Fortune favors the bold. That is one of the most reliable lessons to learn from history, and it is especially true in politics. The last few years have also shown this to be true with astonishing frequency.
Vladimir Putin’s forays into the Middle East and Ukraine – both highly risky endeavours which paid off in spades. Russia’s increasingly assertive propaganda war against the West: Europe has been destabilized more seriously than at any time since WW2, and in the US we have an incoming President of the United States who was almost a typecast product of this propaganda and which is now closer to Putin and the FSB than he is to his own intelligence agencies.
Even in the global Islamist insurgency, ISIS has become the de facto face of global jihadism by being more assertive and brazen than any other militant group.
Unfortunately, the Obama Presidency has not been similarly bold. It was audacious, and hopeful, to be sure. But not bold. And for that, he leaves a legacy that is much diminished from what it could have been. And a legacy which his successor is vowing to dismantle completely. With it will also wither the hopes of Western liberalism.
President Obama’s final speech as President was at a rally in Chicago. The symbolism was clear, as it was here over a decade ago that he launched his political career. A political career that on the one hand went much farther than he could have reasonably expected, and on the other, delivered much less than it had promised.
What was remarkable about his speech, however, was how much it sounded like the speeches made by the candidate Barack Obama. Using the same rhetorical motifs and cadences. You would be forgiven for forgetting that this man has spent the last eight years in the Oval Office.
But of course, the tragedy is that the speech needed to be the same. It needed to appeal to hope. It needed to call on the faith that liberal values and creeds are on “the right side of history”. It needed to do these things, because neither America nor the world had moved very much toward the vision the candidate Obama set out ten years ago. And after eight years of the Obama presidency, the future of the world is now entrusted to Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Neither America nor the world had moved very much toward the vision the candidate Obama set out ten years agoDr. Azeem Ibrahim
Obama’s cardinal sin was his unwavering faith that the world will inevitably, ultimately bend to his vision of the future – what he called the “long arc of history”. That faith meant that he was too patient for the world to do just that. And it absolved him of the need and urgency to assert that vision of the world and defend it robustly.
Much ink has been spilled about the catastrophic decision not to enforce the chemical weapons red line in Syria. That turned out to be one of the most fundamental shifts in geopolitics since 9/11. But a similar argument can be made about his domestic governance.
Obama was right to bail out the financial system in 2008. That prevented a 1930s-style Great Depression in the US, and a potential re-run of the great tragedies of the 1930s elsewhere. The system was bruised, but it limped on. That was a good call. What was not, was what followed. Someone had to pick up the tab for bailing out the global financial crisis.
The financial crisis
And in the US, as in most other countries in the world, the judgement call was made to play it safe: leave the banks well alone and do not rock the boat while they still appear to be fragile. And thus, the financial sector suffered almost zero consequences for their catastrophic, and in many cases, criminal mismanagement of the American and global economy. Instead, the price was borne ordinary people, in tax, in jobs, in work security, in public services.
In the 1930s, Roosevelt was bold: he took the Crash and the Great Depression as an opportunity to restructure and rebuild American finance, the wider economy and even society as a whole. That recipe for how to organise America went on to conquer the world. Obama had the same opportunity given to him.
But he was not bold. He demurred. He caved in to pressure from Wall Street that things had to go on exactly as they had done before the crisis, and bought the line that any drive to hold Wall Street accountable for its crimes would affect the wider economy. He played it safe. And sure enough, the economy has been limping along rather well. But at what cost?
The cost is that the economy has been and will continue to be increasingly hijacked by a plutocratic oligarchy – just look at the Trump cabinet. The world has been left to chancers who have no regard for human rights and who will continue to trample on civilian lives as they jostle for regional power and prestige. And liberalism and its values have been discredited by association.
Where eight years ago the world looked like it could only get better, now it looks like it can only get worse. And Obama has to own much of that legacy and what is to come over the next decade.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.