The current global political, and security environment remains chaotic, dangerous, and unstable. While the Obama Administration has done its best to address them, there is no doubt that the incoming Donald Trump Administration will inherit one of the most difficult and challenging set of problems since the end of the Second World War. Under Obama’s presidency, America has seen its global leadership challenged by China in the South China Sea and by Russia in the Middle East and Ukraine.
In 2015, United States' allies in Europe including UK, France, Germany and Italy defied US to join China’s newly established World Bank-style Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Australia and South Korea (two key US allies in Northeast Asia) have indicated that they would join China's AIIB. Philippines, a long-time US ally is moving towards China’s orbit. China’s $45 billion investment in infrastructure building in Pakistan (part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) has seen Islamabad move ever more closer to Beijing. Africa and Latin American countries are also deepening their relationship with Beijing in an unprecedented fashion. But that is not all. Under Obama's leadership, cybersecurity threats and other non-traditional security threats have grown greatly from states and nonstates alike including Russia, China, North Korea, ISIS, al Qaeda and other terrorist networks with the US claiming that its November 7, 2016 presidential and congressional elections were influenced by Russia’s cyber intrusion.
Much of the chaos we are witnessing (cybersecurity threats; the growth of ISIS and terrorism; instability in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen) are partly the result of Obama's idealist foreign policy strategic thinking. Unlike the realists Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping who think their countries are in a perpetual geopolitical struggle and competition with the United States for global power and dominance (including economic, military, political, technological and cultural dominance), an idealist Obama does not share such thinking. In fact, while for example Putin is obsessed with power and revival of Russia’s lost global influence, Obama has been more concerned with the welfare of humanity, and how to help America recover and restore its tattered image after its disastrous invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Indeed, since assuming the presidency, Obama has made a number of foreign policy decisions that are different from the hawkish policies of his immediate predecessor. One of such foreign policy actions was his decision to withdraw US troops from Iraq at the time when Al Qaeda was not completely defeated and was still causing havoc in the country. That decision to withdraw US troops led to the lightning rise of ISIS and the danger it continues to pose to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. However, the decision to withdraw the troops is located in Obama’s belief that the world and particularly the Middle East would be more peaceful without the United States permanently stationing troops in Iraq. That thinking also informed Obama’s planned (and later botched) troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Obama's idealist philosophy was clearly demonstrated when he became reluctant to use force against Assad of Syria. Even after Assad had crossed Obama’s redlines several times, the US President still did not order troops to attack Assad as was anticipated. Besides, Obama gave a tepid support to Syrian rebels fighting to unseat Assad. While Obama ordered US planes to bomb ISIS positions in Raqqa, he provided only limited military assets to the rebels which contributed to their poor performance on the battlefield. On the other hand, the insertion of Putin in the Syrian conflict on the side of Assad, strategically changed the direction of the conflict in favour of Assad. In December 2016, Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city fell to Assad after Russia’s increased bombardment from the sky.
Obama's idealist leaning also explains his less than enthusiastic support for Ukrainians against Russia's incursions into Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea. Putin’s aggressive posture in Ukraine is in line with his thinking that the United States and her European allies were trying to undermine Russia by encroaching on Moscow's sphere of influence. Putin saw the collapse of the pro-Russia government of Viktor Yanucovich as the final proof that the United States and Europe were determined to limit Russia’s influence in its own neighbourhood. Putin therefore reacted in a typical realist fashion: the immediate deployment of Russia’s military and cybersecurity capabilities. Putin annexed Crimea and provided direct military support to the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Rather than Obama providing huge military support to enable the government in Kiev to regain control of the eastern provinces, he rather mobilised European countries to impose sanctions on Moscow, a proof that he was less enthusiastic in escalating the conflict with Putin. The sanctions did not cause Putin to alter his behaviour in Ukraine.
There are also other decisions Obama made which point to his lack of belief in guns and tanks as a way of resolving global conflict. President Obama was initially reluctant to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. When ISIS swept across northern Iraq and took Mosul and begun pursuing Yazidis, Christians and other minorities, Obama’s immediate response was to fly humanitarian supplies to those who fled to the Sinjar Mountain to escape the ISIS onslaught.
Even when Obama resolved to fight ISIS in Iraq, he decided to let Iraqi soldiers take the lead in the fight to recapture Mosul. That decision is a continuation of Obama’s earlier decision in Libya where he decided to let the United States lead from behind. Rather than let the United States lead the war against Gaddafi, Obama took a back seat and allowed France and Britain to lead the fight. Similarly, when Houthi rebels seized Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, and ousted President Mansour Hadi, it was King Salman and Saudi Arabia (not Obama and the United States) that became the decider. President Obama decided to let regional powers take the lead in regional wars as against say in 1990 when US intervened to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait during the Gulf War I. Meanwhile Putin was very decisive when Mikheil Saakachvili’s government in Tbilisi provoked Moscow in 2008. Putin’s quickly made it clear to the leadership in Georgia that they would risk destroying their country if they continued to provoke Moscow. Putin’s defeat of Mikheil Saakachvili was very humiliating for George Bush who did nothing to help its caucasus ally.
Putin is the opposite of Obama. To paraphrase Robert Kagan, Putin is from Mars. Obama is from Venus. Obama believes in the rule of law; multilateral approach to addressing global problems. He is sensitive to domestic and international public opinion, has a strong faith in diplomacy and negotiation as tools to resolving regional conflict. Putin on the other hand favours unilateralism, and the use of hard power. While President Putin is aggressively asserting Russia's influence in Russia's neighbourhood (e.g. in Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, and in the Middle East e.g. Syria), Obama has done little to counterbalance Putin in the geopolitical struggle for control of Eurasia i.e. Europe and Asia.
In Asia, China's rise as a great power continues to overwhelm both the US and China's neighbours particularly Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea etc. For several decades the United States was the leading trading partner of Japan and South Korea. However, in 2004 China replaced the United States as South Korea's s leading trading partner. Similarly in 2007 China overtook the United States as Japan's leading trading partner. China's growing trade relations with Japan and South Korea has altered the balance of power in Northeast Asia in favour of China. Indeed, Beijing's growing global economic clout and the accompanied rising military muscle have enabled China to challenge US primacy and as a hegemon in Asia. Obama responded to China's assertiveness with several policies including the huge free trade agreement with 12 Asia-Pacific nations commonly called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the pivot to Asia policy (the transfer of US military assets and alliances with Asia countries intended to encircle and contain China, and boost US position in Asia). Meanwhile China has countered the pivot and the TPP through a series of strategies including Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), the Silk Road Economic Belt strategy, the Maritime Silk Road strategy and adamantly continuing to develop and build military assets on the disputed South China Sea littoral islands.
Obama was hailed as a pacifist trying to bring peace rather than war in the world and was rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize. Under his 8 year tenure as POTUS (President of the United States), Obama made it a top priority to end the more than half a century old conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians. Though he did not succeed, his effort to bring peace to the region was more genuine than some of his predecessors.
Obama also attempted to reset US relations with Russia and tried hard to work cooperatively with the Kremlin. One of his major efforts was to denuclearise the world by engaging Russia to cut the number of their nuclear stockpiles. US and Russia currently possess about 90% of the close to 20,000 nuclear stockpiles in the world. Both countries combined have 3000 nuclear warheads that can be deployed at any time. It was Obama’s belief that the world will be more peaceful without nuclear weapons hence his insistence on reaching nuclear deal with Iran. Indeed, Obama’s negotiations with Iran to freeze to Tehran's nuclear activities and to free the Middle East from arms race and weapons of mass destruction could not have happened under any Realist president.
Obama's decision to end more than 50 years of animosity with its southern neighbour i.e. Cuba, represents a major paradigm shift in US foreign policy calculations. His visit to Cuba is a testament to his in peace and good neighbourliness. That Americans and Cubans can freely visit each other, do business together can only happen under a leader who does not believe in a zero sum foreign policy making. Indeed Obama’s Cuba gestures has brought the final chapter of the Cold War to an end.
Climate change has been touted as one of the leading political, economic, social and environmental threats of our time. Obama has recognised the threat a warming planet and changing climate pose to humanity. He has pushed for emissions cut with major polluters like China, the European Union, India and other major polluters. The Paris climate agreement represents a hope for humanity.
On the home front, when Obama took office in 2009, the US economic and financial systems were on the brink of a total meltdown, a problem which also threatened the health of the global economy and finance. But today the economic and financial meltdown have been brought under control. US financial and automobile corporations have seen their fortunes revived. More than 11 million jobs were created.
How will history judge Obama? In my opinion Obama will be judged as a president whose love for humanity, global peace (as against Putin’s narrow national interests) forced him to take decisions that made his enemies gear for his blood while his admirers wished he had governed for a long time.
5 January 2017