Obama’s foreign policy legacy: Ambitious but largely unsuccessful

When President Obama took the presidency eight years ago, we looked set for an overhaul of America’s place in the world

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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When President Obama took the presidency eight years ago, we looked set for an overhaul of America’s place in the world and the world order enshrined at the end of the Cold War. In the depths of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression following 1929, we had reasons to be hopeful: the world’s foremost superpower was finally ruled by a liberal of conviction, a thoughtful and intelligent man with great ambitions for a better world.

And as we stand on the cusp of the Trump presidency, we are indeed in a far different world. Unfortunately, the world now is different mostly for the worst. Obama was successful in steering the world through the aftermath of the global financial crisis and we have avoided a 1930s style depression. No one will be able to take that away from him. But as for the rest of his legacy, things do not look good.

Everything he has stood for and everything he would have advertised as his greatest achievements six months ago - from bringing healthcare to millions of uninsured Americans the pivot to Asia, to the Paris Accord on climate change - are things that Trump has vowed to overturn. And what is more, it is precisely those commitments that have won Trump the presidency.

But Obama’s failure to bring Americans, and the rest of the world, over to his way of thinking will have its most profound and long-lasting effects in the international arena. In the beginning, Obama addressed the Arab world with great hopes of a long-overdue settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Now that relations between Israel and the US are at their lowest point ever and the US has virtually no leverage to stop continued Israeli settlement in the Occupied Territories.

When Obama promised a more open world, many of the youth of the Middle East took to the streets in the Arab Spring – and we in the West gave them our blessings. But six years later, most of those revolutions have floundered and those which did not, most notably Libya and Syria, have been left in a state of perpetual civil war.

Perhaps this will be the last time that America’s vision for the world will matter. After Trump, America will lack both the power and the moral authority to lead

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Relations with Asia remain patchy as China resented his expansionary approach in their backyard, while the Philippines is moving, slowly but surely, out of the US sphere of influence. And the three great openings of Obama’s tenure, Myanmar, Iran and Cuba, all look shaky at best.

In Myanmar, Obama was too quick to give Aung San Suu Kyi the benefit of the doubt, and lift sanctions. But many parts of the state and the economy remain firmly under the control of the former military regime, and now those parts are waging open war on the Rohingya Muslim minority while the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is standing idly by. Obama was the main man to push for the improvement of conditions for this oppressed group, but now that he is on the way out, it seems like there is precious little standing between the Rohingya and outright genocide.

In Iran, the nuclear deal championed by Obama has given us some reprieve from Iranian nuclear development but at a tremendous cost to American interests in the region. The lifting of sanctions have given the Iranians the confidence and the resources to push their agenda in the region with renewed zeal, and the heavy lifting that Iranian militias and troops are doing in Iraq and Syria for factions that are not aligned with US interests will be just the beginning of our problems.

Above all stands the renewed Cold War with Russia. Some analysts warn that this kind of language is alarmist, or even that it may aggravate tensions needlessly, but the facts speak for themselves. The US and its Western allies are imposing sanctions on Russia, while Russia is waging open cyber-warfare on the West, its institutions and most seriously of all, its democratic process as we have seen from the involvement of Russian hackers in the US elections.


In all this chaos, this new world disorder, the only major Obama foreign policy foray that still has legs is the reopening of relations with Cuba. But even that is hostage to the caprices of Raul Castro and Donald Trump. And who knows what might happen there next.

And that is the real tragedy at the end of the Obama presidency. Here is a man of vision and principle, of intelligence and intent. If anyone could have been trusted to take the world as they found it in 2008 and made it better by 2016, it would have been Obama. And he cannot be faulted for not trying. But once again, America’s vision for the world has been left in disarray by the vagaries of history.

And perhaps this will be the last time that America’s vision for the world will matter. After Trump, America will lack both the power and the moral authority to lead. And the world is not a better place for it.


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


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