The administration “reset” frayed U.S.-Russian relations, in part by reconfiguring a planned American missile-defense shield in Europe to a profile less threatening to Moscow. In turn, Russia backed a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a key nonproliferation goal for Obama. Moscow also eventually acceded to the toughest sanctions to date on Iran to counter its nuclear ambitions. The reset did little to change the Kremlin’s authoritarian ways at home, however, and since hard-liner Vladimir Putin’s return to Russia’s presidency, he has embraced some of the most bellicose anti-Western rhetoric heard from Moscow in years.
As an increasingly self-confident China greatly ramped up military spending and began aggressively staking territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Obama administration responded with a strategic pivot toward Asia that will bolster the U.S. military presence and forge closer military ties to Asian nations, such as Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. This decision builds upon a venerable strategy, followed by successive administrations, of both engaging the rising Chinese giant and hedging against Beijing’s becoming a more belligerent power.
The administration’s record in the Middle East is decidedly more mixed. Obama traveled to Cairo in June 2009 and gave a “New Beginning” speech reaching out to the Muslim world, promising in part to pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that remains a constant irritant in U.S.-Arab relations. He called on the Palestinians to renounce violence, and on Israel to halt settlement activity in the occupied territories that is viewed as illegitimate under international law. However, when Israel refused to freeze all of its settlement-building and pushed back against U.S. pressure, the administration’s Muslim outreach bogged down.
The Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 then put the Obama administration in reactive mode. The president called on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step aside, let allies France and Great Britain take the lead in a NATO air operation that ousted Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, and refused to intervene militarily to stop Syria’s strongman, Bashar al-Assad, from waging war on his people.
The Obama administration balanced its “soft power” diplomacy by surging tens of thousands of U.S. troops to Afghanistan (after fulfilling a pledge to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq), and greatly increased its targeting of terrorist leaders. Last year a Navy SEAL team killed al-Qaida’s chief, Osama bin Laden, in his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (National security is the subject of a future article in this issues series.)
Last month, Vice President Joe Biden previewed the administration’s closing argument on its first-term foreign policy, in a speech at New York University: “Three and a half years ago, when President Obama and I took office, and stepped into that Oval Office, our nation had been engaged in two wars for the better part of a decade. Al-Qaida was resurgent, and Osama bin Laden was at large. Our alliances were dangerously frayed. And our economy—the foundation of our national security—was on the precipice of a new depression.” In response, Biden said, Obama initiated strategies for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stepped up targeted killings that decimated al-Qaida’s leadership, and stabilized the economy with tough decisions such as the bailout of Detroit. “If you’re looking for a bumper sticker to sum up how President Obama has handled what we inherited, it’s pretty simple: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
Bumper stickers aside, the Obama doctrine that has emerged after nearly four years—multilateral and mindful of international institutions such as the United Nations, consensus-building and engaging of allies and adversaries alike, occasionally tough-minded in the use of force—places the administration in the mainstream “liberal internationalist” tradition in world affairs, or what the authors of Bending History call “progressive pragmatism.” That essentially realist worldview explains why a number of Obama’s top foreign-policy initiatives have drawn support from notable moderate Republicans, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates; former Sen. Chuck Hagel; Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana; and former Secretaries of State Colin Powell, George Shultz, and Henry Kissinger. It has also produced a Democratic president who polls better on foreign than domestic policy, and better on national security than his GOP rival.
“Obama came into office at the very height of a nearly unprecedented financial crisis, which accelerated the rise of China and other developing countries, and meant that the global distribution of power was going to be less tilted in America’s favor than in the past,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, one of the authors of Bending History. “Whether you call him a ‘progressive pragmatist’ or a ‘liberal realist,’ I think Obama generally fashioned a foreign policy that made reasonable adjustments to the reality that the United States’ leverage, while still greater than anyone else’s, is somewhat reduced in this era.”