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Has Obama’s foreign policy been rudderless?

At the end of this second term, the American president Barack Obama has been subjected to a lot of criticism based on his foreign policy record. As well as being accused of not having a clear political doctrine by comparison with his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama has also been held single-handedly responsible for the decline of American power and leadership in the world. While his record can indeed be said to be a mixed bag, his foreign policy deserves to be judged objectively and not subjected to mere ridicule. This is what Sebastian Santander, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Relations Studies at the University of Liege, has set out to do in an article (1) entitled: “Has the Obama administration (really) been making it up as it goes along on the international stage?”  

Obama PortraitThere are many aspects to the case against Barack Obama among which the actual attitude and words of the president play a significant part. Indeed, upon his arrival at the Whitehouse, Barack Obama lost no time in distinguishing himself from Bush junior. His style in the making of the US foreign policy has unquestionably been very different, “He is someone who participates in a lot of meetings in which he seeks the involvement of those who are close to him and those who are not so close. He wants to take everyone’s opinion on board and has trouble deciding. He is very analytical which tends to slow down his decision-making”, explains Professor Sebastian Santander. Leaving aside Manichean statements and a binary division of the world into the “axis” of good” and the “axis of evil”, “Obama has shown himself to be a pragmatist and solver of problems. He claims not to be following a pre-determined ideological course and to be acting in accordance with the various dossiers as they appear. For the entire duration of his mandate, from 2009 to 2016, international news has been rocked by major shocks and upheavals, particularly in the Middle East. This volatile context has obliged Obama and his administration to continually adapt and sometimes even backtrack, giving the impression of a lack of strategy and transparency. Critics of this policy are quick to highlight what they see as a lack of consistency with regard to the Afghanistan and Iraq dossiers. While before the US presidential election of 2008, the president had committed to withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, he really only succeeded in withdrawing them from Iraq in order to consolidate the level of ground troops in Afghanistan. This was not the only commitment not to have been kept as, in the case of Syria, the use of chemical weapons by the Bachar El-Assad regime against part of his population had been defined as a “red line” which, if crossed, would result in an armed intervention by American ground troops in Syria. This position did not sit easily with Obama’s initial promise that America would no longer be drawn into large-scale military operations which had become increasingly unpopular in terms of American public opinion. Be that as it may, the gulf between the public declarations and the actual actions undertaken have only served to corroborate the theory that, in spite of all the prevarication, the Obama administration was merely acting in a transparent manner which distinguished it from previous administrations.  

Interest for the emerging nations 

However, Professor Santander shows that the reality is much more complex. The Bush years had considerably tarnished the image of the United States in the eyes of the world and it was necessary for Obama to modify the messianic approach to foreign policy adopted by his predecessor in order to restore America’s reputation globally. It was to this onerous task that Obama applied himself with varying degrees of success in accordance with each case. On the negative side, the failure to close down Guantanamo prison and the lack of progress with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian issue must be underlined. Similarly, the outstretched hand approach to North Korea and Russia has not yielded the expected results despite Obama’s wish to engage in dialogue. However, other initiatives can be seen as a success. This applies to the normalization of relations with Cuba, a cause that had long been championed by the American president while he was still only a senator. Elsewhere, Iran constitutes another notable success story and is the result of a resolutely pragmatic policy. 

(1) Has the Obama Administration (really) being making it up as it goes along on the global stage? In Recherches Internationales, vol. 106, 2016.

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