Once a rock star at UN, Obama now faces skeptical world

President Obama gives his last speech to the UN general assembly Tuesday. As president, he has dramatically changed foreign policy. But allies aren't yet convinced that's a good thing. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama, joined by Vice President Joe Biden (2nd l.) and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power (r.), attends a meeting about Iraq in New York in advance of the UN general assembly.

The president whose election in 2008 was greeted by many abroad with euphoria on Tuesday will face a decidedly different crowd when he gives his final address to the United Nations general assembly. 

Embraced after the wars of the Bush years and later hailed for eloquent speeches in Prague, Cairo, and Oslo, President Obama now faces a mixed legacy abroad. While he extended an open hand to America's enemies, he leaves relations with some of America's oldest friends more distant and tense than how he found them.

To proponents, Mr. Obama recast American foreign policy. He reached out to Iran and Cuba in an attempt to defuse old animosities while demanding more of America’s allies. The world could no longer lean on America to all the heavy lifting.

But to critics, Obama’s efforts came across as naively demanding change without preparing the ground for it. He favored visionary speeches over the personal relationships that many allies craved. And in pivoting away from old allies in Europe and the Middle East, he left relations with traditional friends – and even some foes – in worse shape than how he found them after the Bush years, they say.

“Obama came in determined to engage America’s adversaries, and if you look at where things are with Iran and Cuba in particular you would give him pretty high marks for getting where he wanted to go,” says Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to both Democratic and Republican administrations. “But with America’s traditional friends, relations have grown increasingly strained over his tenure.”

From Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Israel, for example, “there is a crisis of confidence with each of them that the next president will inherit,” adds Mr. Miller, who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington.

The question is whether that is the result of Obama’s foreign policy or of events beyond his control. The answer, experts suggest, is both.

The Arab Spring and the rise of China have created new and nuanced challenges for American foreign policy. But Obama’s insistence on charting a new path – with America largely telling allies to figure things out for themselves – has come as a shock, and the world is only now adjusting to the president’s vision of American power.

“Obama was trying a new leadership paradigm under which the United States would play more of a supportive role and the regional actors would have to take a stronger role in everything,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“The problem is that there was no preparation and no groundwork for this shift, and so alliances like NATO or in the Middle East that were built around American leadership were suddenly expected to act with reduced involvement from the power that had spearheaded and guided action for decades,” she adds.

To be sure, Obama’s presidency has made for many unusual sights.

The unusual optics of Obama foreign policy

After nearly four decades of animosity with Iran, Americans became accustomed to seeing Secretary of State John Kerry shaking hands and chatting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as he would with any allied counterpart. What resulted was a landmark nuclear deal that the administration says pulls Iran back from the nuclear threshold while relaxing tensions between the US and Iran.

Since US-Cuba relations were normalized in 2015, Obama has taken a trip to the island and American and Cuban diplomats have established regular dialogues on issues ranging from immigration to economic development.

Earlier this month, Obama received Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, at the White House, symbolizing how the president has brought the former outcast nation (also known as Burma) into the fold of America’s friends.

But Obama’s unexpectedly rocky trip to Asia early in September spotlighted a different sort of unusual sight.

The White House had touted the trip as a legacy lap, but things got off to a rough start when Chinese officials refused to provide the president’s preferred stairway for descending from Air Force One. Later in the trip, US officials canceled a meeting between Obama and new Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte over the outspoken leader’s foul-mouthed reference to Obama.

They are relatively minor breaches in international protocol. But they speak to how the view of America around the world is changing.

Obama’s relations with some key European allies aren’t much closer. Obama will host Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at what is expected to be his last state dinner in October, but the expected transatlantic warmth for Obama never really kindled, and relations cooled considerably after Obama labeled the Europeans “free riders” in an Atlantic interview earlier this year.  The estrangement has deepened as leaders squabbled over a proposed transatlantic trade pact. 

Where did the euphoria go?

The wave of euphoria over Obama’s election dissipated as European leaders learned over time that Obama would never put much meat on the bones of his speeches, some say.

“Over the president’s first year you had a series of very important speeches that captured and carried forward the hope and optimism about his presidency, but by the second and third years the realization began to sink in among leaders that there was a gap between rhetoric and action, between aspiration and implementation,” says Ms. Conley.

“Missing,” she adds, “was the hard work of developing a policy and laying out the tools of influence that would be needed to shape an outcome.”

Adding to the sense of abandonment was the clear effort the Obama administration put into Iran and Cuba.

“John Kerry has spent more time in Europe than any secretary of State, but he’s not there talking about Europe or with the European allies about how to address their very significant challenges,” says Conley. “It’s been talks in Europe but with the Iranians about their nuclear program or the Russians about Syria.”

Indeed, the Obama administration showed it could invest effort in foreign policy – but it did it in new places. For example, Obama did his best to back up his promised “pivot” to Asia, many experts say.

“It’s hard to find a region of the world where you’d say we’re in better shape than we were eight year’s ago, other than perhaps Asia,” says Peter Feaver, director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “Regionally, it’s probably [Obama’s] strongest foreign-policy feature, but it’s also true he inherited a strong hand in Asia.”

The Saudi example

To others, however, Obama’s foreign policy in Europe and the Middle East is nothing less than a capitulation of vital American influence.

“The 7-1/2 years of Obama’s presidency have been an experiment in American retreat and signaling to some of our closest partners that they don’t matter to us any more,” says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international relations at Georgetown University and one of Obama’s harshest critics.

Adding to the shock of the shift was that it came at a moment of upheaval and significant challenges – from the Arab Spring and rising Islamist extremism in the Middle East to Russia’s growing aggression, the migrant crisis, and rising terrorism in Europe.

“Allies who had become accustomed to America’s leadership were asking, ‘What’s the plan, Washington, what are you going to do?’ ” says Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But for the first time what they were getting in return was, ‘What are you going to do?’”

Probably no ally in the Middle East was more unsettled by Obama’s leadership style and his administration’s reoriented priorities than Saudi Arabia.

The relationship has always been problematic, with Saudi Arabia seen as a hotbed for terrorism and an abuser of human rights. But the reasons for a deep cooling are many, from Obama’s desire to improve relations with the Saudis’ regional rival, Iran, to the president’s refusal to oust Syrian leader (and Saudi enemy) Bashar al-Assad after saying he “must go.” The priority the administration placed on political and women’s rights didn’t help, either.

But above all it was the sense that, under Obama, America was pulling back from its traditional role as a strategic leader in the Middle East – a development that created a power vacuum the Saudis found unnerving, many experts say.

“The Saudis took the measure of Obama, and they came to a couple of conclusions: that his view of their value as a partner was not that of other presidents, and that they and the region were going to be left increasingly on their own,” says Professor Feaver of Duke. “The message they got from Obama was, ‘You have to take matters into your own hands.’ ”  

Supporters of Obama’s approach with friends and allies say it makes sense in an increasingly interconnected world where one country, no matter how powerful, can’t do everything. It’s an approach that suits a growing portion of the American public that thinks the US does too much on the world stage, they add.

A new 'era of engagement'?

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, recently argued that Obama has created closer partnerships where local players take more responsibility for their role in addressing global issues.

When Obama gave his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2009, “the United States was more isolated on the world stage, [but] he pledged a new era of engagement,” Ambassador Power said.

A key feature of that new era was “getting other countries to step up” on challenges ranging from Ebola in West Africa to the refugee crisis, she said.   

Obama’s partnership with Chinese President Xi Jinping on climate change measures – struck despite sharp US-China tensions on other issues – exemplifies this leadership approach, backers say.

So does engagement with an enemy that reverses a potential march to war.

“Obama’s harshest critics say he has weakened America’s role in the world, but in the eyes of his acolytes he has made decisions and gone in directions – like engaging Iran – that in the long run will pay off,” says Miller.

Vice President Joe Biden argues just that in the August issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Obama has enhanced the “foundations of US global leadership” by “expanding and modernizing the United States’ unrivaled network of alliances and partnerships,” he argues.

By maintaining traditional alliances, strengthening connections to Asia, and melding “cooperation and competition” with powers like China and Russia, Obama has set up his successor to lead the world in addressing “complex transnational challenges” including climate change and violent extremism, Mr. Biden wrote.          

Or a fantasy?

But that synopsis strikes some foreign-policy analysts as overly rosy.

Georgetown’s Dr. Lieber calls it a “fantasy” that fails to acknowledge the deterioration of relations with key allies such as Turkey – which Obama hailed in 2009 as a “model partnership.”

Others say it ignores that American foreign policy is now largely supportive and reactive.

“If we look at the example of Russian action in Syria, we see that now instead of the world’s actors waiting to see what the United States would do and acting accordingly, more of these actors are taking action on their own and the US is the one responding to them,” says Conley. “It’s a sea change for our allies.”

Rather than describing the world as it is today, Biden’s words reflect an era of American leadership that no longer exists, she says.

“The rhetoric is wonderful, but it reflects a time in our past,” Conley says. “It hearkens back to the era of American-led responses to the world’s great crises, but it is not the reality,” she says. “And it’s not the reality of what these allies are feeling today without American leadership.” 

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