World View: Obama turns attention to his legacy

President says US leadership and agenda-setting is expected wherever he goes

President Barack Obama walks down the steps of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base after returning from a foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, England and Germany. Photograph: AP/Susan Walsh

President Barack Obama walks down the steps of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base after returning from a foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, England and Germany. Photograph: AP/Susan Walsh

 

Barack Obama is in the final months of his presidency and keen to justify his domestic and international achievements before he leaves office. His final visits to Saudi Arabia, Britain and Germany last week gave insights into his approach to the Middle East and Europe since 2008.

In a candid series of interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg, reported in the March Atlantic magazine, Obama spells out his approach to foreign policy. He sees it lying along two axes, between isolation and internationalism, realism and liberalism. He places himself predominantly in the box labelled realist internationalism.

Isolation is rejected because of the US’s interconnectedness with the world, while internationalism is expressed in a commitment to democratic values and multilateral norms. That makes him an idealist in various respects. He registers definite material and ethical progress in international affairs on his watch, including with Asia, Iran, Cuba, climate change, trade and continuing US leadership.

But he also accepts a realist label. “I suppose you could call me a realist in believing we can’t, at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery,” he says. “We have to choose where we can make a real impact.”

He distinguishes sharply between questions that involve a core and direct national-security threat to US interests where he will use force and those where such interests are not so challenged.

He goes on to say the world “is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it.”

Liberalism constrained

Syria

Instead he referred the issue to Congress and took account of public opinion in the US and the UK which was against the attack. He still justifies the decision, using it to challenge conventional foreign policy thinking in Washington about who are the friends and enemies of the US in the Middle East.

For the most part they are not first order threats, he feels; but against jihadi terrorism he has used drones extensively, authorising thousands of lethal attacks on individuals and innocent bystanders in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel figure largely in this story. Obama originally envisaged a grand bargain to reconfigure regional relations but became more cautious in office when confronted with the rooted hostility of the Saudis and Israelis to his nuclear deal with Iran.

‘Free riders aggravate me’

Iraq

Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, announced by his secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2011, is intended to reorient US foreign policy to that huge region with half the world’s population and so much of its emerging economic energy, and away from the previous preoccupation with the Middle East and Europe. While the Middle East continually tugs him back, he has kept up his engagement with China and other states, becoming much more involved in Asia-Pacific affairs, as befits a president who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia.

Some European leaders resent that and feel neglected. Others want to develop their own pivot to Asia, in an exercise of geopolitical rebalancing that attracts considerable Chinese interest.

But the larger European states have so far been unable to co-ordinate their Asian interests and efforts in a common European Union policy towards the region, despite ongoing attempts.

Obama has no time for declinist accounts of US power.

He says US leadership and agenda-setting is expected wherever he goes. He worries that European powers are unwilling or unable to fulfil their proper role in a more multilateral world order. Hence his warnings about Brexit with David Cameron and endorsement of Angela Merkel’s “steady presence” on Germany’s behalf. The US relationship with Britain is no longer as special as before and would be much less so if it left the EU.

pegillespie@gmail.com

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