States also has further expanded its partnerships around the world, especially in Asia. Many countries in the region like India, Singapore and even Vietnam are on the list. Owing to the rebalance strategy, the US intention in Asia Pacific to contain China has upgraded. Through this policy, the United States has strengthened its presence in the Asia-Pacific, particularly in Southeast Asia.

Fifth, it withdrew of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama ended two wars by withdrawing combat forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, which he views as one of the most important achievements. It is convincing in the short term. The withdrawal plan has saved a lot of money, and provided resources for the US global strategic adjustment, such as the pivot to Asia. Besides, it met the expectations of the US public. However, the effects of the policy in the long run remain unclear. After the withdrawal, the consequences like the rise of the Islamic State and the unstable situations in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrated the argument that Obama has not fulfilled the goal of ending the two wars responsibly.

Sixth, Obama’s policy on DPRK nuclear programs was in a dilemma. The “strategic patience” policy neither stopped North Korea from further researching and developing nuclear weapons, nor eased tensions on the Korean Peninsula. It also provided no more leverage for the United States. On the DPRK nuclear issue, the United States and other related countries have adopted many means like pressure, negotiation or a cold shoulder. Comparatively, negotiations are the most likely way to make a breakthrough on this issue. However, it is difficult to restore the “six-party talks” mechanism if the “strategic patience” policy continues. As a result, the DPRK nuclear issue has been in stagnation and the situation in Northeast Asia under higher tensions.

On Jan 20, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. What can Trump’s foreign policy draw from Obama’s? To sum up, there are three main points: (1) The United States should be a leader in addressing the challenges of globalization, rather than a standard-bearer of anti-globalization. The Trump administration should not go back to trade protectionism and isolationism. (2) The United States should use force cautiously, prudently and legitimately. It must be the defender of peace and stability, not a saboteur. It is indispensable for the United States to maintain the momentum of recovery and development and gain respect from the world. (3) The United States should abandon the zero-sum thinking, and expand the coordination and cooperation with major countries on the global and regional issues, which is critical to solve these problems and challenges. All these things are in line with the expectations of the international community, and also helpful to maintain the US global primacy.

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