Is Obama's Foreign-Policy Legacy Disappearing?

Several of his achievements are under threat—and it’s not all because of Donald Trump.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

When Donald Trump last week opted to decertify the nuclear agreement that Barack Obama forged with Iran, it appeared to fit a pattern in the president’s emerging foreign policy. In withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the Paris climate-change accord, in announcing that he was “canceling” the U.S. opening to Cuba, Trump seemed similarly determined to dismantle Obama’s achievements in international affairs. “The organizing principle for how he approaches foreign policy appears to be, in part, trying to look like he’s doing the opposite of his predecessor,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national-security adviser, told me.

But to the extent that Obama’s foreign-policy legacy is under threat, it’s not only Trump that’s doing the threatening. Some accomplishments are fraying for reasons that have nothing to do with the 45th president’s apparent contempt for the 44th. Obama’s legacy partially depends on his bets that certain countries—Cuba, Iran, Burma—would, with time, respond positively to diplomacy, which the former president once described to The Atlantic as “the element of American power that the rest of the world appreciates unambiguously.”

Yet in the admittedly short time since Obama left office, those bets haven’t paid off unambiguously. The Obama administration’s efforts to encourage Burma’s transition to democracy and to create favorable conditions for Iranian leaders to moderate, for instance, are now in jeopardy in large measure because of actions taken by those governments. These shortcomings raise questions about whether Obama, who considers himself a realist, was overly optimistic about the possibilities of engagement.

Conversely, Trump has quietly continued some of his predecessor’s  initiatives. In substance though obviously not in style, Trump has retained certain features of Obama’s campaigns against ISIS and North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. The focus on Obama’s record also obscures the broader challenge Trump poses to U.S. foreign-policy traditions that stretch back decades.

Consider the cases in which events beyond Trump’s control are undercutting Obama’s policies. Obama made the first American presidential visit to Burma to reward democratic reforms by Burma’s authoritarian military government. Now Burma’s security forces—with surprisingly little resistance from the nation’s democratically elected, semi-empowered leaders, including the reputed democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi—have engaged in what UN officials have condemned as “ethnic cleansing” against a Muslim minority group. The torching of villages and slaughter of civilians has sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. This outcome was hardly unforeseeable. In late 2016,  as Obama lifted U.S. sanctions against Burma, the country’s military carried out a brutal scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya that presaged its more recent one.

Then there’s the Cuba opening. The Trump administration recently expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the United States, pulled non-essential personnel from Cuba, and warned Americans not to travel to the island. They did this not to erase Obama’s Cuba policy, but because someone—and there’s no public evidence yet that it was the Cuban government—appears to have sickened nearly two dozen American diplomats, perhaps using mysterious sonic weapons. (Rhodes acknowledged that the U.S. government had to respond to the attacks on its officials, but said Trump’s reaction was too “punitive.” As for the lack of democratic reforms by the Castro government since Obama touched down in Cuba to “bury the last vestige of the Cold War in the Americas,” Rhodes argued that “they’ve proceeded at the pace of reform that I think would be expected—we never promised a transition of the Cuban political system quickly. What we wanted to see was more engagement, more investment in the Cuban private sector, and ultimately the promotion of reform in Cuba through American travel, American commerce, American and other ideas reaching Cubans.”)

Meanwhile, Obama prided himself on keeping the United States out of new military quagmires—on endeavoring to leave his successor with a “clean barn”—but his failures to halt North Korea’s nuclear-weapons advances, tame the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan, and stanch the bloodletting in Syria saddled the Trump administration with the prospect of new or renewed military conflicts in those countries. In announcing a troop increase in Afghanistan, for example, Trump argued that Obama’s war plans were too focused on withdrawal timelines rather than “conditions on the ground.” In explaining why Trump launched strikes against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons, after Obama recoiled from a similar decision in 2013, National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton claimed that the president thought it would help restore American “resolve in the war.”

Even with Iran, the situation is more complicated than the headline news of Trump declining to certify Obama’s nuclear deal. (It’s worth noting that in decertifying, Trump has has left the agreement itself intact, but asked Congress to consider whether the United States should remain in the pact, blow it up, or seek to revise it legislatively.) Obama administration officials always insisted that the nuclear deal was just that: a deal to prevent the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons. And judged by these narrow goals, the 2015 agreement has been successful. The U.S. government, UN inspectors, and the other world powers who negotiated the pact all agree that the Iranians are upholding the obligations they undertook in exchange for relief from international sanctions.

Still, what some Obama administration officials hoped but rarely said explicitly—that Iran might moderate its behavior in the Middle East by the time certain restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities lapsed after 10 or 15 years—hasn’t yet come to pass. As Philip Gordon, Obama’s top Middle East adviser until 2015, has noted, part of the administration’s theory in thinking about these “sunset” provisions was that “openness and engagement creates constituencies for cooperation” and that most Iranians, especially young Iranians, “want change in their system.” When Iran joined “the international community,” when it became less “insecure,” a new generation of leaders might recognize that “they would have more to lose by having a confrontational approach,” he said.

Gordon acknowledged, however, that there were “no guarantees.” And while Iran has tacitly cooperated with the United States against ISIS since the nuclear deal was signed, it has pursued confrontation with America in other areas. Iran has persisted with developing ballistic missiles, and sponsoring militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah that the U.S. government considers terrorist organizations. As the Islamic State has been uprooted, the Islamic Republic has wrested influence away from the U.S. in Iraq and joined forces with Russia and Hezbollah to prop up an American opponent, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria. “Iran actually is in a much stronger position across the region today than it was two years ago or five years ago,” The New Yorker’s Robin Wright recently observed. That is “the grounds on which the Trump administration is basing its new policy.”

Explaining his theory of diplomatic engagement in 2009, Obama observed that “in light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable—and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies.” But recent events suggest that the Nixon-goes-to-China move doesn’t always produce economic uplift and international integration. Sometimes what follows is ballistic-missile tests and stricken diplomats and the near-purge of an entire ethnic group.

The not-Obama narrative also overlooks areas in which Trump has largely continued Obama’s policies, such as the military campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and even (with the glaring exception of the administration’s escalating rhetoric about initiating another war on the Korean peninsula) elements of the previous administration’s approach to North Korea’s nuclear program, including military exercises, the deployment of missile-defense systems, and the use of sanctions to pressure North Korea into talks.

Even when Trump has appeared to wipe out Obama-era initiatives, the truth in many cases has been less dramatic. Rhodes pointed out that while Trump has placed some new restrictions on American travel and business ties to Cuba—restrictions, incidentally, that have yet to be implemented—he has not severed the diplomatic relations that Obama restored. As for the Paris climate agreement, Rhodes added, the United States can’t fully withdraw until 2020, which means a future administration could rejoin it, and every other country is sticking to the pact, which means “it remains the framework within which the world is going to deal with climate change.”

Danielle Pletka, a senior vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, expressed similar skepticism about Trump’s actions—but argued that in several instances they didn’t go far enough in overturning Obama’s initiatives. “I think of the Trump administration as [having] a very scattershot, not principle-driven, not ideology-driven foreign policy,” she told me. “And insofar as things have gotten rolled back, they’ve gotten rolled back in very nominal ways rather than in meaningful ways that actually reverse the failures of the previous eight years.”

In Syria, for example, “the Trump administration doesn’t say, ‘We need a systematic effort to roll back the failings of the [Obama] administration and show once again that America is the tribune of human freedom in the world,’” Pletka noted. “What they say is, ‘Oh wow, episodically, that chemical-weapons attack was a horror. Let’s hit those guys.’”

Trump has also made clear that his iconoclasm extends far beyond the last administration, according to Jeremi Suri, a historian of the American presidency at the University of Texas at Austin. Trump hasn’t just nixed the TPP; he’s signaled that the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico—which was implemented under Bill Clinton, after the groundwork was laid by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—could be next. And though it’s common for a new administration to try to distinguish itself from the previous one, Suri said what sets Trump apart is that he “is trying to undo these broader strategic commitments that in fact predate Obama—many of them go back to Ronald Reagan.”

It’s more common for presidents to make tactical adjustments to predecessors’ policies—see Obama trying to exit Iraq quickly without fundamentally changing the U.S. role in the Middle East. As a result, from Eisenhower and Kennedy to Bush and Obama, there has often been more continuity than change when it comes to the grand strategy of U.S. foreign policy.

That’s why Rhodes is alarmed by Trump’s flippant handling of the commitments the United States made to Iran, its European allies, and China and Russia as part of the international pact. Trump’s decision not to certify the nuclear agreement seemed to stem from “a desire to tear up the deal … [prompting] a search for a justification for tearing up the deal,” Rhodes says. The risks of that approach may not yet be apparent, he adds, but they will be. “There’s a tail to the things that you do on foreign policy—it takes some time for the chickens to come home to roost,” he said. “And it can feel like there’s no cost to standing up and decertifying the Iran deal. But you’re playing a serious game of chicken in terms of what comes next—whether or not Iran restarts its nuclear program, whether or not the Europeans defy additional U.S. sanctions, whether or not there is an increased risk of conflict in the Middle East, whether or not the dollar as the world’s reserve currency is put at risk because we continue to use our sanctions as an extension of domestic politics.”

Speaking to reporters last week, John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, offered a different interpretation of why Trump has pursued the policies he has. “I don’t mean any criticism to Mr. Trump’s predecessors,” Kelly said, before laying the criticism on thick: “But there is an awful lot of things that were, in my view, kicked down the road that have come home to roost, pretty much right now, that have to be dealt with.”