The Economist Looks Back at the Obama Administration


In this week’s The Economist, the lead article addresses what they call “Obama’s Biggest Mistake.”

The article focused on Obama’s red line in Syria that was not.

They then ask; “How much was his red line in Syria to blame for America’s lost credibility?”

Because we essentially are being governed by Obama III, the question needs to be extended to how realistic and effective is American leadership following the traditional liberal path?

The question of course is even broader: Given where the world is and has been evolving, what is a realistic view for America and its place in the world?

I would argue that neither Obama III or the Trump “Make American Great Again” perspectives are realistic in terms of the world in which America finds itself, nor it is capable of navigating.

The world has changed dramatically beyond what either liberals or neo-cons contemplate when considering American policy or anything remotely realist in terms of what America can “lead” in terms of the West.

I agree with The Economist that going back to the 8 years of the Obama Administration is a good place to see the disconnect between strategic policy and strategic reality.

And I have recently edited a book on the Administration which provides a year-by-year account of an Administration which could not come to grips with the rise of China or the imperialistic appetite of Putin.

As I put it in the introduction to the book:

The United States does not have the resources, or capability, to remake the countries into which it has inserted itself, and in trying to do so, it has undercut its own geopolitical interests. Or put another way, American diplomatic and military approaches have reshaped U.S. tools to do things like stability operations, rather than investing in relevant air and naval systems to defend the United States directly and to be able to compete with a rising China more effectively or a resurgent Russia.

As Mearsheimer put it: “Liberals tend to think of every area of the world as a potential battlefield, because they are committed to protecting human rights everywhere and spreading liberal democracy far and wide. They would naturally prefer to achieve these goals peacefully, but they are usually willing to countenance using military force if necessary. In short, while realists place strict limits on where they are willing to employ force, liberals have no such limits. For them, vital interests are everywhere.”

Even though this quote highlights liberals, the liberal hegemonic approach he is discussing has been at the heart of the past three Administrations’ policies, whether driven by neo-cons or liberals. With the Soviet Union gone, and the working assumption that the Chinese were being assimilated into the global order, the United States was free to work with its allies to reshape the troublesome Middle East and to deal with “Islamic terrorism” as the key strategic threat.

Donald Trump began to change course. His Pentagon released a new national security strategy, which focused on the return of Great Power rivalry and the need to reshape U.S. policies and capabilities to make such a strategic shift. It is an open question of whether the Administration was really reorganized to do this or whether the United States can easily shift course. In essence, Trump recognized the shift but provided tactical adjustments rather than a coherent strategy to deal with the strategic shift and transition to a new historical era.

What is not in question is that the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia have put in play 21st century authoritarian powers directly challenging the United States and the liberal democratic allies whose challenges need to be met. Put bluntly, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Warsaw Pact was seen to open up a new period of domination by the liberal democracies. New states would be added to the EU and to NATO, and the globalization of the economy was seen as inextricably intertwined with the ascendancy of liberal democracy. What was lost in this euphoric way forward was the rise of the 21st century authoritarian capitalist powers, Russia and China, and their ability to challenge the ascendancy of the liberal democratic European and American regimes, both at home and abroad.

In this book, we take the reader year by year from 2009 through 2016 to examining the global shifts and how the Obama Administration saw these shifts and dealt with them.