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Shadow Government

The Obama Legacy and the Next Two Years

Is Obama’s foreign-policy legacy anything worth crowing about?


With two years remaining in his second term and his penultimate State of the Union address approaching, President Barack Obama and his speechwriters are almost certainly thinking about his presidential legacy. [As a libational aside, it appears the White House speechwriters employ single-malt scotch as an aid to their State of the Union writing craft. This I can appreciate, though personally I find a glass of bourbon or Texas whiskey to offer more reliable inspiration for Shadow epistles].

No doubt much of the State of the Union address will be composed with this legacy question in mind. At this juncture in a presidency, focusing on a legacy can be either a trap or an opportunity. Why? Because there are two ways to approach a legacy. The trap comes with focusing on legacy as personal acclaim (or, to be crass, vanity). The opportunity comes with considering legacy as what one bequeaths to the next president and the nation overall. It is the difference between focusing on today’s headlines and tomorrow’s history books — the former may give a short-term ego boost, but the latter brings more enduring meaning.

So more than any particular issue or initiative on topics like Iran, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate, and energy, there are two broad legacy questions that I hope President Obama and his staff bear in mind as he prepares to deliver tonight’s State of the Union, and as he looks ahead to his final two years in office: Will I bequeath to my successor more or less acute problems than I inherited? Will I hand over to my successor an America stronger or weaker than when I first took office?

One way to assess the foreign-policy legacy that President Obama will leave is this: With how many major nations in the world does the United States now have a better bilateral relationship than we did in January 2009, when Obama first took office?

I have discussed this question in recent months with several other foreign-policy experts, and our rough consensus is not a pretty picture. The only nations we can think of where the United States now has unambiguously better relations than in January 2009 are Burma, Iran, and Cuba. The strategic opening to Burma stands as a legitimate success for this White House, although deteriorating conditions and political backsliding in Burma over the past year may put an asterisk next to this improvement. Whereas the improved relationships the United States now has with Iran and Cuba have come almost wholly from the Obama administration’s unrequited concessions to these despotic regimes. Put it this way: In these cases, “better” relations may have come at the cost of damage to American interests.

Across the major nations of the rest of the world, the assessment is unremittingly bleak. Since Obama took office, America’s bilateral relations have worsened with a long list of important nations (both friends and adversaries) including the Kingdom, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Japan, Australia, Canada, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and others. No, not all of these deteriorations are Obama’s fault alone — kleptocratic gangsters such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and autocratic aggressors such as Russian President Vladimir Putin bear the full moral responsibility for their misdeeds and alienation of the United States. But in a large number of these relationships, the Obama administration bears considerable culpability for botched diplomacy, mismanaged alliances, dashed hopes, and broken commitments.

Obama’s political spinners (and the president himself) have made great hay over the last six years of blaming as much as they could on his predecessor, President George W. Bush. In some areas they did inherit a tough hand on Inauguration Day 2009, especially the global financial crisis, a flawed and eroding nuclear deal with North Korea, a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and a tense relationship with Russia in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Georgia six months earlier. However, the Bush administration also handed over to the Obama team some ways to address these challenges, including: the creation of the G-20 for a globally coordinated economic policy (in addition to the passage of the Troubled Assets Relief Program, for which Bush absorbed considerable political heat), a multilateral coalition shoring up Georgian defenses while confronting and isolating Russia, and a strategic review highlighting the need for more troops and a new strategy in Afghanistan.

In the ensuing years, a number of former Obama administration officials have privately come to realize that on many other fronts they actually inherited a stronger hand from the Bush administration than appreciated at the time. (Probably a few current Obama officials would admit this too, off the record and if given truth serum — or enough glasses of single malt.) These included a stable and constructive relationship with China based on both engagement and balancing; a new strategic partnership with India; strong relations with European powers, especially Britain, France, and Germany; a close partnership with Israel; trusting relationships with Arab partners such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan; a successful counterterrorism strategy that had prevented any attacks on the United States since September 11th; and an emerging victory in Iraq, with a peaceful and stable government in place and al Qaeda in Iraq on the path to defeat.

Bush also handed a number of opportunities to the Obama team in the area of free trade, including the teed-up free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, and the framework for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). As Phil Levy notes, after six years, time is running out for Obama to devote the needful political capital to getting TPP over the finish line.

Another angle to consider legacy is this: What kinds of problems will Obama’s successor inherit when he or she takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2017? While Obama has taken care of some major problems, most notably killing Osama bin Laden and degrading core al Qaeda’s leadership, at this juncture there are significant worries among many national security professionals in both parties that this administration will hand its successor a dangerous, difficult, and weakened hand. This stems from what appear to be efforts by the White House to kick the can down the road on a number of major challenges. Thus in January 2017 the new president might well inherit a world that includes an Iran very close to (if not already possessing) a nuclear weapons capability; a North Korea with a substantial nuclear weapons arsenal and engaged in proliferation mischief; the Islamic State controlling large swaths of territory and emboldened to launch attacks on the West; further proliferation of jihadi franchises in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, many with malevolent intent and capabilities to strike America; a China that is stronger and more hostile to the United States and its interests; and frayed alliances with Japan, Australia, and many NATO partners. And the tools to address these challenges might include a hollowed-out and demoralized military, a beleaguered intelligence community, and a discouraged State Department.

So in this State of the Union, I hope that President Obama will begin laying the foundation for leaving a better legacy to his successor. This is the right thing to do, and will also secure him a more favorable chapter in history books yet unwritten. The long-term approach to legacy was the one that President George W. Bush attempted to take, and to imbue in his staff. As I have written before, in late 2006, as we undertook a series of strategic planning reviews, President Bush admonished some of us on his NSC staff to ask this question: “What policies should I adopt now as president that my successor’s successor will look back on with gratitude?”

That’s a question that I hope President Obama, his speechwriters, and staff will also be asking themselves as he takes the podium tonight.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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