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/
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.