I endorse basically everything in this Dan Drezner piece on the question. To whit:
- The recovery of the American economy — and its significant outperformance of Europe’s — in the wake of the financial crisis was a key element in restoring America’s world position, and something the Obama administration deserves real credit for. (To be clear: the problems with distribution of the recovery are a big reason why the establishments of both parties were rebuked so sharply in the most-recent election — but that doesn’t mean the recovery wasn’t real as well, and consequential, particularly given how poorly Europe has done by comparison.)
- The nuclear deal with Iran and the climate deal with China are major diplomatic accomplishments which could be the cornerstones of a better foreign policy orientation for America, focused on extrication from the Middle Eastern quagmire and building a productive, mutually-respectful relationship with a rising China — assuming they are not shredded by the incoming administration.
- But they are likely to be shredded. Obama has been too inclined to do the rational thing, as he calculated it, without regard to how those decisions were likely to be perceived, particularly by the American public. This mismanagement of his domestic political position, particularly in his second term, left his legacy orphaned of popular support.
Drezner sums up: “Obama’s greatest strength and his greatest weakness as a foreign policy leader was his Zen master approach to world politics.”
I would add, since Drezner glosses over it, that while Obama clearly wanted to extricate America from the Middle Eastern quagmire, part of his “rational” approach to doing this was to work slowly and within the confines of the Washington consensus and what our allies would “tolerate,” thereby allowing that process to take as long as it naturally might. In the course of that long, slow process, he wound up by default sinking deeper into the quagmire (in Afghanistan) and getting into new quagmires to boot (in Libya, in Yemen, and to some extent in Syria) instead of getting out. Rather than play Eisenhower in Korea, he played Nixon in Vietnam.
Now it is Trump’s turn to strut and fret his hour upon the stage. Whether he actually favors a more restrained foreign policy (something I highly doubt), I have no confidence that he could execute on that kind of vision — or, indeed, any kind. As often as not Trump just says he’s going to bomb the shit out of people.
So one of the risks of the incoming administration is that we will see a precipitous collapse in America’s international position, something worse than what we experienced in the late 1970s under Ford and Carter. In other words, I agree with Drezner’s conclusion as well:
Obama was more of a restorationist president than his critics realized. He came in at a low point in American power and influence in the world and helped to make America great again. However, his inattention and disdain for the politics of his job laid the groundwork for an incoming president who can tear down the very order that Obama fought hard to preserve.
I hope Obama proves to be right about the long arc of history. But I fear he has been wrong too many times during his presidency for me to have that much hope for the immediate future of America in the world.
Patriotic advocates of a more restrained foreign policy should not be sanguine about the likely consequences of such an eventuality.