Beginning the Discussion of Obama's Legacy: Foreign Affairs Part 2

By: Alex Moore

Another hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy is a willingness to question who our allies and adversaries are and why that is the case. Most notably, Obama campaigned in 2008 saying that he would be willing to talk to Iran, North Korea, and other rogue states that had been written off by much of the foreign policy establishment as too hardline to negotiate with. This open-minded willingness most notably resulted in the Obama administration striking a bilateral agreement with Iran to offer economic sanctions relief and unfreeze assets in return for Iran promising to curb their nuclear aspirations for the time being. This is a massive gamble on Obama’s part. The deal, in the short run, emboldens Iran to act in an even more aggressive fashion in the greater Middle Eastern region and, critics argue, gives Iran stimulus to further fund terrorist organizations that light fires under sectarian tensions in the region. Proponents of the deal argue that there was no better option on the table to curb Iran’s nuclear program for the time being (they contend that it was inevitable that Iran would break out with nukes) and hope that integrating Iran into the world’s economic system will lead to moderation in Iranian policy. The deal enraged our longtime Sunni allies in the region, as well as Israel. Critics call this abandoning our allies, while proponents claim it is smart realpolitik on the part of Obama. I rarely, if ever, give my policy opinions #OnHere. However, I feel obliged to state that there is quite literally no better option here. The deal is deeply flawed, but I implore anyone to come up with a better option over how to contain Iran’s regional rise while simultaneously forcing Iran to curb its Uranium enrichment efforts. Obama also abandoned half a century of bipartisan consensus by lifting the trade embargo on Cuba and normalizing relations with the communist dictatorship.

Obama’s presidency was also marked by an increasingly aggressive Russia. Obama’s two terms saw Russia annex Crimea, launch a full-scale intervention to bolster the Assad regime in Syria, and intervene in Ukraine in order to keep the former Eastern Bloc country in its influential orbit when it appeared as though Ukraine would integrate with the west and seek NATO and EU membership. Obama has chosen not to aggressively check Putin’s behavior, and has received criticism from some due to this. However, Obama has contended that no American interests are directly threatened by this Russian aggression, therefore warranting no substantial response. Going forward, this will be something to watch, as the Arctic becomes an increasingly important geostrategic region. Russia has already acted in an assertive manner to stake claims over the region’s natural resources. America is one of the few countries in the world with territory above the Arctic Circle and also has been prepping for the coming geostrategic battle for the Arctic. Norway, a NATO country, and Finland and Sweden, two countries that are debating joining NATO, also have a stake in the game. Going forward, it will be debated whether or not Obama should have done more to prevent Russian aggression during his term and whether or not he emboldened Putin to act assertively.

I will conclude by discussing Obama’s pivot to Asia. As Obama sought to pull back American commitments in the greater Middle East, he has sought to pivot more attention to Asia. As a realist, Obama believes that the biggest thing foreign policy makers should be concerned with is containing China’s geopolitical rise in a peaceful manner. While no other nation currently has the ability to match American military power in the contemporary day, China’s economy does match America’s from the standpoint of sheer output. Thus, as China grows militarily, it is likely that China will seek to become a hegemonic force throughout Asia and the Pacific. This has already started to happen, as evidenced by China’s forceful rhetoric concerning the South China Sea territorial disputes and the Taiwan issue. One of Obama’s major substantive achievements of his time was negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive free trade deal that includes numerous countries in the Pacific Rim. At face value, the deal will allow America unrestrained access to the markets in a region that is growing, and will continue to grow, quite quickly. Aside from the economic benefits, however, lies a deeper incentive behind the deal. The deal will bring all of these countries in China’s immediate orbit even closer to the US. The goal is to further isolate China within its own region and keep American interests in line with the interests of many of the other Pacific Rim countries. In my opinion, this has the potential to be one of, if not the biggest achievements of his presidency (domestic or foreign) and, if successful, will be applauded as a massive accomplishment for the Obama presidency. Of course, fierce rhetoric against free trade has manifested itself in the 2016 campaign and large swaths of the American electorate are supporting candidates (Sanders and Trump) that are vehemently opposed to free trade. This rhetoric against free trade is quite baffling to myself and the vast majority of others with a rudimentary grasp of international political economy. At worst, free trade agreements only result in moderate economic gain, while simultaneously increasing economic interdependence and peace. As the saying goes, “when goods don’t cross borders, armies will.”

To summarize, as certain events play out throughout the world, Obama has the potential to be viewed in a variety of ways from the standpoint of his foreign policy. Best case scenario, his cautious realism kept America out of multiple conflicts that did not directly concern American interests, the Iran nuclear deal resulted in Iran abiding by the stipulations of the deal and ultimately moderating its policies towards Sunni states and Israel as it further coalesces into the international arena, Russia’s economy continues to crumble and Putin becomes further isolated in the international arena, the Syrian/Libyan refugee crisis does not result in the crumbling of the European Union and the continent does not resort to nationalism and protectionism, and the TPP simultaneously provides economic growth and cheaper goods for all nations involved at moderate low-skill job loss domestically (which it will, don’t listen to Trump or Sanders) while also bringing Asia closer to the US and further from China’s hegemonic grasp. Of course, he may be judged much harshly, particularly if Iran does not moderate, breaks out with nukes, pursues further expansion in the Middle East,  and arms terrorist actors such as Hezbollah with nukes that they then in turn launch against Israel, wiping the Jewish state off of the earth as Iran has arguably claimed that they seek to do in the past.

In my personal opinion, I think the TPP, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and the opening to Cuba will be judged kindly by historians in the future. The TPP has the potential to be a transcendent achievement for the Obama administration, similar to how the Marshall Plan was a transcendent achievement for the Truman administration. Obama’s lack of involvement in Syria has the potential to cast a permanent shadow over his legacy. While Obama makes very compelling arguments not to intervene, things have gotten so out of hand in the conflict that I broadly disagree with his decision making in Syria. Obama can argue that American interests are not directly threatened and that idealistic involvement, such as preventing genocide or fostering democracy, has the potential to backfire, but I simply do not believe that things could possibly get worse than they are right now.

This analysis is by no means in-depth. There will be books that are hundreds of pages long written about Obama’s foreign policy legacy. I encourage all readers to leave comments discussing their thoughts or email me ( to further discuss any of the topics I have brought up or topics that I haven’t even mentioned (international relations is a complex and nasty subject). Moreover, I strongly encourage readers to check out Obama’s interview with The Atlantic which discusses his foreign policy in great detail.

Photo Credit: Danny Sellers