Barack Obama came to office believing his predecessor had overreached in the world, notably in his conduct of the global war on terrorism. Convinced that the United States had become overextended and stood more alone on the world stage than ever before, Obama had run on a platform of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and regaining the trust of the world. Facing the most significant financial crisis in generations, he stressed the importance of sharing more of the burdens and responsibilities of global leadership with others.
The result was a foreign policy that minimized reliance on large-scale military action and maximized cooperation with others. Obama steadily reduced the U.S. military commitment to Iraq and, following a brief surge in military activity, transformed the U.S. presence in Afghanistan into a small training mission. He sharply increased the use of small, targeted military operations, but he steadfastly refused to get drawn into another major engagement of the kind launched by his predecessors — whether in Syria, Libya, Ukraine or elsewhere.
Instead, Obama reached out to other nations, convinced that meeting new threats, as he said in his first inaugural address, demanded “greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations.” Even to America’s enemies, Obama offered to extend a hand to those willing to receive it.
This more restrained policy was broadly welcomed by U.S. allies and friends abroad. Favorable views of America’s role in the world rose sharply, and generally remained there for the duration of his presidency.
The positive reviews were hardly universal. Critics at home and abroad blame his minimalist approach to military engagement for many of the ills in the world today. To them, Obama’s restraint led to a world in which Syria has become a humanitarian nightmare, a source of destabilizing refugee flows into the Middle East and Europe and an incubator of the Islamic State. They blame him for allowing a world in which Vladimir Putin has returned as a Russian strongman, invading neighbors and flexing his military muscle in the Middle East and beyond; and where China has risen as a geostrategic adversary in the Asia-Pacific region. As Donald Trump put it, the Obama legacy abroad is “death, destruction, terrorism and weakness.”
The critics have a point. While saying he would never take options off the table, Obama made clear that restraint was his primary choice. The result has been that those who wish America ill may have had little incentive not to defy it. Exhibit number one for these critics was the President’s failure to enforce his own red line in Syria--a failure that contributed to a perception of weakness.
Obama is right to note that working with Moscow to get rid of Syrian chemical weapons was an outcome no amount of bombing could have accomplished on its own. But he is wrong to dismiss the idea that a president’s words matter, especially in foreign affairs. When other nations come to doubt those words, they may hedge their bets in working with Washington, and our ability to get them to align with us against common foes or in pursuit of common purposes will be lessened.
Yet it is simplistic to assign blame for all the world’s ills to Obama’s more restrained policies abroad. It is far from clear — nor have his critics demonstrated — that a more aggressive policy would have resulted in better outcomes. And as the decade preceding his presidency showed, the opposite may well have been true. At the same time, the assumption that everything in the world — for good or ill — happens because of American action or inaction greatly overstates our power and influence.
The situations in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and the rise of the Islamic State and terror networks, have far more to do with the long-standing crisis of governance in the Arab world than with how much force America is willing to use. Similarly, Putin had his own reasons for invading Ukraine and intervening in Syria — above all, to bolster his standing at home and defend Moscow’s interests in both countries. And whether we like it or not, China is a rising great power and will increasingly act like great powers do, seeking to extend their sphere of influence regionally and globally.
The challenge for U.S. foreign policy is not to deny these realities, but to forge policies that protect and enhance America’s interests in ways that take them into account. Indeed, this world of diffused power and increased global threats requires a different kind of American leadership — a 21st-century form of leadership.
That is the kind in which Obama believes, and which he largely exercised. To Obama, not every global problem has an American solution. Although few such problems can be solved without America’s direct involvement, in most instances it requires the active participation of others to succeed. Effective leadership in today’s world isn’t just about who is in the driver’s seat, but about who comes along for the ride. More often than not, it requires sharing — of responsibilities, of burdens and of credit. It also requires a willingness to compromise to gain consensus. And while military force has a role to play, it is not the only or even the most decisive instrument available to the United States in today’s complex world.
“The time has come to realize that the old habits, the old arguments, are irrelevant to the challenges faced by our people,” Obama told the U.N. General Assembly in his first annual address there. “Together, we must build new coalitions that bridge old divides.” America seeks “a future of peace and prosperity,” but this can be achieved only “if we recognize that all nations have rights, but all nations have responsibilities as well. That is the bargain that makes this work. That must be the guiding principle of international cooperation.”
Perhaps nowhere was Obama’s view of U.S. leadership more evident than with respect to the Iranian nuclear threat. From the outset, he made clear that he sought to engage Tehran to end its nuclear weapons program. Although he did keep the option of force on the table, Obama preferred a negotiated deal, which he believed would be more lasting and less costly. To achieve it, he forged a global coalition--backed by the U.N. Security Council and all its permanent members--that imposed punishing sanctions on Iran. Once negotiations were underway, the involvement of all the key players effectively limited Tehran’s options.
The result was a deal that capped Iran’s nuclear ambitions for a decade or more and put in place the most intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated.
Addressing the growing threat of climate change offered another opportunity to display this more inclusive type of leadership. For years, the biggest obstacle to an international agreement cutting greenhouse gas emissions had been the unwillingness of developing countries to commit to such reductions. Obama realized that in this, China was key, and so he worked to gain Beijing’s agreement to cut its emissions. That bilateral agreement, announced in November 2014, provided the foundation for the successful conclusion of the 2015 Paris negotiations, in which all nations pledged to cut emissions to slow the rise in global temperatures.
Cooperative leadership also was Obama’s goal in more traditional settings, including Europe and Asia. Even before Russian actions in Ukraine necessitated collective action, strengthening NATO was an important concern of the administration. All U.S. troops in Afghanistan were placed under NATO command, missile defense deployments were transitioned from a system focused on defending the United States from Europe to a NATO system defending NATO in Europe, and a new strategic concept was put in place to guide the alliance in this new world. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Washington worked with its partners in the European Union to put significant sanctions on Moscow, and with its NATO allies to bolster the defense of Eastern Europe.
Obama indicated early on that the weight of U.S. foreign policy effort and attention would shift to Asia, the most dynamic and economically most important region of the world. One immediate effect of the “Asia pivot” was to provide allies and friends a counterbalance to a rising China, many of whom in previous years had begun to slide into Beijing’s orbit. Stronger alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia were matched by improved relations with Indonesia, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations. And through the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Obama was able to bring together the most critical U.S. partners in the Asia-Pacific region, including key partners in North and South America, in a major pact that, once approved, will set the rules for trade for years to come.
A foreign policy of restraint was inevitable, given the strong disinclination of the American public to pursue more military adventures, and the severe financial crisis undermining the economy. One can argue the extent of such moderation, but not the need for it.
Obama surely made his share of mistakes, including misreading the Arab Spring. He believed that support for the ouster of authoritarian regimes put America and his administration on the right side of history. But calling for the overthrow of dictators while doing little--in some cases, nothing--to help those who sought their downfall was a contradiction that has already had significant, long-term costs.
The need to balance power remains a central factor in global politics. Obama played down, and perhaps even underestimated, the geopolitical challenge posed by Russia and China, and the importance of signaling resolve in the face of clear provocations. And he never really invested in the personal relationships abroad or at home that might have helped forge more agreement on the direction and requirements of America’s relations with the world.
But with all its flaws, the course Obama chose abroad was arguably a realistic one for turbulent times and a new century. More than his predecessors--and his critics--he understood the complexities of our world and of power and leadership. A new American president, crafting an approach to a world in turmoil, could do worse than to take a page out of the Obama playbook.
Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013.