Of all the contested aspects of Barack Obama’s presidency, few are more controversial than his foreign policy. As his second administration heads toward its end, estimates of Obama’s performance abroad range from dismal to deftly capable. How to sort this out? What has the Obama presidency actually wrought in U.S. foreign policy? What will his successor do to advance, undermine, or complicate the president’s legacy?

In evaluating Obama’s record, one should recall what disarray his predecessor bequeathed him: the most debilitating global financial crisis in modern history; a failed foreign policy in the Middle East, including debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan; and a near-complete loss of confidence in U.S. leadership among our allies and would-be allies. Ignoring these realities, self-proclaimed foreign-policy realists have criticized what they see as Obama’s insufficient projection of American power on the world scene. They deride as weakness Obama’s concessions to a multipolar world, and mock the default respect he shows for foreign cultures and national sovereignties.

Such critiques are shortsighted. For a new president in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, faced with an obstructionist U.S. Congress, an aggressive Russia, and an economically imperious China, clinging to “lone superpower” ambitions and rhetoric would have been little short of delusional. To be sure, Obama’s foreign-policy record is hardly without blemish. Too often, prudence and consultation have deteriorated into ambivalence and indecision—sometimes, as in Syria and Libya, to disastrous effect. Forced to choose between the incumbent prime minister of Iraq, Noury Al-Maliki, and a rival who actually outpolled him in the historic 2010 elections, the Obama administration stuck by their man, who proceeded to deepen the Shia-Sunni rift and return Iraq, after a period of relative stability, to the bitter sectarian civil war that helped weaken the state and set the stage for the rise of ISIS. Drawing a red line in Syria and then erasing it was not the president’s finest moment. And the pivot to Asia sometimes seems to be more about cutting our losses and running from the Middle East than about building new economic and political alliances in a region still relatively unscathed by recent American adventurism.

Yet there have been real accomplishments. The administration’s signal achievement in foreign policy—the Iran nuclear deal—is a triumph of diplomacy over militarism, and as such represents an all-too-rare success in rolling back what Andrew Bacevich, in these pages and elsewhere, has rightly called “America’s unending war.” Obama has been fundamentally correct, too, in his analysis of al-Qaeda and ISIS. The president deserves credit for recognizing that military alliances and precision strikes against ISIS must be matched by longer-term economic, educational, and cultural alliances with the peoples of the Middle East—as promised in his early, stunning speeches in Cairo and Ankara, which offered an olive branch to the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The largely unfulfilled promise of those overtures points to an ongoing problem for Obama—namely, the gap between the skillful messaging and the actual policies emerging from the White House and the State Department. The relative restraint Obama has shown in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, for example, sits uneasily alongside what is perhaps the Nobel Peace Laureate’s most disturbing legacy: the unleashing of drones in the struggle against the jihadi extremists. Obama’s defenders yield no moral ground on this issue. The deployment of drones for targeted strikes on terrorists saves countless lives, they contend, and they scoff at those who worry about the proliferation of drone warfare by our opponents as well as allies, insisting that that genie is already out of the bottle. Perhaps so. Yet it is disconcerting to read accounts of secret target approvals, via principles that remain opaque to the public, by the same president who in other contexts resolutely invokes the rule of international law.

If his popularity in the polls is any indication, while many Americans express profound concerns about drone policy, they likely also applaud President Obama’s clear and consistent articulation of the interconnections between climate change, poverty, war, and health-care epidemics. This view renders obsolete the old distinction between “domestic” and “foreign” policy in sorting the major threats facing our country and the world. Obama’s record on climate change shows him reckoning with what is perhaps the most urgent of these challenges. He rejected the Keystone XL pipeline proposal in 2015 and has expanded conservation efforts to include more than 265 million acres of protected land and water. And in September the president formally committed the United States to the Paris climate-change agreement, signed in April by leaders from more than 170 countries, each pledging to do its part to reduce carbon emissions and arrest the rapid growth in global average temperature.

Meanwhile, how has the administration fared in the pivotal realm of global development? Here Obama’s predecessor left a more promising legacy. George W. Bush established the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation—programs that raised the profile and efficacy of U.S. foreign assistance, not least in Africa. To his credit, Obama has continued support for these initiatives, and despite a rocky start marked by difficulty managing a sprawling foreign-assistance apparatus, his first term saw the launch of Feed the Future, a global hunger initiative with potential to improve food security. Some analysts point to a string of recent under-the-radar accomplishments, including the passage of the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act and the Global Food Security Act. More recently the president hosted a Global Development Summit at the White House, where he affirmed the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (adopted in September 2015 by the United Nations and endorsed, with some important amendments, by Pope Francis) as “one of the smartest investments we can make in our shared future—in our security and our prosperity.”

At the same time, as Obama’s presidency winds down, we might lament certain missed opportunities. Military spending continues to dwarf spending on basic human needs at home and abroad. Arms exports to Saudi Arabia have continued unabated, contributing to the destruction wrought by that regime on one of the world’s most vulnerable populations in Yemen. Obama has also increased military aid to Israel, a move questioned even by many staunch supporters of the Jewish state. And U.S. refugee resettlement efforts have not matched the magnitude of what Pope Francis and other faith leaders referred to as “fundamentally a crisis of humanity.” The end of 2015 saw 65.3 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, including 21.3 million refugees. And while the Obama administration announced in late August that it had met the modest goal of admitting ten thousand Syrian refugees this fiscal year, our Canadian neighbors have welcomed three times that number since last November.


A VOTER LOOKING ahead will find no comparison, on many of these topics, between the public record of the two major-party presidential candidates. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton advocated tirelessly for the global development agenda that ultimately became the Sustainable Development Goals. Like Obama, she has repeatedly invoked the role of poverty alleviation and the provision of jobs, health care, and education in the prevention of violent extremism and the promotion of human dignity. A Hillary Clinton presidency that is inattentive to these issues seems highly unlikely. Regarding the more conventional dimensions of U.S. foreign policy, as Secretary of State Clinton worked to reinvigorate public diplomacy and improve America’s image abroad. Her record-setting 112 overseas trips helped repair strained relationships. And she emphasized “smart power”—the integration of defense, diplomacy, and development in a comprehensive strategy for U.S. foreign affairs. Candidate Clinton’s national-security campaign positions reflect this approach. To be sure, a Clinton presidency would likely be more hawkish than her former boss’s. Critics cite her initial support for the war in Iraq versus Obama’s loud and clear opposition, and in 2011 she was a strong proponent of military intervention in Libya. She has called for enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria, and urged the covert arming of Syrian rebels earlier and more forcefully than her Obama-administration colleagues. A supporter of Obama’s drone policy, Clinton would likely continue a similar approach as president. And she has advocated the enhancement of missile defense systems in Israel, East Asia, and Eastern Europe.

The difficulty in comparing Clinton with Donald Trump on any of these issues, of course, is that Trump has no record of governance whatsoever, and his inconsistent public utterances during the campaign make it difficult to predict what positions he might take as president. That said, certain things seem likely. Central to a Trumpian foreign policy, as the candidate repeatedly promises, would be the attempted restoration of American hegemony over opponents and allies alike, which the candidate views as part and parcel of his mission to bolster the American spine. In an April 2016 foreign-policy speech Trump vowed that no American citizen “will ever again feel that their needs come second to the citizens of foreign countries.”

This “America First” approach could make America more vulnerable, not less. Indeed, many senior national-security officials in Trump’s own (adopted) party see the prospect of a Trump presidency as exceedingly dangerous—so much so, in fact, that scores of elected Republicans and former Republican military and foreign-policy strategists have denounced him. In addition to “weaken[ing] U.S. moral authority as leader of the free world,” as fifty prominent Republicans wrote in August, Trump lacks understanding of “America’s vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances, and the democratic values on which U.S. foreign policy must be based.”

Many of Trump’s foreign-policy prescriptions would jeopardize carefully cultivated global partnerships and diplomatic achievements. He has questioned the relevance of NATO, and he applauded the UK’s “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union; he wants to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and opposes the Iran nuclear deal; he has suggested he would permit the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding. By contrast, Clinton has declared her support for the NATO alliance and for a united Europe that includes Britain. She acknowledges the threat climate change poses to lives and livelihoods across the globe, and has pledged to meet the commitments of the Paris Agreement. She supports continued implementation of the Iran nuclear deal (while threatening to re-impose unilateral sanctions if Iran violates its terms).

Perhaps most provocative has been Trump’s professed admiration for Vladimir Putin. Trump’s apparent readiness to back a bigger role for Russia on the world stage is worrisome at best, given his demonstrated lack of basic understanding of our relationship with that country. (In July, for example, he asserted that Russia “won’t go into Ukraine,” somehow overlooking the fact that Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.) Where Clinton has criticized Putin for essentially carrying out a bombing campaign on behalf of Assad, Trump seems inclined to give Russia a freer hand in Syria. His responses to ongoing crises in that region have ranged from “let Russia defeat ISIS” to “let ISIS defeat Assad” to “I would bomb the s--- out of them [ISIS].” And while earlier he raised the possibility of putting thousands of U.S. troops on the ground, lately he has adopted a comparatively more measured tone, advocating (as does Clinton) establishing a no-fly zone over Syria and working with Arab and Western states to defeat the Islamic State. Finally, Trump has questioned the longstanding U.S. commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and suggested that he would consider using nuclear weapons against ISIS. In one primary debate, he appeared not to know what the nuclear triad was. In his first debate with Clinton, he appeared to confuse the terms “first strike” and “first use.” 

All in all, then, what do we have? When it comes to choosing the next occupant of the Oval Office, we are faced with two imperfect candidates, to say the least. Many might wish that Secretary Clinton’s advocacy for the vulnerable extended to the unborn. Detractors also accuse her of insufficient regard for religion in its various constructive public modes, since she has clashed repeatedly with the “conservative” wings of evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholicism. Still, in terms of preparedness, temperament, and capacity for statesmanship, the choice in November—to this observer, anyway—seems both consequential and clear. I’d advise my fellow citizens to make generous use of “the Catholic difference”—constant prayer of petition—to help the nation avoid what could be a catastrophe of, well, huge proportions.

R. Scott Appleby is the Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

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