A View from the Outside: Assessing Obama’s First Year as President

Barack Obama’s run for the presidency was observed by European publics perhaps more than any US election in recent history. Students, for whom the presidency of Bill Clinton was barely a memory and little more than a footnote introducing the Bush era, debated the relative merits of a Clinton or Obama nomination largely in terms of who could most ably win in November 2008. The desire for change was palpable and, it can be argued, unprecedented. Obama’s brand of internationalism certainly captured the imaginations of Europeans, while his positivist position on such matters as healthcare reform reminded them of the progressive tradition of much of American politics. This was primarily the anti-Bush election, however, the election that promised to reverse the trend of unilateralism that had dominated American foreign policy during the first years of the 21st century, and which served to alienate faith in America’s world leadership. Obama’s embrace of diplomacy and his emphasis on law and on American ideals in the pursuit of security promised a sea-change in America’s approach to the world, but the extent to which such change can be realized remains unclear.

Assessing the Obama presidency simply as an antidote to the Bush era may be appealing, but it does little to enhance our understanding of either the ideology that underpins current policy or the actual achievements of the president. Certainly, there is cause for recognizing the improvement in transatlantic relations. Obama’s embrace of directly dealing with climate change undermined a key area of discord between US and European leaders. His efforts to engage the Muslim world, demonstrated most provocatively in his speech in Cairo in June, attests to his determination to avoid pandering to crude cultural stereotypes in his rhetoric. His willingness to challenge the premise of unconditional support for Israel, suggested by his opposition to Tel Aviv’s continued support for building illegal settlements, indicates that the administration is committed to early and fuller engagement in a settlement to Israeli-Palestinian relations. Candidate Obama’s position on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were in large part echoed in Europe. The abandonment of the term ‘war on terror’ reflects recognition of terror as a tactic, rather than an entity, and again indicates a repudiation of the Bush administration’s perspective on the nature of the security challenges facing the US. That Europeans, much like Obama’s domestic supporters, have recognized the complexity of ending either of these conflicts has done little to reduce Obama’s popularity in Europe.   

That Obama’s first year has disappointed cannot be denied. In part, this disappointment was unavoidable. While his failure to achieve key goals in each of the important policy initiatives mentioned above contributed to questioning of his priorities, the expectation that an Obama administration could simply reverse the trend of Bush era discord was from the outset unrealistic. The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded primarily because he represented hope rather than achievement, was indicative of such inflated expectations. Significant divergences between European and American interests have also emerged, most notably during the ill-fated G8 summit in London.  Such disappointment is based on two fundamental issues. The first is the fact, whether fully acknowledged or not, that transatlantic relations remain important for states on both sides of the Atlantic, but simply do not enjoy the level of importance that they did during the Cold War. This changed international environment has proved a difficult adjustment. In particular, it has generated a European focus on multi-polarity and an embryonic rejection of the concept of American hegemony. While this process may have been exacerbated by the presidency of George W. Bush, it was a trend prompted by a broader rejection of American exceptionalism as promoted by both Clinton and Bush during the unipolar moment. As such, Obama’s emphasis on the limits of American power is welcomed in Europe, but the European drive to extend its influence on the world stage and to engage with emerging powers in Asia will continue regardless of who occupies the White House. This structural factor thus militated against a simple return to relations-as-usual following Bush’s exit.

The second issue relates to perceptions of the domestic constraints on Obama’s ability to alter the current course of US foreign policy. Concerns regarding the impact of American hegemony are furthered by the belief that powerful domestic lobbies can dominate the president’s handling of specific policies (e.g. Israel) and popular American understanding of the world and how the US operates within it. While Obama has demonstrated a willingness to reject simplistic definitions of US interests and security concerns, the domestic constraints limiting his ability to fully achieve his goals on such matters as carbon emissions have undermined his international credibility in this area. The debacle at Copenhagen thus represented the limitations of the administration’s ability to push its agenda, in large part because of the domestic American context, but also Obama’s willingness to forge agreement with only limited European input. Primarily, concerns regarding the domestic American scene are founded on a disconnection between how America sees itself and how it is understood abroad. Fears regarding American power and self-interest remain dominant and may ultimately reduce the US ability to lead multilateral policies.

European disappointment is hardly a measure of success or failure for the Obama administration. In terms of the most pressing foreign policy issues, the administration has enjoyed no major breakthroughs but the groundwork may have been laid for future successes. The drawing down of America’s involvement in the Iraq War continues, although the extent to which this is facilitated merely by the policies implemented during the final years of the Bush administration is unclear. In Afghanistan, the president has conveyed a determination to achieve political stability, and thus deny the country as a base for the Taliban or the al-Qaeda network, but has avoided the democratizing, nation-building goals that would have required a seemingly endless US presence. While certain military policies, not least of which is the increased use of drone bombers along the border with Pakistan which kill many hundreds of civilians, have caused international concern, the administration’s care in deliberating the increase of US troops in late 2009 demonstrates a commitment to achieving a realistic exit strategy. Transatlantic relations have also improved, in large part through the efforts of the Obama administration. That a simple return to the pre-Bush era of cooperation was possible appears unlikely, but there is hope that a United States committed to engaging fully in a multilateralist foreign policy will prove a willing partner.