Focus: Bret Stephens and Gideon Rose on Obama's Legacy

In this edition of Foreign Affairs Focus, Bret Stephens, columnist for The Wall Street Journal, debates Obama's foreign policy legacy with Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose.

This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.

Gideon Rose: The lead package in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs is all about Obama's foreign policy and there are a pair of articles at the top of the package, What Obama Gets Right and What Obama Gets Wrong.  I wrote the one defending the administration and Bret wrote the one attacking it.  So my argument, Bret, was basically that if you take everything into account, Obama has actually done a decent job, leaves American foreign policy better off than he found it, and that the core theme of his foreign policy has been a retreat from the strategic periphery, that he's protected the core while pulling back and not getting involved in new conflicts in the periphery and that this actually is sensible. You disagree. Why? 

Bret Stephens: Well, I thought you wrote an ingenious piece. Certainly, an intellectually flexible piece, if I may say. What strikes me as amazing is here we are rounding well into the last innings of the Obama administration and still you manage to pin pretty much all of the blame on George W. Bush. That Obama inherited this extraordinary mess, far more... Far less extraordinary than you imagine. And so, he has to be judged accordingly. I think that's problematic historically. Every single President inherits a mixed bag, it's just that Obama complained about it a great deal more. Reagan certainly inherited a very bad situation economically and geopolitically in 1980. So did Jerry Ford. So did Richard Nixon. You can go... You can look long back into the Republic.

So, I think that's a bad metric to judge the record of the current administration by the past one, but more to the point, it's difficult to look around the world today and say, "You know what? Things are going pretty well," because they're not. They're plainly not and they're not on the very terms that Obama set for himself. He was going to reset relations with Russia. Are relations with Russia today better or worse than they were before? He was gonna have a new relationship with the people of the Middle East. Is the United States more popular or less than it was 10 years ago? I would actually argue incredibly it's less. So, on a whole number of metrics, looking at this new global disorder, if Obama has had any impact on the world, then you have to say we're in a worse place and the next President is gonna inherit a much tougher situation than the one even Obama found himself in in 2009.

Gideon Rose: You can't measure a mountain from sea level if the base of the mountain started deep in a hole. And the fact is that I just disagree that Obama's starting point is the... You know, the world wasn't created fresh. We didn't have Stunde Null in 2009. He was involved in wars that had to be withdrawn from. The Middle East was already breaking up and I just don't see the situation now as being that much worse today.

Bret Stephens: Actually, the Middle East was stabilizing in 2009 and you don't have to take my word for it, by the way. This is something I point out in my column, Gideon. I mean, if the administration was busy boasting about how terrific Iraq was doing in 2012, like your friend Antony Blinken, the former Deputy Secretary of State says, well then Obama then has to take some responsibility. He could have said, "Well, this was a mess. This was never going to work" and one of your authors makes precisely that argument. That's actually an intellectually respectable argument, but the Obama administration was making claims about its successes in Iraq in 2012 which it simply could not sustain by the time ISIS took over Mosul.

And the reality of the Obama administration's view, and this goes to the core of your argument, he... You say basically he's right-sizing American foreign policy. That's problematic in two ways. When you start right-sizing the foreign policy of a super power, you are going to create power vacuums, and those vacuums are going to be filled and they're gonna be filled by willful, violent groups like ISIS or by ambitious people, like Vladimir Putin. Secondly, I just don't see, outside of a few areas, I don't really see your argument that Obama has really focused on the liberal core, on Europe, on Asia. There's been a rhetorical pivot to Asia. I think NATO is today, switching to Europe, NATO today is in a very bad place. America's core allies, long standing allies, democratic as well as non-democratic, look to the United States and they say, "Where's American leadership?" and that's a theme you hear again and again. You hear it vocally from the Israelis, but you hear it more quietly from the Poles, the Saudis, even some of our Asian allies.

Gideon Rose: The Poles are in NATO and don't have to worry about American leadership. The Israelis are a separate category, as you well know. You mentioned Russia? Where do you see Russia being so well off now? Their economy is shrinking, they're under sanctions, they took Crimea and lost the rest of Ukraine, they're roundly criticized and they're basically going into the gutter historically. Why do you see Russia as such an ongoing threat? Do you really think they're going to attack NATO now?

Bret Stephens: Look, we know... You have to separate a couple of things. First of all, Obama got very lucky, luckier than he should have... More luck than he deserved at the end of 2014 when suddenly oil prices took a nose dive and Russia's great... Its great source of foreign currency started to vanish. People gave a tremendous amount of credit to the sanctions, actually relatively weak sanctions. They don't pay attention to the fact that this is actually essentially a big commodity play. More to the point, where is the evidence that Vladimir Putin is trimming his sails? He took the US non-response to Crimea and it really was a shameful non-response, and an abdication of responsibilities with the Budapest Memorandum, and then took Eastern Ukraine. There is a reason why Poles are rearming. There is a reason why the Baltic States are so nervous. Because there's a palpable sense that America's commitments aren't what they used to be. And it was tested in Ukraine, and it was found wanted.

Gideon Rose: Brad, the single most dominant feature of the Ukraine crisis is that Ukraine wasn't in NATO, so America didn't have a hard military commitment, like it does to the Baltics and Poland. I'm curious, the old conservatives like Ronald Reagan had a sunny optimistic sense that the future was on American side. Today, when we're stronger than we've ever been, you worry about small countries and weak countries. Is there any part of the world that you would actually not like the United States to be militarily engaged in? You're prepared to fight for Ukraine even though it's outside the walls of NATO. You're prepared to fight, presumably, in every area of the Middle East, from Yemen and Syria and Iraq, maybe even Libya. What is it that you're prepared to say is not America's problem?

Bret Stephens: Well, look. That's probably a separate discussion. There are all kinds of things that are not America's problems. There are terrible things happening in Africa that aren't America's problems. There are issues that absolutely should be sorted out with no American involvement to speak of. But we do have a variety of core interests, and they were... And let's go back to the subject of Ukraine. Okay, you think it was merely a scrap of paper, but we had a Budapest Memorandum in 1994, signed by Yeltsin, Clinton, and John Major of Great Britain at that time, which guaranteed Ukraine's territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine giving up what was then the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. That was a big foreign policy win for us. If you are, never mind the Ukrainians, if you are any other country contemplating taking an assurance from the Unites States in exchange for abandoning a nuclear program, what would the lesson of Ukraine be? More to the point here, we had a democratic ally, whose democratic uprising we vocally supported during the Maidan, during the Maidan revolution at the beginning of 2014. And we did not make good on that support. So again, that sends a painful signal that it doesn't pay to be a friend of the United States, because we will not be there when you need us.

Gideon Rose: It's actually a good point about Ukraine giving up its nukes. And in the same way, you could say that Libya gave up its nukes and then got invaded a few years later. And so yes, if you're giving up your nukes and you're not getting a hard security guarantee or an alliance in return, you're probably making a sucker's bet. So that's, actually, I agree, it's gonna be harder to convince people of that in the future. But that said, I just don't see that we've been this appeasing presence that you think. Russia is on a long-term decline. China's state economy already is starting to hit road bumps and is not ultimately going to succeed. The United States, together with its allies has three quarters of global defense spending. I just don't see our position getting worse in years to come, rather than better.

Bret Stephens: I completely agree, the United States is not in decline, it's in retreat. A point I make in my book which you so generously reviewed in this issue of Foreign Affairs.

But we do have a problem in that we are sending signals around the world that we're not a trustworthy ally. And with all respect, Gideon, your opinion isn't what is dispositive here, it is the opinion of decision makers around the world, whether you are the Foreign Minister of Poland or the Defense Minister of Israel, or the Intelligence Minister of Saudi Arabia. They're looking at the United States, and they're looking at a rudderless America. And that is worrisome, because it means that our allies aren't going to fear us, and our friends aren't going to trust us. And so, we're gonna find ourselves continually surprised by global events when our friends go off to do things we don't like, and when our allies think that they can trespass on red lines that previously proved to be hollow. Big issues.

Gideon Rose: The dogs bark, but the liberal order, like the caravan, moves on. To be continued in future issues, we'll see who is right, read the debate and all bunch of other great articles on Obama's foreign policy in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs. Thank you, Bret.

Bret Stephens: Thank you.

[END]

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