The holiday season is here, and with it comes time for reflection. For foreign policy types, this seems as good a time as any to reflect on President Obama’s legacy, and to evaluate the global landscape left to his successor.
My view—as I note in a recent essay for The Washington Post—is that President Obama’s record on foreign policy is complicated. He certainly made mistakes, from misreading the Arab Spring to underestimating the geopolitical challenges posed by Russia and China. But, by and large, he charted a prudent path for US leadership at a time of great turmoil and uncertainty.
Recall some of the challenges that emerged throughout his presidency. There was the most severe global economic crisis since the 1930s. There was Russian aggression in Ukraine and civil war in Syria. There was climate change, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, global pandemics like Ebola and Zika, ISIS, and more. By no means were US responses to any of these challenges perfect, but had it not been for America’s efforts and leadership, the consequences could have been much worse.
Turning to the President-elect, Mr. Trump stands to inherit many of the same challenges Obama has wrestled with for the last eight years—slow economic growth, climate change, terrorism. But, in addition, he will confront a number of emerging threats; some of which are equally or more complex.
Mr. Trump must grapple with the re-nationalization of global politics. In Europe, this new nationalism poses an existential threat to the European Union—as demonstrated by this year’s Brexit vote, and the looming threat of similar referendums across Europe. In China, rising nationalism is contributing to an increasingly aggressive foreign policy that threatens to destabilize regional security.
Another emerging challenge comes from the rapid diffusion of misinformation, made possible by new social media platforms. As Farhad Manjoo writes in The New York Times, social media has become such a powerful force that it is beginning to alter the course of global events—the election of Donald Trump being just one example. The larger issue here is that societies cannot properly function if large segments are uninformed or misinformed. Indeed, as President Obama recently remarked, “active misinformation” may threaten democracy itself.
These challenges and more are the focus of this week’s reads. The selected reads look back at some of the setbacks and successes of Obama’s foreign policy, and peer into the world awaiting President-elect Trump. For all readers celebrating Thanksgiving this week, I wish you and your loved ones a warm holiday, and hope that these reads enliven your holiday conversations.
The Washington Post
The Washington Post’s virtual museum of Obama’s presidency has been updated since it was last shared in this newsletter. To date, the Post has released four of its five planned multimedia rooms about Obama’s term in office. Today, you can view four rooms: Obama and the World, Obama’s America, Commander in Chief, and The First Black President. My contribution, Determined Restraint, can be found under “Obama and the World.”
Robert Kagan/Financial Times
American exceptionalism has traditionally fostered the view of the United States as the ‘indispensable nation,’ a unique feature of the nation’s foreign policy that favors diplomatic and commercial involvement with the rest of the world. Trump’s election, Robert Kagan writes in the Financial Times, represents a return to ‘normalcy,’ where America acts as any other nation by pursuing its own, narrow interests both at home and abroad. This pivot may embolden nations such as Russia and China, while weakening the role of American allies, a messy process that seems to be inconsequential to the new administration, so long as American objectives are served.
Eliot A. Cohen/The Wall Street Journal
President-elect Trump will soon find out that it is not enough to brandish military force; he will find himself having to use it. Using military force has never been a last resort for America, writes Eliot A. Cohen. It is an intermediate option, and the growing world flashpoints could drag the United States into conflict. Even a president as restrained as Obama found himself using drones, intervening in Libya, and re-engaging in Iraq to counter ISIS. Trump, on the other hand, does not speak softly, have foreign policy experience, or hold a clear worldview. What he will do when faced with the choice of military engagement is an open question.
Neil Buckley, Sam Jones and Kathrin Hille/The Financial Times
Russian state TV warns that the United States might start a war and compares the situation in Syria to the Cuban missile crisis. Critics ask if President-elect Trump is psychologically fit to handle the nuclear launch codes, while NATO is discussing a strengthened nuclear position to defend itself. In the words of one Russian analyst, Putin is the first Russian leader to “put the nuclear gun on the table.” The decades-long culture of nuclear deterrence has fallen out of memory and the assumption that these weapons will never be used is now less certain.
James Kitfield/The Atlantic
In an attempt to clarify the largely enigmatic foreign policy positions of President-elect Trump, James Kitfield writes in The Atlantic that a clearer picture can be created by observing his professional career and the selection of top officials in his administration. According to Kitfield, when Trump entered the national spotlight in the late 1980’s, he would have been influenced by the economic rise of Japan and the relative decline of the United States. While this has been a major theme throughout his campaign, whether this translates into policy will largely be determined by whom he selects to work in his administration.
Jeffrey Goldberg/The Atlantic
In a series of interviews with Henry Kissinger, Jeffrey Goldberg reveals the former Secretary of State's personal insight on the 2016 presidential election and the future of the United States’ foreign policy. While Kissinger expresses mild surprise at Donald Trump’s victory, he also encourages openness in allowing the President-elect to develop his governing philosophy and strategy. He notes that other powers, including China and Russia, will also need to study Trump’s approach and devise their responses. Key to the future of world order will be how the incoming administration deals with a rising China, both economically and militarily.
The election of Donald Trump is a symptom of the global rise of ethnic nationalism that has fueled perceptions of zero-sum, aggressive nostalgia in global politics, writes The Economist. Putin’s increasingly revisionist Russia, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pivot away from the European Union and toward Islamic nationalism, and a wave of populist and xenophobic political activity in Europe are linked to this truly global phenomenon. Ethnic nationalism now threatens to undermine the rules-based liberal international order, evidenced distinctly by the decline of the European Union, and lead to a far more dangerous world.
Farhad Manjoo/The New York Times
Social media’s effects on our society and politics are just now being felt. The recent outrage over Facebook and the spreading of ‘fake news’ is only scratching the surface. While Donald Trump’s candidacy was written off by traditional pundits and news sources, his supporters found new life on the internet. Social media is able to shift range the of subjects deemed acceptable to discuss, and people who feel disaffected can connect with one another. Movements that were once unthinkable are now part of a wider, tech-powered crackup of the global order.
Thomas J. Bollyky and Edward Alden/The New York Times
More than half the goods and nearly three-quarters of the services traded globally are components from different countries. Trump ran on the idea that restricting trade will lead to rising incomes for Americans. As Thomas J. Bollyky and Edward Alden write, however, “Total national sovereignty over global commerce is a mirage.” Nations compete for the investments of multinational corporations, and increasingly no one nation can advance the interests of its citizens without the cooperation of other nations. Trade agreements are a prime way for nations to collaborate and manage complexity while advancing common interests. To put America first, they say, we must have more global cooperation, not less.
Angela Merkel and Barack Obama/Handelsblatt Global
In a joint op-ed, Angela Merkel and Barack Obama spell out the importance of Transatlantic relations, urging progress on free-trade deals and appealing for increased international cooperation in a globalized world led by shared democratic values. “We are stronger when we work together,” the leaders write. “At a time when the global economy is evolving more quickly than at any point in human history, and the scope of global challenges has never had higher stakes, such cooperation is now more urgent than ever.”