By Dr Mark Ledwidge
This op-ed was originally published on Canterbury Christ Church University's Expert Comment blog: https://blogs.canterbury.ac.uk/expertcomment/obamas-legacy-to-the-world/
Dr Mark Ledwidge, Senior Lecturer in American Studies, reflects on the legacy of Obama’s foreign policy and looks ahead to what we might expect from the leadership of Donald Trump.
Elected on a tidal wave of hope, Barack Obama made history in 2008 when he became the first African American to win the US presidency. But eight years on, having served two terms in office, what legacy does he leave behind for international relations, security and peace?
Obama was referred to as the new face of US foreign policy. He was viewed as someone who might be able to help America’s flagging image. The Bush years had increased polarisation and the ‘war on terror’ was perceived by some as an ethnocentric religious attack on Islam and Muslims generally. That was partly because of the Bush administration’s lack of diplomacy and extremely poor use of language regarding the ‘war on terror’.
When Obama came to office, he was identified as the first global president. As his ethnicity differentiated him from other US presidents, it was thought he would take a new approach and this was seen as a potential breakthrough moment. The Obama administration wanted to tone down the rhetoric that depicted America as being omnipotent and inherently benign. What it did well was to position America with other nations, to discuss how to work together to solve global problems, and also to be more open to developments in Asia. I think history will judge Obama’s cultural sophistication and his understanding of global politics in a positive light – he did a much better job than his predecessor.
But the core question is, did Obama really differentiate his policies sufficiently from those of the Bush administration? He did not manage to close down Guantanamo Bay because he was blocked by the Republicans in Congress. He oversaw the ‘surge’ in numbers of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he also followed Bush’s policies by increasing the number of drone strikes. So one can argue that there were significant continuities, but this was inevitable, especially as many of Obama’s staff had also served under Bush and the Clinton administrations. However, it is important to remember that the Obama administration was able to hunt down Osama Bin Laden, and remove him, something that the Bush administration failed to do.
It is often said that the American president is the most powerful person in the world, but the truth is that the presidency exists within an institutional framework where the separation of powers limits the scope of presidential power. The world is moving towards a more dangerous position – irrespective of who the president is. The problems lie with the fact that America can no longer play the role of the global policeman it once did because it is overstretched, both in terms of manpower and the amount it spends on defence.
The Bush administration arguably made the world a more dangerous place because it was too unpredictable. In addition, the Bush idea of striking first was clearly very problematic. These are characteristics the Obama administration were able to successfully curtail.
In terms of Syria and the US’s reluctance to engage in direct military action, we could either argue the world was made safer or it was not. Some people maintain that ISIS exists because of the vacuum that was created when Saddam Hussein was removed in Iraq and with the removal of Gaddafi in Libya. Therefore, it has been argued that America failed to develop and craft comprehensive plans in relation to the crisis in both Libya and Syria, which has increased the problems within the region. However, this cannot be blamed on the Obama administration; instead it can be traced back to lack of planning from the Bush administration that led to a deteriorating situation in the Middle East. In reality though, people will complain about America’s intervention and non-intervention creating global problems.
Donald Trump’s foreign policy is difficult to read. He has spoken in very strong and powerful terms – he’s a so called ‘man’s man’ who projects a macho image. The question is, can Trump follow through with his bold rhetoric and, if he does, at what cost to America and the world? Is he going to allow the extremes of his characterisations during the election to form the basis of his foreign policy?
His relationship with Putin will also be of considerable interest. How will that be read by the rest of the world? Will his relationship with Putin reflect this alleged ‘love affair’ that some people say exists? Do countries, such as Russia and China, perceive that having someone less politically savvy in global terms like Trump would be better for them than someone who knows far more about how government and international relations really work?
There is a crisis in American politics. It’s not a crisis with the Democrats or Republicans, but a crisis in US politics in general because it has lost its way. Scholars and laypersons alike have to ask whether a system that was developed centuries ago can rectify, resolve or contend with the key issues both at home and abroad. Either way, identity politics lies at the heart of America’s status and role in the world. Is America still a hegemonic power or an empire in decline? And does the election of Donald Trump reflect the symptoms of an unhealthy and troubled nation.
Dr Mark Ledwidge is the Subject Lead and Senior Lecturer in American Studies in the Department of History and American Studies at Canterbury Christ Church University. He has emerged as one of the UK’s leading scholars on the presidency of Barack Obama. His publications include: Obama and the World, 2nd edition (co-editor; Routledge 2014), Barack Obama and the Myth of Post-Racial America (co-editor; Routledge 2013) and Race and US Foreign Policy (Routledge 2013). Follow on Twitter.
By Inderjeet Parmar
This op-ed was originally published on The Wire: https://thewire.in/100377/trump-america-first-presidency/
In his hands, Donald Trump claims, the US will be like him – a winner. And if anything doesn’t go according to plan, it’s someone else’s fault.
Although US president-elect Donald Trump has a well-earned reputation for unpredictability and an unconventional political style, some aspects of what makes him tick are becoming clearer as his inauguration on January 20 approaches.
This is not a definitive list – and it’ll surely change as his presidency ‘progresses’ – but there are five inter-related discernible characteristics that may help us get a handle on Trump as president.
Master concept: ‘America First’
Trump has said it all along as a badge of pride that, in contrast to all other political leaders, he stands for the US before all else and above all others. American interests are supreme to him but have been compromised by his predecessors, especially Barack Obama, who have permitted the likes of China and Mexico to take advantage of American naïvete, good intentions and openness. China manipulates its currency to cheapen its exports and destroy American jobs, militarises the South China Sea and does little to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons programmes. In response, the US does nothing, Trump claims.
As president, Trump will put a stop to all those compromises and reassert US power – and reconsider the US’s international relationships and agreements to see to it that the country gets value for money. ‘Make America Great Again!’
The domestic version of that is all those foreigners, immigrants and refugees coming to the US, committing crimes and living off welfare, under-cutting American workers or carrying out acts of terrorism in cahots with ISIS, need to be taught a lesson. Law and order must be restored, whatever it takes, to make Americans safe from the ‘enemy within’.
The other four characteristics worthy of note may derive from the master concept. In Trump’s hands, he claims, the US will be like him – a winner. His ‘winner’ self-concept indicates that he has what it takes and will do what it takes to achieve his goals – such as the US presidency and, now, the US’s interests at home and abroad. The US is a land of winners, not losers, and he’s the personification of success.
This means he finds it difficult to admit error or, when admitting error, to seem to be on the attack and blame someone else. And the Russian hacking of the US election claims are especially pertinent here: first, he needs to claim that he won the election on his own merits and is the people’s choice – despite losing the popular vote by almost three million; so denying any Russian involvement was his first line of attack against sore losers in the Democratic party.
But with the unanimity of US intelligence assessments of Russian interference, Trump accepted such interference had taken place, alongside others’ doing the same as well as arguing that the intervention had no impact on the final result. That helps explain his response to reporters’ questioning at his first news conference since winning in November.
The third characteristic – which ensures the US will always be first and therefore a winner, is because, as a successful businessman, Trump knows how to do a deal. And one aspect of getting the best deal is to open the bidding in dramatic fashion – showing strength from the start in the belief that others need the US more than the US needs them. The US can walk away and still remain the world’s policeman, its sole superpower.
Trump’s philosophy asserts power up-front and centre: unlike Theodore Roosevelt – who advised a strategy of “speak softly but carry a big stick”, Trump seems to favour big talk and big stick. No more soft power.
With such an attitude towards allies and competitors, the ultimate deal-doer will deliver best value, getting more from others in return for the US’s friendship, arms, market access or open hostility – sanctions or war.
Herein lies one of the greatest dangers of Trump’s presidency – taking negotiations with allies and enemies alike to the very brink, taking risks, unwillingness to admit error or defeat, reluctance to retreat from untenable initial positions. But even if he is forced to retreat, Trump will portray it as merely “advancing in a different direction”.
Global politics is in for a shock.
Sand in your eyes
The fourth major characteristic that might help explain Trump’s successful political strategy might be called “sand in your eyes” – the ability to divert attention from something he’d rather not talk about to something completely different and send the media scurrying off and analysing some off the wall outrageous public statement or tweet. “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” he tweeted, suggesting that US intelligence services had leaked “fake news” to the media about him. This generated much media scrutiny, at home and abroad, deflecting attention from him onto the motives of the intelligence services.
While the media fact-check and report back, Trump and his people have already moved on.
Which brings us to the fifth principal feature of Trumpism – populism and the race card, or rather, the xenophobia card. When under attack, legitimately or otherwise, go on the offensive in the name of the people against the establishment and the outsider, the un-American. It could be the media, intelligence agencies, the Republican or Democratic establishments, Hollywood, or experts and university academics – but everyone is against Trump, who is all that stands between the people and the enemy within.
But this is just more sand in your eyes, agenda-setting for political pundits, media commentators and newsrooms – while behind the scenes a completely different agenda is followed. In the shadows, but mostly hidden in plain sight – Trump’s appointed billionaires to his cabinet, major international corporations now sit at the heart of the US administration, family members have taken over top White House positions. At the same time, right-wing think tanks like Heritage Foundation and Hoover Institution provide policy advice to deregulate Wall Street, abolish the few consumer financial protections implemented since the 2008 financial crash, empower energy corporations through denying climate change science, propose massive military spending, slashing healthcare provision, social security and welfare. Meanwhile, major construction and other corporations rub their hands in anticipation of major infrastructure-building contracts.
Big corporations and big money in politics – which is what Trump railed against to win office as a radical non-establishment outsider – is precisely what his administration stands for and is the source of his definition of American national interests.
There was an oft-used expression in the 1950s – “what’s good for General Motors is good for the United States” and vice versa. That was never quite true but the white working and middle classes that voted in their droves for Trump did see major improvements in living standards in that era. They have pinned their hopes for a return to the ‘good old days’ on a Trump presidency. He’s unlikely to deliver, because of the pro-business model at the core of his personality, policy ideas and senior appointments.
And that’s when he will be at his most dangerous at home – playing the race card, blaming minorities and enemies within, Chinese, Mexicans and Muslims. More sand in your eyes and tapping into the politics of white male identity – a self-assigned endangered species, besieged on all sides. And loyal to the new emperor.
If Obama could retain, purely on the basis of his African-American-ness, the near-total support of black voters, despite their material positions’ deterioration since 2008, Trump may well retain his white identity support base.
But the people who swung the election his way, in the rust belts of Michigan and Pennsylvania, and who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, may not be satisfied with the smoke and mirrors of Trumpism unless they see some end to their economic woes and anxieties.
Division and rancour were the dominant effects of the Trump candidacy; as his inauguration draws near, this might be the new normal.
Future governor John Winthrop noted back in 1630 that the Puritan settlers would build “a city upon a hill.”
However that works out in Trump’s US, there is no doubting the truth of the second part of that quote – “the eyes of all people are upon us”.
Inderjeet Parmar is Professor of International Politics, and Co-Director of the Centre for International Policy Studies, at City, University of London. Follow him on Twitter and via his blog.
THE ELITE POWER BLOG
On this page one of the EPIC members as well as occasional guests will regularly publish blogs commenting on news and developments in world politics showing the power of elites or the resistance to elite power