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Foreign Policy In Focus » Article / Commentary

Obama: The Legacy Term?

November 19, 2012 · · Originally published in Hankyoreh

Obama's real legacy could be accepting America's changing place in the world.

obama-foreign-policy-legacyBarack Obama has won a second term as U.S. president. Voters have decisively rejected the Republican version of economic reform, and Obama has already used this mandate to address the debt crisis through higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

The implications of the elections for foreign policy, however, are not so clear. To the extent that the presidential candidates talked about global affairs, which they did rarely and in no great depth, they didn’t really find much disagreement on the major issues, whether Iran and Israel or Asia-Pacific affairs and counter-terrorism.  Nor has President Obama given any indication that his recent win will result in a bold new U.S. approach to foreign affairs.

That hasn’t prevented foreign policy pundits from engaging in their favorite post-election game: pumping up the legacy.

“For any reelected president, the notion of a foreign policy legacy has a certain allure,” writes Josh Gerstein in Politico. “It offers a chance to leave a lasting global imprint — and an alternative to the daily interference of Congress on domestic issues.”

The editorial writers in The New York Times provide a short list of options for the president to choose from over the next two years – nuclear arms cuts, an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan, negotiations with Iran, a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine – before the next election season turns even the boldest president into a play-it-safe standard-bearer for his party.

I’m sure that Barack Obama would like to have a foreign policy legacy. He would surely appreciate being known as the President Who Ended the Arab-Israeli Conflict or the President Who Froze Global Warming in Its Tracks. But let me inject a dose of realism into this debate on legacy (and the president is nothing if not a realist).

First of all, the idea that the president can chart a foreign policy path without Republican interference is wishful thinking. On day one of his first term, the president tried to close the Guantanamo facility only to come up against a Republican wall of resistance. He pledged to reduce nuclear weapons but Republican lawmakers made an arms control agreement with Moscow contingent on an extravagant modernization of the very nuclear weapons complex that should have been going on the chopping block.  House committees controlled by the Republicans – Energy and Commerce, Natural Resources – tie the president’s hands when it comes to addressing global warming. And just this year, President Obama tried to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the Taliban – the first step in what might have been more wide-ranging negotiations – but the Republican Congress balked.

The president can, of course, travel wherever he pleases and talk to whomever he wants. But if the discussions result in a treaty, then the Senate has to approve it by a two-thirds vote (and the Democrats don’t have that margin of control). If the discussions result in an agreement that costs any money, then the House Appropriations committee has to weigh in, and that brings the Republicans back into the loop.

But let’s assume for a moment that Obama can overcome these political obstacles. Is he willing to invest the political capital to do so?

The record so far suggests that the president likes to make important game-changing speeches – on re-engaging the Muslim world, on nuclear abolition – but is not willing to put in the monumental effort to implement these visions. For instance, he rhetorically distanced his counter-terrorism policies from his predecessor’s. But he then went on to expand drone warfare both in scale (in Pakistan) and scope (Yemen and Somalia). Despite his much-vaunted willingness to negotiate with America’s adversaries should they show a willingness of their own, the president demonstrated considerable skittishness once in office. Early opportunities to engage with North Korea, Iran, and the Taliban were squandered.

Of course, the failure to transform U.S. foreign policy is not due solely to Republican resistance and administration reticence. A major impediment to legacy-making is the world out there. The lack of a powerful treaty on global warming has as much to do with the failures of U.S. leadership as it does the sizable disagreements among countries like China and India. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the key reason why an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is currently so difficult to achieve. And neither the Iranian nor the North Korean leadership is suddenly going to go all soft just so that Obama can claim a presidential legacy all his own with a landmark agreement.

In part because of the world out there, President Obama has charted a more modest global role for the United States. The Obama administration prefers to “lead from behind” rather than step boldly in front of everyone else. It is attempting to put the U.S. house in order – with health care reform, with financial sector reform – instead of constantly proclaiming its exceptional status. It more or less respects international institutions. It will finally start reducing the massive U.S. military budget – though not nearly enough – and give greater authority to the State Department. The one major diplomatic accomplishment of the first term – the rapprochement with Burma – is emblematic of this more modest approach to global affairs. The negotiations with a junta making a slow transition away from authoritarianism have taken place rather quietly, in close coordination with allies, and away from the main stage of global affairs.

The United States, under Obama, is finally coming to terms with the fact that the world is multipolar.  The notion that one man – or one country – can change this multipolar world is fast becoming antiquated. Accustoming Americans to this power shift may ultimately be Obama’s chief legacy.

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