Debates: As U.S. President Barack Obama enjoys his last few weeks in office, Russian and American experts examine the goals of his last international trip and assess the results of his policy decisions over the last eight years.
Obama met the leaders of key European countries to discuss an array of security and economic challenges facing the trans-Atlantic partners as the U.S. prepares for President-elect Donald Trump to take office in January. Photo: AP
On Nov. 21 Barack Obama returned from his last international trip in the capacity of U.S. president. His time in Greece, Germany and Peru was aimed at highlighting his commitment to “trans-Atlantic solidarity, a strong and integrated Europe, and to cooperation with our Asia Pacific partners.”
Obama even had a brief meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on Nov. 20. Despite the difficulties in dialogue over the last few years, the leaders assured each other of their mutual respect and parted, it seems, with no hard feelings against each other.
Apart from the official goals of the trip, are there any other tasks the outgoing president has tried to pursue before his successor, President-elect Donald Trump, takes office in January? How should we assess the results of Obama’s presidency?
Russia Direct reached out to Russian and foreign experts to share their views on these questions and shed light on what “legacy” Obama will leave Trump with.
James Carden, contributing editor and columnist at The Nation magazine and former advisor to the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department
One of the objectives of the president's final overseas trip was in part an exercise in "reassuring" worried American allies in Europe over the election of Donald J. Trump on Nov. 8. In the joint press conference Obama held with German Chancellor [Angela] Merkel he pledged American fidelity to the NATO alliance, stating, among other things, his belief that "If we don't have a strong transatlantic alliance...We will go backwards instead of forwards." Obama likely felt driven to do this because of what has been perceived as Trump's (in my view correct) questioning of the alliance's contribution to U.S. national security.
One can already assess the results of Obama’s presidency, but up to a point. In one sense, we can clearly see he has been unable to break free of what I believe is a bipartisan foreign policy orthodoxy which holds that the United States can and ought to act as the arbiter of sovereign legitimacy; and when the U.S. (alone or in concert with its "allies") decides a certain regime has violated the so-called "international order" it can and should overthrow that regime by any means (including extra-legal) necessary. As such, Obama's two terms have been marked by U.S. military adventures in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and on Russia's western borders. His administration's enthusiasm for the regime change model of international affairs has resulted in unnecessary suffering in Syria, Libya and eastern Ukraine.
The decision early on by President Obama to "personalize" the U.S.-Russian relationship was perhaps his biggest mistake. Once then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin decided to return to the Kremlin, in the process pushing out Obama-favorite Medvedev, who the administration bewilderingly placed so much faith in, relations between the two countries quickly soured. The disastrous decision to push regime change in Kiev led directly to the new Cold War in which we find ourselves and which will be President Obama's principal foreign policy legacy.
Ivan Timofeev, director of programs at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), head of ‘Contemporary State’ program at the Valdai Discussion Club
I wouldn’t attribute much significance to the recent meeting between Putin and Obama. It was most likely a personal conversation representing something of a ritual: They are in different positions now, with Obama concluding his term and Putin showing no signs of stepping down any time soon. This conversation might have an indirect connection with what Trump might hear from Obama in the future, as he is likely to consult with him on foreign policy questions.
The results of Obama’s tenure are quite controversial. On the one hand, he has done a lot to fulfill his domestic initiatives, most importantly launching healthcare reform, and contributed to the U.S. becoming a leader of the global coalition to address the consequences of the financial crisis.
Yet he was unable to resolve the crisis in Afghanistan and Iraq, as he planned before the election. He did withdraw the U.S. military, but the issues at the core of the crises in these countries remain unaddressed. Obama’s policy toward Syria was also widely criticized as the U.S. was unable to take the process of Syria’s transformation under its control. Another surprise was Russia’s reaction to U.S. policy in Ukraine, as Obama’s administration was unable to calculate the balance of power in the post-Soviet space.
In the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. failed to contain China’s power in the region. Beijing maintains close economic ties with the U.S. but remains independent politically, defending its national interests.
At the beginning of Obama’s presidency he aimed to pursue a policy of flexible coalitions in dealing with countries like Russia and China but this approach faced serious problems. In fact, attempts were already being made to lower the U.S. foreign policy burden under Obama, so Trump is not original in having this idea. Obama’s term started with efforts to resolve a range of foreign policy issues, but ended with a situation in which all these problems became even more complex: Relations with Russia worsened radically, China became more influential, the EU grew more independent and the Middle East became more unstable. So, Obama leaves his post in a situation worse than it was when he took it in 2008.
The Nobel Peace Prize that he received at the beginning of his tenure was, however, justified in a sense that he didn’t take any radical steps and avoided any escalation in the Middle East and Syria. He reached a deal with Iran on its nuclear program and he didn’t go into supplying arms to Ukraine. He always counted on moderate and diplomatic steps, not always successfully, but still. Compared to previous U.S. leaders, he often chose diplomacy over force in foreign policy decisions.
Nikolay Pakhomov, president of The New York Consulting Bureau
Obama’s last tour in his capacity as U.S. president seems to have had two unofficial goals. On the one hand, the outgoing president used his last trip to distract himself from developments at home, where Trump’s victory hit Obama’s political party and his ideological allies hard. Notwithstanding the great ambitions and plans expressed at the start of his term in 2008-2009, the real results of his presidency are quite moderate. So, he can only enjoy his final international trip in a high capacity.
On the other hand, Obama exchanged views with international allies, first and foremost, [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, who is now considered the leader of the global forces opposing the populist wave marked by Brexit and Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential elections. It is clear that the liberal establishment will have to find a way to counter this populism and the exchange of ideas will contribute to this process.
There has been a lot of criticism toward Obama’s policies, so I’d like to point out one positive fact: Notwithstanding the views of his advisors, Obama didn’t take any risky and clearly confrontational steps in his relations with Russia. The U.S. abstained from military intervention in Ukraine and Syria.
The new president Trump will inevitably have to choose a way forward and any decision will contribute to stabilizing the state of international affairs.
Andrei Korobkov, professor of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University
One feature of Obama’s personal style that often misleads observers is the fact that, in contrast to many of his predecessors, he never proclaimed an Obama Doctrine, never gave an elaborate description of his foreign policy concept and goals. If he disagreed with a long established official policy, instead of openly disagreeing with it, he dragged his feet, preventing the country from what he perceived as moving in the wrong direction. This peculiarity has given many observers an impression of him as a weak and indecisive leader. In reality, on many occasions, as happened with the adoption of the radical and controversial healthcare reform and the presidential executive orders in regard to migration policies on the home front, Obama has shown himself as a person who is ready to be both decisive and quite aggressive in promoting his goals.
In this sense, contrary to the currently popular stereotype, he may turn out to be one of the most consequential presidents in American history. Among the examples of Obama’s decisive foreign policy steps are the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the “nuclear deal” with Iran, and the quiet policies aimed at the establishment of a new political balance in the Middle East through the revision of U.S. relations with Israel, the conservative Sunni Arab regimes and Iran.
Serious disagreements exist in regard to Obama’s policies towards Russia. He was quite willing to stabilize the bilateral relations at the start of his first term, right after the conflict in Georgia, when he proposed a policy of “resetting” these relations. In 2011, Obama and Medvedev signed the START 3 Treaty. Still, simultaneously the expansion of NATO and the EU continued, and then tensions over Syria escalated and the crisis in Ukraine started, leading to the worsening of relations and the introduction of economic and political sanctions against Russia.
All this has led to the formation of a very negative image of Obama in Russia. Probably, this is not completely fair, and under the circumstances, these relations could have been much worse now under most other leaders.
Read the full version of Korobkov's opinion here.