It is only with difficulty that Obama’s friends and foes alike can dispute his leadership abilities. Charismatic, humane, inspirational, well-read, composed- name it, he has it. And yet, going back to examine his foreign policy-making, whether one calls it ‘entrenchment’ or ‘offshore balancing’, fact remains that America today finds itself in retreat.
Having Trump, a loose cannon, as the President who now has to sift through the consequences of diminished projections of American power in a newly-emerged, almost multipolar and, as such, unstable world order does not seem very promising either.
It is no exaggeration to say that during his two terms in office Obama managed to alienate most of his traditional allies in the Middle East (starting with Israel, culminating with Saudi Arabia, while aggravating Turkey, Egypt and Jordan in the process). It was Obama who allowed leadership in the mess that Iraq, Libya and Syria came to resemble on his watch to move on to the hands of America’s emboldened adversaries in the region. As a direct consequence of American inaction on the ground, the map of the Middle East is currently being re-drawn (in the noticeable absence of the United States) by a coalition of powers among which one finds none other than Iran (a previously rogue state whose return to world politics and the global economy was, in fact, enabled by the Obama administration).
To add insult to injury, Russia and China are building naval capabilities to roam and safeguard the high seas, increasingly laying claim to the Pacific. In fact, following the invasion of Crimea and the securing of the Black Sea, Putin has simultaneously strengthened Russian presence in the Mediterranean, the Arctic and the Baltic (which he claims to be a legitimate ‘sphere of interest’ in his very own Near Abroad), while at the same time making America almost a laughing stock in cyberspace. There should be no surprises, then, that on another front and as far as dithering Eastern European countries are concerned, liberal values and a hesitant NATO do not seem to resonate as much as before. Choosing sides for them may not prove to be that difficult in the not-so-distant future, if things do not drastically change. Indeed, the mice have been playing, while the American cat has been away.
But how did things come to that? One can almost hear Machiavelli laughing from the sidelines- a ruler, if they have to choose, must always choose to be feared rather than loved. The moment one puts on the ruling crown, the morality and liberal values of a private citizen need to be interchanged with the kind of morality necessary to protect and advance the interests of the state, no matter how despicable, shrewd or cynical they might seem. It is, therefore, one thing to protect liberal ideas at home, another how you choose to deal with such matters abroad, especially in the context of the brutal, anarchical international system in which we find ourselves. For example, embarking on a moral crusade which emphasizes democratization and the embracing of civil society at the expense of order and stability in a region ready to combust (remember the Arab Spring anyone?), does not usually turn out to be very wise. Nor forcing allies to take up more responsibilities for their own security, choosing to ‘lead from behind’, as Obama thought possible, works very well either.
Amassing power but never showing any intention of using it, when need be, could possibly be worse than not possessing any power at all. Countries simply do not take lessons from anyone they perceive as weak. Periclean Athens, the cradle of democracy but still one of the most ruthless imperialist states of all time, is possibly the most pertinent case in point. “You seem to forget that if one follows one’s self-interest, one wants to be safe, where the path of justice and honour involves one in danger.” Thus said the Athenians to the rebellious Melians and proceeded to raze their city to the ground. Lesson taken, example set. Power is as power does.