As President Barack Obama draws closer to exit, speculation is rife about likely changes in US foreign policy under his successor. Guesswork on that score isn’t easy.
One problem is that, because foreign policy has not featured much in the current campaign, there are few indications of what the candidates might or might not do.
Another problem is that this year’s campaign is still open to surprises.
On the Democrat side Mrs. Hillary Clinton is often regarded as the “inevitable” nominee, at least in theory. But even then it is not at all certain that she would secure enough support to ignore her party’s more radical wing led by Senator Bernie Sanders.
On the Republican side, though the term “inevitable” is seldom used for him, Donald Trump appears to be best placed to clinch the nomination, especially after a series of wins in Tuesday’s primaries. But there, too, it is doubtful that even if he is the nominee, Trump would be strong enough to impose his vision, provided he has one.
Mrs. Clinton has enough experience in foreign affairs and national security to at least know the main issues. Because he is a novice in national security and foreign policy, Trump would be more dependent on his team, notably his vice-president, to shape and implement a new strategy.
There is still a chance, though increasingly remote, that the “stop-Trump” campaign by Republican Party grandees might bring another rabbit out of the hat. But even then, neither of the two likely rabbits, Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich, knows enough about foreign policy and national security to develop a new strategy on his own.
Based on the scant evidence produced during the campaign, as president, Hillary Clinton would tend to redirect US foreign policy to its classical channels. Clinton could be a cautious but determined player, though certainly not an innovator. All indications are that ties with Europe and Japan will be strengthened while the US would help the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) repair some of the damage done to it under Obama.
As for Trump, the evidence available is even more scant. The real estate mogul turned politician has been disparaging about both NATO, calling it “pretty useless”, and the European Union, claiming its members ride on America’s back, at different times. And, yet, he has given no hint that, as president, he might want to clip the wings of either.
Both Clinton and Trump have hinted they would abandon the strategic retreat that Obama initiated in the face of various challengers, among them Russia in Europe, the Islamic Republic in Iran and the People’s China in the Far East.
However, neither, has offered any hint as how they mean to do that.
One thing is certain: whoever is president by next January, US global policy is unlikely to be put into a different gear immediately. The new president would need a year to complete his or her administration and forge the consensus required for major changes of policy.
The next step would be to seek or revive contacts across the globe in the hope of reassuring old allies and finding new ones. Thanks to Obama’s bizarre manoeuvres, trust in the US is at its lowest for decades, especially in Europe and the Middle East.
Two, perhaps more important, points need to be considered as well.
The first is that Obama has succeeded in subverting reality through perception. His foreign policy could be compared to a hologram, a three-dimensional picture that offers different images when seen from different angles (for example it is an angel from one side and a devil from another!).
Obama’s “historic” move on Cuba is a hologram: from one side it appears as a gesture helping Cubans choose a better direction for their unhappy land. From another angle, it looks like a boost for the Castro clan’s despotic rule.
The so-called nuclear deal with the mullahs of Tehran is another hologram. Seen from one angle it is a detailed 179-page accord to put a stop to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. But seen from another angle, it doesn’t even exist let alone block the Islamic Republic’s path to a nuclear arsenal.
There are other examples of Obama’s success in subverting reality with perception. Obama claims that he has restrained Russia’s expansionism after Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula while establishing a toehold in eastern Ukraine. On May 11 Putin will also annex South Ossetia before moving to annex Abkhazia in October.
As for China, its strategy of building cat’s paws in dozens of atolls in the waters to its east and south continues unabated. However, Obama boasts that, thanks to “21st century diplomacy”, he has persuaded Beijing not to chew a big morsel, so far.
Another hologram is the 6-Point “strategic cooperation” Obama concluded with eight Arab states. Seen from one angle it looks like a dramatic new alliance. Look at it from another angle and you see a fathomless vacuum. All the promises are postponed until 2017, long after Obama has retired to write his memoirs.
The so-called “historic” pact on the environment, negotiated with fanfare in the “Club 21” in Paris, represents another hologram. From one angle you see the oceans receding as Obama points his finger at them. From another angle, it looks like a tedious bureaucratic concoction designed never to be taken seriously even after the start of “implementation” when at least 54 nations have legislated it into their national law.
Those who hope that the US may soon close Obama’s chapter would have to consider another disturbing possibility. What if Obama’s strategy of dodging issues and ducking leadership is actually popular with Americans? What if you could fool enough of the people enough of the time to be able to kick the cans down the road while everyone applauds?
These questions are not fanciful. Obama may have persuaded a majority of Americans that the only choice they have is between full-scale invasion of other countries, something they dread, and surrendering to the “reality” of appeasement of all manner of bullies, which they might swallow with sugar-coating of the President’s eloquence.
The latest poll, dated 24 April by Gallup, gives Obama a 51 per cent approval rating, an unprecedented figure for an incumbent US president at the end of his term. In contrast, the approval ratings of French President Francois Hollande who is also at the end of his term is only 15 per cent!
As Obama fades into the sunset, his legacy may linger awhile.
Thus, it would be prudent to hope for the best but to be prepared for the worst.