Hits and misses during Barack Obama’s eight years in power
First US black president is leaving a mixed legacy, where even the few achievements he had could be reversed by his successor
China barely featured in Barack Obama’s farewell presidential speech. But his reference was less than flattering, the nation being paired with Russia to push the point that American influence and reputation would be eroded if the US chose to bully its neighbours. Growing power can be interpreted in different ways and that is what Obama was doing in laying out what he perceived to be his foreign policy legacy. His record is mixed, although characterised by what all countries should want of one another: cooperation and coordination.
Obama’s approach towards foreign policy of being pragmatic and abiding by international rules stood his country in good stead with China. Ties were not overly fraught during his eight-year presidency; he leaves office on January 20 on friendly terms with President Xi Jinping (習近平). A personal relationship was cultivated through walks and private dinners during summits, giving opportunities to better understand one another. Such interaction eased tensions created by Obama’s pivot to Asia.
Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a time when his only achievement was being the United States’ first black president increased pressure on him to attain his goals. Circumstances meant only some were achieved and at times only partially, the most notable being the nuclear pact with Iran, the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and the pull-down of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. But there were also unexpected successes, the biggest being a partnering with Beijing to assure the Paris climate change accord, and normalisation of ties with Cuba.
Along the way, he became the first US president to visit Myanmar, made history by remembering those killed in Hiroshima by an American atomic bomb and lifted the arms embargo against Vietnam. But there were also failures, the most glaring being allowing the rise of the terror group Islamic State by prematurely quitting Iraq and backpedalling on a promise that should a red line be crossed in Syria, US military strikes would follow.
Obama acknowledged in his speech how the world’s people counted on the US to help them in times of need. His greatest legacy is arguably turning around an economy that eight years ago had been in free fall with unemployment in double digits and debt soaring. Incoming president Donald Trump certainly has not acknowledged that and has promised to reverse triumphs like the climate change pact. But as Obama only knows too well, he has to take care; while his duty is to serve Americans, the world also looks up to the US and expects it to use its strengths wisely.