Biden’s former boss was as risk-averse as Trump was confrontational, and neither approach will work in today’s world.
President Joe Biden’s administration will surely define its foreign policy in opposition to the legacy of destruction left by President Donald Trump. But what lessons will it draw from the presidency of Barack Obama?
That may seem a strange question, given how much strategic self-harm the U.S. inflicted over the last four years. Yet crafting a post-Trump policy will also require a nuanced understanding of what worked — and what went wrong — under his predecessor.
One reason is that the Biden administration is, in substantial measure, the Obama administration. The president and nearly all of his key foreign policy advisers served under Obama. Another reason is that the all-consuming chaos and histrionics of the Trump presidency made it harder to attempt a dispassionate dissection of Obama’s record.
Obama’s presidency, like Biden’s, initially had the feel of a new era: The president promised a dramatic break with the post-9/11 mindset of George W. Bush. In retrospect, Obama’s was more of a transitional presidency between the post-Cold War period and the current age of revisionism and upheaval. By 2009, it was clear that America’s global primacy had slipped from the imposing heights of the 1990s, and that counterterrorism could no longer dominate U.S. policy as it had after the Sept. 11 attacks. Yet the full severity of the emerging geopolitical and ideological challenges was only gradually becoming apparent.
The Obama administration scored some important successes. It worked, somewhat fitfully, to prepare for the challenge of a rising China and to shift America’s strategic focus from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific. Through painstaking diplomacy, the administration delivered imperfect but acceptable multilateral deals to address climate change — along with China, the greatest long-term threat to national and global well-being — and the Iranian nuclear program. It orchestrated what, in painful comparison to America’s performance during Covid-19, now appears to be a near-model response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014.
Obama’s team also arrived, albeit after the partially self-inflicted disaster of the Islamic State’s romp across Iraq, at a sustainable counterterrorism model that used air power and special operations forces to support local partners. And after being taken by surprise by Russia’s assault on Ukraine, it began to reconstruct a meaningful deterrent to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
Tying these policies together was an important insight: Preserving American leadership amid decreasing American dominance required rallying broad coalitions against shared threats. It is hard to think of a more relevant lesson for dealing with China, the most economically formidable rival America has ever faced, or countless other issues today.
By 2016, however, there was growing concern in the U.S. and elsewhere that America was losing ground to increasingly aggressive rivals from Russia to Iran to China. There was rising uncertainty, which predated Trump, about America’s ability to sustain the international order. Even a President Hillary Clinton would probably have made significant adjustments to U.S. foreign policy. Looking back, Obama’s travails offer four cautionary insights that are still relevant in addressing a world in turmoil.
The first involves the limits of soft power. Obama’s immense global popularity was a strategic asset for America — one that allowed it, paradoxically, to wage a lethal drone campaign with surprisingly little international blowback. Yet over time, the impressive esteem that America always enjoyed under Obama couldn’t disguise the fact that declining U.S. hard power was making allies in the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe nervous.
There’s a lesson for Biden here. America’s democratic allies are surely thrilled to have him, and not an illiberal demagogue, at the head of the free world. But invocations of democratic solidarity and values will only carry the U.S. so far if it doesn’t maintain the hard-power military advantages that make its alliances credible.
Second, Obama overestimated — or simply oversold — the potential for diplomacy to reshape competitive relationships and mellow hostile regimes. The administration argued that the Iran nuclear deal would draw Tehran into the world and make it easier to address its aggressive behavior; what followed, instead, was a surge of destabilizing expansion in the Middle East.
Third, Obama ultimately had too great an aversion to risk in key relationships. To its credit, the administration modernized key U.S. alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. It deployed some of America’s newest and best military capabilities there. Yet in key episodes, notably the response to China’s drive for primacy in the South China Sea, Obama’s instinct was to prioritize stability and scrupulously avoid escalation in the relationship with Beijing — an understandable impulse that effectively ceded the initiative to a risk-taking rival.
Today, Biden’s team is appropriately focused on rallying a multilateral coalition against China. But a truly competitive strategy also requires imposing costs, tolerating diplomatic friction and taking strategic risks that throw Beijing off balance.
Finally, the Obama years show the danger of intellectual exhaustion. The world Obama confronted in 2016 — one of democratic decay, geopolitical rivalry, angry populism and surging terrorism — was not the world he had expected in 2009. An emphasis on U.S. restraint seemed increasingly out of step with a disordered global reality. Yet Obama and some top aides fought suggestions that their core strategic premises might need rethinking. At some point, every administration hits an intellectual dead end. The key is to respond by innovating rather than stagnating.
Biden’s choice as secretary of state, Antony Blinken, explained recently that the new administration will not simply pick up where Obama left off: It will “engage the world, not as it was, but as it is.” Let’s hope so. Dealing with the challenges posed by revisionist states, resurgent authoritarianism and dizzying technological change will require more than correcting the mistakes of the Trump years — it will require learning from Obama’s complex legacy, as well.