Does Obama Really Play the Foreign-Policy Long Game?

Does Obama Really Play the Foreign-Policy Long Game?

Derek Chollet reflects on the last eight years.


Similarly, in Ukraine, insisting that the Maidan opposition adhere to the February 2014 EU-brokered agreement that provided for Viktor Yanukovych’s eventual departure and the holding of new elections might have been better than acquiescing to his immediate overthrow. No matter how satisfying in the short term, doing so provided Putin with the pretext he needed to intervene, and showcased how woefully both Ukrainian politicians and the West were prepared for immediate change. Yanukovych was politically doomed in any case, and there would have been time to prepare for a more orderly transition—and perhaps to open talks with Moscow over Ukraine’s future that might have avoided the drastic losses Ukraine has suffered over the last two years.

Finally, there is the gap between the rhetoric of the long game and the type of national security structure that is needed to carry it out. Considering its emphasis on precision, balance and patience, and given that the United States, as a global superpower, must simultaneously balance dozens of issues, the White House cannot summon all the attention to detail that a long-game approach requires. The president must set the general tone and lay out the general parameters, but must be prepared to trust a much wider number of people in the national security bureaucracy to oversee the day-to-day efforts.


A very telling admission in Chollet’s book is the statement: “The White House does not have the capacity, or often the expertise, to oversee everything, despite the compelling incentives to do so. There are numerous examples of the White House over-steering the process, allowing small details to overwhelm the big picture and getting too involved in decisions it would have been better off staying out of.” At one point, Chollet observes, “It was hard to reconcile the time and energy required to lead the diplomacy on Ukraine with the demands on the U.S. elsewhere.” But on this and other issues, the president did not empower a senior figure who could speak on his behalf and coordinate the effort, allowing him to then turn his attention to other issues. In this administration, there has been no willingness to delegate in the way that, say, Bill Clinton trusted Richard Holbrooke to handle matters in the Balkans—where the president could, from time to time, step in to set parameters and make adjustments, but otherwise did not have to closely monitor the agenda.

The long game is ultimately an appeal to history, not to the news cycle. If, over the next several years, the Putin regime cracks, Xi Jinping modifies China’s international behavior in a way that makes it less willing to challenge both the Asia-Pacific and global status quo, or the mullahs of Iran are replaced by a more democratic regime before the timeline of the Iran nuclear deal has run out, then the long game, and Obama’s stewardship of foreign affairs, will be judged a success.

But Chollet’s work also contains a secondary, understated case. Perhaps the luster of the second-term achievements—the Iran nuclear deal and the opening to Cuba—will fade in the same way as the first-term “reset” of relations with Russia and the Libyan intervention did, and be overshadowed by the rise of ISIS and the legacy of Syria. Yet the Obama administration has, for the most part, succeeded in arresting the decline of U.S. power, particularly the erosion of its economic strength, and has managed to contain most of the current problems. A next administration may not want to openly admit it, especially if it is run by the opposition party, but the United States is not out of the superpower game. Chollet argues that the country’s global position is “sound,” and that the next president has been bequeathed a legacy that will enable him or her to “operate sensibly and pragmatically,” if she or he so chooses.

Nikolas Gvosdev is the Jerome E. Levy Chair of Economic Geography and National Security at the U.S. Naval War College. John Cloud, who served as U.S. ambassador to Lithuania, is the William P. Ruger Chair of National Security Economics at the Naval War College. The opinions contained here are their own.

Image: President Barack Obama listens during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 6, 2010.​ Flickr/The White House