Obama’s World: Leading Experts Assess the President’s Foreign Policy Record Thus Far, in New Issue of Foreign Affairs

With the Obama administration soon to enter its final lap in 2016, the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs features a comprehensive and authoritative assessment of the president’s foreign policy record so far. The lead package, “Obama’s World,” offers nine articles covering a broad range of topics by leading experts from across the political spectrum.

Also in the issue: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on cities’ roles in combatting climate change; Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Laurie Garrett on the failure of the World Health Organization in handling the Ebola crisis; and Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) foreign policy plan.

What Obama Gets Right

“There seems to be something psychologically appealing about fear and pessimism,” writes Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose, no matter what the circumstances. Rose cuts through the gloom-and-doom, arguing that ultimately, “Obama will likely pass on to his successor an overall foreign policy agenda and national power position in better shape than when he entered office.” Crucial to this success has been Obama’s “grasp of the big picture.” Obama inherited many burdens from his predecessor, Rose continues, but has now correctly directed U.S. policy to preserve the core of the liberal order, while making some necessary sacrifices on the periphery. Short-term retrenchment in the Middle East and restraint in Ukraine freed Washington to strengthen its allies in NATO and Asia, and to focus on new efforts at expanding the liberal order, such as re-establishing relations with Cuba, reaching an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, and negotiating the massive trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “Time and tide,” Rose contends, “are on the side of the order rather than on the side of its few remaining enemies.”

What Obama Gets Wrong

“When does the statute of limitations on blaming President George W. Bush for the record of the current administration finally expire?” asks Wall Street Journal Columnist Bret Stephens in his rebuttal to Rose’s upbeat assessment of Obama’s record. Stephens disputes that Obama’s inheritance was uniquely worse than that of his predecessors. In Stephens’ view, Obama supporters have paradoxically claimed credit for ending the war on terror while “evading responsibility for the resurgence of jihadism in the two years since then.” Stephens evaluates Obama on his “ability to deliver what he promised, weaken the country’s foes and strengthen its friends, elaborate a concept of the American interest that is persuasive and true, and pass on a world heading in the right direction.” Under that rubric, Stephens argues, Obama has failed. As the world reaps the consequences of retrenchment, Stephens believes that “many more observers are likely to start seeing virtue and wisdom in an expansive vision of American power, as opposed to the cramped one Obama has offered.” 

Obama and the Middle East

Critics like to claim that Obama has lacked a strategic vision in the Middle East. Not so, argues George Washington University professor Marc Lynch. “Obama came to office with a conviction that reducing the United States’ massive military and political investment in the Middle East was a vital national security interest in its own right.” The problem, however, has been the execution of that vision. “For all of Obama’s analytic acuity, the implementation of his policies has often floundered,” Lynch writes, “his administration has consistently failed to deliver on the promises raised by his inspirational speeches.” Nevertheless, Lynch concludes, the Obama administration has “gotten the biggest issues shaping the region right. It avoided any deep mili­tary commitments in Syria and extri­cated U.S. forces from Iraq, secured a nuclear deal with Iran, and endorsed the Arab uprising.”

Obama and Asia

“China’s rise poses two broad challenges for U.S. foreign policy: how to deter the People’s Republic from destabilizing East Asia and how to encourage it to contribute to multilateral global governance,” begins Princeton University Professor Thomas J. Christensen. “At the end of President George W. Bush’s second term, the U.S.-Chinese relationship was heading in the right direction on both fronts. Under President Barack Obama, significant progress has been made on some issues, but the U.S.-Chinese security relationship and the Asia-Pacific region in general are far more tense today than they were at the start of 2009.” That, of course, is “not necessarily the Obama team’s fault, however, because Chinese actions bear much of the blame.” The administration can claim small successes ranging “from improved military-to-military ties, to meaningful dialogues on how to avoid incidents at sea, to the groundwork for an eventual bilat­eral investment treaty, to more easily secured visas for business travel and tourism,” but its record in the region remains mixed.

Obama and Europe

“Until nearly the second half of Obama’s second term, neither the president nor anyone on his foreign policy team took European security seriously,” writes Washington Post Columnist Anne Applebaum in her pointed critique. Both NATO and the Obama administration considered it “absurd” that Russia might pose a real military threat. All the while, Russia was rebuilding its military and upping its internal repression. Like its predecessors, “the Obama administration can certainly be faulted for complacency.” “The question for the next president,” Applebaum suggests, “is whether he or she can avoid repeating this pattern” and whether Putin decides that he “needs another crisis—perhaps a bigger one—to mobilize the public and stay in power.”

Obama and Latin America

“For U.S. presidents, Latin America usually offers more frustrations than foreign policy triumphs,” writes the Economist’s Columnist Michael Reid. “The region’s leaders gripe about both U.S. interfer­ence and U.S. neglect. Because it is not a source of strategic threats, Latin America languishes at the bottom of the United States’ long list of foreign policy priorities. It is rarely the object of a coordinated approach from the White House.” Indeed, Reid writes, the Obama administration took a “largely reactive approach” to Latin America, and made several mistakes as a result. In his second term, however, Obama corrected course somewhat, most notably with his decision to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations. Besides, “Obama’s record must be viewed in the context of dramatic changes in Latin America, which have inevitably reduced the United States’ influence.” At the end of the day, Reid argues, the president “has bequeathed to his successor a solid platform from which to take advantage of new developments in Latin America’s economics and politics.”

Obama and Africa

President Obama’s election in 2008 was greeted with widespread optimism in Africa. As Cornell University’s Professor Nicolas van de Walle writes, “This son of a Kenyan father would not only understand the continent better than his predecessors in the White House, the thinking went, but he would also treat it as a strategic priority and direct more resources its way.” Then expectations met reality: “between the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Great Recession, the last six years have not been favorable to ambitious new foreign policy initiatives, particularly in regions of the world viewed as secondary to U.S. interests.” As a result, Obama’s policy toward Africa has been something of a disappointment. Yet van de Walle concludes that Obama has tentatively started to upgrade U.S. policy toward Africa, changes that “should at last give his successor the license to be more ambitious.”

Obama and Terrorism

In an effort to end a “seemingly endless war on terrorism, President Obama pledged to make his counterterrorism policies “more nimble, more transparent, and more ethical than the ones pursued by the George W. Bush administration,” writes Harvard University’s Jessica Stern. During the past six-plus years, Obama has overseen an approach that relies on a combination of targeted killing, security assistance to military and intel­ligence forces in partner and allied countries, and intensive electronic surveillance. He has also initiated, although in a tentative way, a crucial effort to identify and address the under­lying causes of terrorism. Stern’s assessment: “overall, these steps amount to an improvement over the Bush years. But in many important ways, the relationship between Bush’s and Obama’s counterterrorism programs is marked by continuity as much as by change.” Like it or not, the “war on terror” goes on. She suggests that “one lesson the next president should learn from the Obama years is to resist the temptation to change counterterrorism policy solely for the sake of change, or to help differentiate him- or herself from the previous occu­pant in the White House.”

The Scholar as Secretary

In his first full-length print interview since becoming secretary of defense, Ashton Carter sits down with Foreign Affairs Managing Editor Jonathan Tepperman to discuss what he has learned on the job and what keeps him up at night. Carter challenges Congress for cutting the defense budget, which he believes “gives a misleadingly diminished picture of America around the world.” Although he considers the purpose of U.S. military power in many parts of the world to prevent war, Carter does not shy away from the prospect of using force unilaterally. He points to Asia and Europe as examples of where U.S. military power can stabilize the security situation by deterring escalation, and cites fighting terrorism in the Middle East as a worthy application of military force. Reflecting on recent tensions with Russia, Carter sees hope for strengthening Europe. As for China, he says he does not believe conflict between that country and the United States is “inevitable, or even likely.” However, he urges policymakers to work strategically toward maintaining peace and not to take it for granted.


City Century

“Today, more than half of the world’s population dwells in urban areas,” and that percentage is increasing rapidly, writes former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and chief executive officer of Bloomberg LP. With cities already accounting for at least 70 percent of total worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, it is fitting “that cities, the primary drivers and likeliest victims of climate change, hold the antidote as well.” Bloomberg details how “mayors are turning their city halls into policy labs, conducting experiments on a grand scale and implementing large-scale ideas to address problems such as climate change that often divide and paralyze national governments.”

Ebola’s Lessons

Nearly a year after the Ebola outbreak peaked in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, claiming more than 11,000 lives, “the global response to new pathogens has continued to be limited, uncoordinated, and dysfunctional,” writes Laurie Garrett, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Pulitzer Prize winner for her work on the Ebola virus. In a blistering, comprehensive assessment of the international response to the crisis, Garrett chastises the World Health Organization (WHO) and the international community, writing that “the global health infrastructure has shown itself to be weak, fractured, prone to infighting, and more interested in searching for technological silver bullets than engaging in the hard slog of social mobilization and classic local public health work.” The WHO performed so poorly during the crisis, she writes, “that there is a question of whether the world actually needs it. The answer is yes, it does—but in a revised form, with a clearer mandate, better funding, more competent staff, and less politicization.”

Restoring America’s Strength

“America’s status as the greatest and most influential nation on earth comes with certain inescapable realities,” writes Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. president in the 2016 race for the White House. “Among these are an abundance of enemies wishing to undermine us, numerous allies dependent on our strength and constancy, and the burden of knowing that every choice we make in exercising our power—even when we choose not to exercise it at all—has tremendous human and geopolitical consequences.” As the presidential campaign heats up, Rubio lays out the three pillars of his foreign policy plan which include: the renewal of American strength; the protection of an open international economy in an increasingly globalized world; and “the need for moral clarity regarding America’s core values.” He adds, “Retrenchment and retreat are not our destiny. The United States, by its presence alone, has the ability to alter balances, realign regional powers, promote stability, and enhance liberty.”


U.S. Court of Appeals Judge José A. Cabranes on why U.S. courts should refrain from applying domestic laws internationally

Harvard University’s Professor Niall Ferguson on the true nature of Henry A. Kissinger’s “realism,” from his forthcoming book, Kissinger

Georgetown University’s Associate Professor C. Christine Fair and Professor Sumit Ganguly of Indiana University on the need to slash U.S. support to Pakistan


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Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations since 1922, is an independent magazine of analysis and commentary on foreign policy and international affairs. In recent biannual surveys, Foreign Affairs has been ranked among the top ten most influential media outlets by the independent research firm Erdos & Morgan.

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