During his first campaign for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama held out the promise of a “post-post-9/11 foreign policy” through which the United States would leave its obsession with terrorism behind and begin to focus on an array of other transnational challenges, such as nuclear proliferation and climate change, that demanded its attention. He promised to reduce the burden on the armed forces by ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and reinvigorating the civilian elements of American power. Obama cast himself as a brighter alternative to the prevailing course of US foreign policy. He asked his followers to imagine a world in which the United States had not made the disastrous mistakes of the George W. Bush administration (Iraq, Guantánamo Bay, and torture, to name a few) but had instead forged a more careful and pragmatic path. It was this world that he promised to bring into being.
Eight years later, President Obama’s foreignpolicy legacy is a mixed one. There is no doubt that he has racked up some noteworthy accomplishments, including easing the futile embargo on Cuba, striking a deal to suspend and reduce the stockpiles of Iran’s nuclear program, and signing a historic climate-change agreement with China. Throughout most of Asia, Obama’s tenure has been marked by improved diplomatic relationships and economic ties facilitated in part by his efforts to pass the now-shelved Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. In Latin America and Africa, he has perhaps inevitably not lived up to lofty expectations, but he has managed to improve ties with a number of governments and to remove some of the distrust that characterized US relations in those regions. Obama has handled the United Nations and other regional and international organizations without the rancor that marked his predecessor’s approach, and has even steered their agendas toward American interests when possible. Although he has not fully succeeded in restoring America’s reputation, global public opinion of the United States has rebounded from the darkest days of the Bush administration.
In the eyes of Obama’s critics, these victories pale in comparison with the magnitude of his defeats. Many critics have pointed out that the world has become more unstable, violent, and divided over the course of his term. As Obama prepares to leave office, the Middle East has descended into sectarian conflict with civil wars raging in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated and the major cities appear vulnerable to Taliban reconquest. A descendent of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS), has escalated the gruesome spectacles of its predecessor and inspired terrorist attacks in US and European cities.