The flip side of Obama’s instrumental rhetoric and pragmatic foreign policy is that he has gotten little credit for either leadership or accomplishment in foreign affairs. Postwar U.S. foreign policy has a “containment” idée fixe, as Obama’s allusion to Kennan implies. Never mind that containment meant very different things across the decades, that U.S. Cold War strategy was hardly consistent, that it produced deep insecurity and wanton destruction, and that the United States might ultimately have triumphed over the Soviet Union at much less cost to Americans and non-Americans alike. Thanks to the containment fixation, foreign-policy leadership in the United States means giving voice to a comprehensive worldview and an enduring strategy, and policies appear successful only when they seem to emerge from that strategy.
Obama’s varied array of programs falls far short of that standard, and his administration’s achievements have therefore registered as less than the sum of their parts. His former assistant secretary of defense, Derek Chollet, argues that the administration’s diverse initiatives have been guided by what he calls, following the president’s penchant for sports metaphors, “the long game.” This is less a strategy than a set of vague principles—restraint, patience, precision, balance—and a checklist. The consequence is that Obama, though a master orator, has appeared strangely inarticulate in foreign affairs. Even sympathetic observers, like Thomas Friedman, have gently chided that the president’s “foreign policy is mostly ‘nudging’ and ‘whispering,’” and others, like Daniel Drezner, have criticized him for letting others fill the “vacuum of interpretation.”
Skeptics will object that Obama has gotten low marks for foreign-policy leadership and accomplishment for good reason. They will point to the rise of the Islamic State, Russia’s seizure of Crimea, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, Europe’s persistent lethargy and Libya’s tumble toward state failure. There is no question that, over the last eight years, much has happened not to Washington’s liking. Some of these regrettable outcomes were the result of administration missteps, but many were not. Critics who dismiss the Obama administration’s foreign policy as a wholesale failure presume that it is America’s right and responsibility, and crucially within its capacity, to shape the world at its will and dictate global order. It is this mind-set that gives rise to accusations of the “loss” of X—China in 1949, Iraq today—as if X were America’s to lose. It leads to breast beating and soul searching when things go awry, as if local leaders had the freedom to chart their own course only when the U.S. government erred. It imagines that, when the world does not readily comply with America’s wishes, the president must be at fault.
Skeptics may alternatively object that the Obama administration’s lack of strategy has been its undoing. In principle, clear strategy is valuable. It issues broad instructions to policymakers regarding how they should allocate scarce resources and address challenges as yet unforeseen. It is the compass that allows policymakers to steer a steady ship amidst the storms that regularly roil the seas of global politics. In practice, however, coherent and consistent strategy has typically fallen victim to bureaucratic maneuvering, pressure from other branches of government, the limits of human cognition and the inherent complexity of global politics. When global storms have raged, America’s strategy has often changed so much and so rapidly that it has not been a reliable compass.
FOREIGN-POLICY leadership has become nearly hopeless. No president, judged by the standards of the past, can pass muster. The president’s capacity to fix meaning and set the national agenda is much diminished, even in foreign affairs. So too is the president’s power to forge and maintain an enduring coalition. Meanwhile, the American public still looks to the president for the sort of leadership he can no longer provide, which is a recipe for disappointment and frustration.
President Trump has so far given no indication of even trying to lead, except via invective. He has continued to embrace the politics of division. He has offered a starkly dissenting vision of the world and America’s place in it, but even his own cabinet members have not toed his narrative line. He has spurned coalition building, dismissed the bureaucracy and demonized the media. This is consistent with Trump’s populist political persona. But it does not bode well for his capacity to lead.
To say that Trump cannot lead is not to say that his hands are tied. The president’s foreign-policy power remains immense. If Trump pursues just a fraction of what he promised or hinted at during the campaign, he will have brought about a radical change in America’s foreign policy and global posture. The next president will be able to reverse many of Trump’s policies. But he or she will not be able to reverse the past. Others will have adapted—with glee or regret—and the next president will confront a world made anew, in part, by Donald Trump.
But foreign-policy leadership need not be impossible—if we adjust our expectations to match a world of transnational mobilization, fragmented authority and excessive transparency; if we recognize that coalitional politics must be more issues-based and fleeting; and if we acknowledge the limits of strategy and the virtues of pragmatism. Until then, pity the president.
Ronald R. Krebs is Beverly and Richard Fink Professor in the Liberal Arts and professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. He is the author most recently of Narrative and the Making of U.S. National Security. Portions of this article draw from his forthcoming essay in the Oxford Handbook of International Security.
Image: Anti–Donald Trump protesters in New York. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Mathias Wasik