By Rajesh Rajagopalan
US President Barack Obama left office mouthing the same soaring, ungrounded rhetoric with which he came in. The eight years in-between has made the vacuity and inadequacy of that rhetoric abundantly clear. He has presided over a diminishing of American influence far out of proportion to the real decline of American power. He leaves behind a country that faces far many problems, mostly self-inflicted, in the international arena than when he took over. Obama’s failures have consequences not just for the US but for many parts of the world, with growing regional insecurity from the Indo-Pacific to the Baltics breeding suspicion, competition, instability and possibly war.
It is important to understand the reasons for Obama’s failures because they implicate a certain worldview that still resonates in parts of the American establishment. More importantly, though they have different worldviews, some elements of President Donald Trump’s policy framework are uncomfortably close to the policy outcomes of Obama’s worldview.
At the root of this worldview lay an odd mixture of liberal internationalism and a radical leftwing rejection of American moral authority, all wrapped in the false flag of a realist’s worry about American over-extension. It was a worldview that assumed that disputes between states result not from a natural conflict of interest and balance of power politics but from the lack of understanding of opposing perspectives that can be resolved by dialogue. Convinced that it was misguided American foreign policy that was the source of much of the conflict between the US and others – policies he frequently derided as the “Washington playbook” – he championed a different approach that sought to reach out to adversaries and treat American allies with greater circumspection. His successor is being rightly criticised for threatening America’s global alliance structure, but Obama had started down this road much earlier. What Obama sought was a general disengagement from Washington’s leadership role that one of his advisors memorably characterised as “leading from behind”. In essence, it was a worldview that saw America’s global role as the problem and a diminution of that role as the solution.
In the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, this became a common liberal trope, and one which even some Realists accepted, that US global role was breeding resentment and hampering US foreign policy. But there is little indication that a reduced US footprint has enhanced US reputation, or more importantly, that it has had any direct relevance to American strategic effectiveness. For example, Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world, complemented with the Iran nuclear deal, his clear partiality towards the Palestinians in their dispute with Israel, and his refusal to intervene in Syria or Yemen, did not garner him much goodwill: despite some initial enthusiasm, as he left office, his image in that part of the world left “much to be desired”. The reason is simple: strong states, whether global ones or regional, will breed fear and resentment simply because they are strong. This is as true of India in South Asia as it is of the US in the global system. This is an unavoidable cost that come with the privileges of being a great power. This is not to suggest that the US (or India) have not behaved badly or that they should behave badly but to underline the foolishness of making international opinion the guiding principle in strategic behavior.
Attempting to reduce the US’s global role was illogical because the US is not just another state: it still remains the world’s most powerful state. Great powers, especially unipolar powers, bear a disproportionate burden of the cost of maintaining international order, whether it is in the security realm or in that of international commerce. There are two reasons why they should be willing to bear that burden: first, while they may pay a disproportionate cost, they also reap a disproportionate profit from the maintenance of that order. The US has benefited greatly from the liberal international order that it established after the Second World War, even more so than other states that may not have had to bear as much of the costs of maintaining it. Similarly, in the security realm, the US established a nuclear non-proliferation order which may have benefited all but allowed the US to remain an untrammeled global power. These are benefits that are usually not well recognized in the US debate about its global role.
Second, if the US withdraws from playing this role, no one else will step into the breech. No other power has the capacity that the US has to play this global role. While in theory it may appear that a combination of great powers may be able to match the US in capacity, the likelihood that they would be able to coordinate their differing interests to promote such an order are quite low. If the European Union or the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) were able to form successful regional groupings, this owed much to the protection that the US offered, which ensured that these countries did not have to worry as much about each other, making cooperation more likely. America’s refusal to play this role might result not in a more democratic multilateral order but a crumbling one. It will harm all, but it will harm the US most of all because it is the US that has the most to gain. In other words, the US can choose not to play its global role, but that would be a poor choice.
If Obama’s desire to reduce America’s global role was misguided, his reluctance to acknowledge the centrality of power politics was an even bigger problem. Syria is one prominent example. The bloodshed in Syria will for a long time be blamed on Obama’s reluctance to commit American power to resolve or at least contain the civil war there. But the real problem with Obama’s policies in Syria was not that it allowed the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian backers to conduct one of the most openly brutal civil war campaigns in recent decades. It is foolish to expect that states, including the US, will expend their blood and treasure for saving strangers in a distant land, whatever the claims of statesmen in peacetime. The real problem was that Obama and his administration refused to recognise that as terrible as the civil war was, it also had consequences for the regional balance of power. This was the primary reason why Iran and its client, the Hezbollah terrorists, quickly and decisively went all-in to support the Assad regime. It was the same recognition of the wider consequences that led other, much weaker regional players such as Saudi Arabia, and distant ones such as Russia, to also push their chips forward. But Obama, conditioned to dismiss balance of power concerns, was blind these larger implications. The consequence is that the US is no longer a serious player in the region, at least for the present, and the competition between the various regional players in the region has intensified, potentially poisoning the regions politics for some time to come.
An even more consequential example is China and Obama’s refusal to recognise the increasing threat that China posed, both because of its growing power but also because of its increasing aggressiveness in the region. Obama sought a partnership with China, seeking China’s help in shoring up a global system that Beijing clearly saw as underwriting American dominance rather than as a neutral one that benefited all, including China. When Obama reluctantly sought to counter China with the pivot and rebalancing, it was too little, only serving to confirm China’s suspicions that American intentions were hostile while doing little to actually shore up confidence among American allies in the region. The consequence is that China is now militarily planted in Southeast Asia, with American allies seriously debating whether they might not be better off cutting a deal with China instead.
The consequence of Obama’s strategic foolishness is a much more dangerous and unstable world. It is also one in which Washington is trusted even less by its allies, which will only make any effort at stabilising the international order that much more difficult. Obama may have left office and the memory of his rhetorical flourishes may fade but the damage he has done to the international order will remain with us for some time.