Fri | Mar 23, 2018

John Rapley | The world according to Barack

Published:Friday | January 20, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Barack Obama's legacy in foreign policy is derided by his opponents, and even some of his friends say it wasn't his presidency's strong suit. And yet, history may prove that his vision was prescient, that he began America's overdue transition to a new world, and that whatever reversals now occur to his pared-back role for America overseas may prove temporary. For he recognised that the conviction that the USA could go anywhere and do anything, which led to the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, had to be confined to the past.

Americans in general, and Republicans in particular, find this difficult to accept. It's not surprising. You just have to listen to some of the puffed-up jingoism of the UK's Brexiteers, who harken back to the glory days of empire a century ago, to realise how tenacious the memory of one's greatness can be. America's memories of global dominance are a lot more recent than that.

In 1945, as the wartime dust settled across a ravaged Europe, the roaring American economy accounted for a third of the planet's economy and half its industrial output. America's armed forces straddled the globe, and none of its allies could project power the way it could. As for potential rivals, nobody could threaten America in the way it threatened them. China had largely withdrawn from world affairs.

Yes, Soviet Russia built its military forces to the point it became seen as a worthy foe. But its military strength papered over what had become, by the 1960s, a moribund economy. One German chancellor famously dismissed the Soviet Union as "Upper Volta with missiles", and while its nuclear threat was real, much of the rest was bluster. During the 1980s, America spent the Soviet Union into the ground, and the regime collapsed, leaving America briefly atop the world again, its sole superpower.

Nevertheless, the world had changed dramatically. China was rising, and still is. Europe and Japan had re-emerged from under America's shadow. And the developing world, led by China and, more recently, India, has been rising. Today, America's share of the world economy is less than a fifth, and declining. There are more potential rivals, particularly within regions, and they have more to back up their military and diplomatic assertions.




The Iraq invasion was the last gasp of an American behemoth. The country soon discovered, the hard way, that it could no longer have its way as it once did. Thus, Barack Obama took office in 2008 determined to align America's projection of power with its capacities, and, accordingly, to prioritise where its future interests were going to lie. And so, rather than try to remake the Middle East, as his predecessor had vainly attempted, he wanted to try to reduce America's presence there.

The region has only ever caused grief to American presidents, but it was also the place they could neither live with nor without. Given the region's outsize impact on world energy markets, the American economy was too affected by what went on there.

Nevertheless, America has been reducing its dependence on Middle East oil, and the administration was able to accelerate this trend by aggressively expanding hydraulic fracturing of shale gas at home.

Meanwhile, with its future trade growth set to be dominated by Asia, Mr Obama set out to pivot towards that region. Satisfied that a sound European Union-NATO alliance protected American interests in Europe, he aimed to focus more military resources in the Pacific and build American alliances there.

Strategically, there was a clear and coherent vision of the future driving this change in orientation. In its execution, things did not always go to plan. Mr Obama did not always match words with deeds. He drew red lines in the Middle East, but did not enforce them, allowing Russia to assert its prestige there at US expense. Meanwhile, his satisfaction that the rising instability of the Middle East did not pose an existential threat to America - about which he is probably correct - came across to many Americans as too nonchalant.

Curiously, therefore, given that he has been a president with extraordinary communication skills, Mr Obama's messaging was off. That created an opening for Donald Trump to boast he will undo everything Mr Obama has done, and reassert American greatness once more. But President Trump will soon find that the world has changed. If he sticks to his guns, they will misfire badly. Time will reveal that Mr Obama's message was realistic, but that he was perhaps, surprisingly, not its best messenger.

- John Rapley, a long-standing Gleaner columnist, is a political economist at the University of Cambridge. His next book, 'Twilight of the Money Gods (Simon & Schuster)' will be published in 2017. Email feedback to and, or tweet @jarapley.