international analysis and commentary

The thwarted greatness of Barack Obama in foreign policy


It seems like a million years ago that Barack Obama, then at the apogee of his fame, gave his address to half a million people in Berlin in 2008. Curious to see the phenomenon of Obama-mania, I was a drop of water in that ocean of people. What was most striking about being there was the mismatch between the somewhat anodyne nature of what was being said – the speech was staid, sober, reasonable but unspectacular – and the rock star adulation that greeted the speaker.

After the address was over, I bumped into an old Washington hand who I had known from my days in the capital who was now working for Obama. I said only half in jest, “There is simply no way your guy can live up to this.” My friend smiled tightly and replied, “Yes, that is what worries all of us.”

And of course, the tragedy of Barack Obama is that, as he was a merely a human being, he did not.

But while this unfair yardstick was beyond attaining, despite his undoubted prodigious gifts, President Obama also failed in more concrete terms. The many successes of his closet realist foreign policy – which kept America from stumbling into yet another major war in the Middle East, rightly saw Asia as where the action is in the new era, and correctly perceived that the world itself is now multipolar – are ethereal and will disappear as soon as Donald Trump (with his Jacksonian nationalist foreign policy) is sworn in as president.

The other tragedy of the Obama years is that while he was right that realism is the correct way to strategically think about the new multipolar world, he did not tell anyone else of his insight, forgoing necessary fights with the more utopian schools of thought such as Wilsonianism and neo-conservatism. As such, there are no Obama closet realist acolytes to politically carry on his cause. His many wise, measured and correct foreign policy initiatives (the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal in Asia leaps to mind) in the end amount to nothing lasting.

What closet realism as a foreign policy strategy looked like

America’s oft-stated Pivot to Asia was the focus of the White House’s overall grand strategic goal. The President wanted America to spend far more time and effort in a region where much of the world’s future growth will occur and where much of its political risk is bound to threaten to kill the goose that just might lay the golden egg of future global growth. For unlike in Europe, there are simply not any major multilateral institutions that are in place to cushion the strategic blows that fall there; foreign policy remains based on unadulterated power politics.

Further, tactical conditions in Asia were promising for the US. Due to the recent Chinese provocative stance in the South China and East China Seas, many important countries in the region increasingly yearn for America to play a larger role there, if only because realism dictates that favoring a far-away offshore- balancing ally is infinitely preferable to yielding to the domination of a neighboring bully. Nations such as Japan, Vietnam, India, South Korea, the (pre-Duterte) Philippines and Australia were all calling for America to do more, a welcome change for a Washington unused to much popularity in other vital hotspots such as Europe and the Middle East.

Vitally, the region’s other great power, China, lurked as the only possible peer competitor to America in the long term. As such, spending time in the region carefully monitoring Beijing’s progress – building a coalition of Asian allies that makes any future effort by Beijing to become a revolutionary global power far more problematic – made eminent sense.

But for the Pivot to Asia to work, two other corresponding diminutions in America’s global presence were absolutely necessary. First, the US has to do less in Europe. Here America’s non-action over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move into eastern Ukraine and Crimea is instructive. Despite the usual beating of hawkish breasts, the Obama White House has managed to do the minimum over the crisis.

The Obama White House’s desire to do less in Europe was mirrored by its efforts to decrease America’s strategic footprint in the thankless Middle East, a region that has caused America no end of heartbreak over the past generation. In both cases, the White House wanted to position America as ultimately a great power off-shore balancer, with the US remaining a major player, but one who safeguards an organic balance of power, rather than intensively tending to the daily chores of alliance management in both regions.

All these foreign policy initiatives were informed by a greater strategic insight, that the US found itself in a very different structural position now that the world has become multipolar, an era of many powers. While America remains – much like Lord Salisbury’s late nineteenth century Britain – first among equals, and the greatest power in the world, it also is a fact that other countries are relatively gaining on it, and that there are real limits to the what the US can do, strictures that were not there in the freewheeling post-Cold War days.

Obama grasped this fundamental reality shift, but did not bother to tell anyone about it, as it would have been at odds with the dominant utopian Wilsonian school of thought in his own Democratic Party. The President’s standoffish approach to governing meant it was easier to simply not use the White House as a bully pulpit (as say Truman had done), come what may teaching the country about America’s place in this new world. It was far easier to avoid this fight, do the right closet realist thing, and pretend nothing much had changed. While understandable, this diffident political strategy has led to calamity.

Conclusion: The limits of closet realism

A foreign policy that cut prior losses (Iraq, Afghanistan), did not initiate new adventures (Syria), believed in talking to enemies (Iran), did not waste much time on the impossible (Palestinian-Israeli peace), and focused on the essential (Asia) was all in place. And yet for being right about all this, Obama’s analytically correct closet realism will have no staying power, as the White House’s largely neglected foreign policy goes unnoticed into oblivion.

There have been no political battles over closet realism. But there has also been no re-education of the American public and its elites; the world has changed, but overall American thinking about foreign policy – never seriously challenged by the Obama administration – remains disastrously mired in an earlier era of easy American dominance.

While closet realism has been temporarily, fleetingly, effective, the absence of discussion about both it and the world it was created to deal with risks dooming America to a series of catastrophic failures, once the maximalist guard returns, who, like the Bourbons, never forgets anything and never learns anything. The tragedy of Barack Obama is that he was right about foreign policy, but never bothered to tell anyone about the new world he so accurately foresaw.